QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, I want to get right to reports out of North Korea that the young leader, Kim Jong-un, has executed his uncle, his mentor, one of the most powerful people in North Korea. What does this tell you about the danger coming from North Korea?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it tells us a lot about, first of all, how ruthless and reckless he is. And it also tells us a lot about how insecure he is, to a certain degree. It tells us a significant amount about the instability internally of the regime, with the numbers of executions. This is not the first execution. There have been a significant number of executions taking place over the last months, which we’re aware of. And most importantly, it underscores the importance for all of us of finding a way forward with North Korea in order to denuclearize the peninsula. It’s an ominous sign of the instability and of the danger that does exist.
QUESTION: Well, what does it tell you about him? We know so little about him.
SECRETARY KERRY: We don’t know. I mean, North Korea remains relatively opaque. It is not easy, but we do have insights. And the insights that we have tell us that he is spontaneous, erratic, still worried about his place in the power structure, and maneuvering to eliminate any potential kind of adversary or competitor and does so, obviously, ruthlessly. I mean, you saw the pictures of his uncle being arrested in front of everybody at this meeting.
QUESTION: And this was so public.
SECRETARY KERRY: I mean, it really reminded me of a video that we saw of Saddam Hussein doing the same thing, having people plucked out of an audience, with people sitting there sweating, and nobody daring to move or do anything. This is the nature of this ruthless, horrendous dictatorship and of his insecurities.
And I think we need to factor that into the urgency of getting China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, all of us to stay on the same page and to put as much effort into the denuclearization as possible. To have a nuclear weapon potentially in the hands of somebody like Kim Jong-un just becomes even more unacceptable.
QUESTION: I want to move to the other headline, which is out of Iran, and Robert Levinson, the FBI agent who was reportedly working with the CIA in Iran, disappeared seven year ago. His family has confirmed to ABC News that he did have ties to the CIA. I know you’re not going to confirm anything like that, but I want to tell you what his family said. They say that the U.S. Government has abandoned and betrayed him and is getting lip service from the Obama Administration on their efforts for his release. Has there been any real progress?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, there hasn’t been progress in the sense that we don’t have him back. But to suggest that we’ve abandoned him or anybody has abandoned him is simply incorrect and not helpful. The fact is that I have personally raised the issue, not only at the highest level that I have been involved with, but also through other intermediaries. So we don’t have any meeting with anybody who has something to do with Iran or an approach to Iran where we don’t talk to them about how might be able to find to find not just Levinson, but we have two other Americans that we’re deeply concerned about.
QUESTION: Do you have any --
SECRETARY KERRY: And we’re looking for proof of life. We’re working on several processes that I’m not free to talk about, but there are a number of different channels that are being worked, and they’re being worked aggressively.
QUESTION: Do you believe the Iranian Government is responsible for his disappearance?
SECRETARY KERRY: I think the Iranian Government – I can’t tell you what happened or how the sequence was, but I think the Iranian Government has the ability to help us here, and we hope they will.
QUESTION: The major news out of Syria this week: the U.S. has suspended nonlethal aid because Islamist rebels took over a warehouse.
SECRETARY KERRY: Yeah.
QUESTION: How did that happen?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it happened because there’s a certain amount of infighting taking place within the opposition. And this is the nature of the beast that has been unleashed by Bashar al-Assad, who probably is feeding some of it himself because he likes to try to play the part that he is the better alternative to these extremists. So there are some indicators that he’s even fueling some of that.
The problem is you have some radical Islamic elements there.
QUESTION: So what’s the next move?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, there isn’t more – the moderate opposition has been united up until recently, and we believe they still can be united. We are aiming towards the Geneva II conference, which will take place in January – in the latter part of January. We are committed to try to bring people together, a strong representation of the opposition, together with the Assad regime representatives and with maybe 30 or so other countries and all try to work in the same direction, which is to get a political settlement out of Syria.
QUESTION: When can you start the nonlethal aid back again to those moderate…
SECRETARY KERRY: I think very quickly.
QUESTION: What are you waiting for?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, we’ve already had, we’ve already had some proffers to have the warehouse protected and other kinds of things. But I think people want to be careful, have the meetings that we need to have, and make certain we can proceed forward thoughtfully. Nobody wants to just fill the warehouse up again and have it taken over again. That doesn’t make sense. So we need to make sure where we’re going.
But look, this is complicated. This isn’t easy. A year ago, before the President started to focus on this and figuratively had to accelerate the efforts to get a political solution, nothing was happening except fighting and killing. And a year ago, chemical weapons were being used and under the control of the Assad regime. Now, through our diplomatic efforts, we are moving towards a peace conference, difficult as it is --
QUESTION: And you really think that’s going to happen next month?
SECRETARY KERRY: We’re committed to going. The Russians are committed to going. Countries are committed to going.
QUESTION: John McCain says: The moderate opposition groups are losing. As a result, extremists are filling the void, and entire sections of Syria, stretching deep into Iraq, are now effectively safe havens for al-Qaida. True?
SECRETARY KERRY: There’s some truth – yeah, it’s absolutely true. Al-Qaida has greater clout there than it had before, and it’s an increasing threat. And it’s a threat we’re going to have to confront.
But John also understands that the members of Congress, with whom he serves, were not willing to put additional money in in order to fund overtly and put money into the opposition significantly.
QUESTION: Let’s turn to the war we are still in, and that is in Afghanistan. And there’s very little progress it appears with Hamid Karzai, the president who does not want to sign this security agreement that would allow U.S. forces to remain beyond 2014, making it clear that’s what the U.S. wants, to allow troops to stay beyond 2014.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, the U.S. wants success in Afghanistan. And success means having an Afghan arms force that has the ability to sustain itself and provide security to the people of Afghanistan so they can continue on the road to developing their society, their institutions, their healthcare system, their education, and other things that are happening today. When America went into Afghanistan, Martha, there were about 900,000 kids in school. They were all boys. Today there are about 7 or 8 million children in school, and almost 40 percent of them are girls. So there’s a huge transformation taking place, and we want to try to hold onto that.
QUESTION: And this – if we don’t leave those troops there, can you guarantee that young women can still go to school there?
SECRETARY KERRY: No. Absolutely not. You can’t guarantee anything, I think. If American forces were not there, I think there would be serious challenges with respect to Afghanistan’s security. But – here’s the but – I believe that Hamid Karzai, either he or his successor will sign this. Now I think he needs to sign it.
QUESTION: His successor? So it’s okay for a successor --
SECRETARY KERRY: I said they will. No, no, no. I said either he or they will, but he needs to sign it.
QUESTION: By when? Give me a date.
SECRETARY KERRY: We negotiated – let me just finish – we negotiated an agreement. That wasn’t in place, by the way, a year ago. Now we have an agreement that’s been negotiated, and he has said to me personally, as recently as a day ago, reiterated through his minister, that the language is fine. So we are very close to the ability to move forward. And I believe it will be signed and I hope it’ll be signed as soon as possible.
QUESTION: Is there a cutoff date, where you have to say we can’t do it, we can’t leave troops there?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, there is a cutoff date, but I’m not going to get into cutoff dates. I think what’s important to understand is --
QUESTION: First it was October, then it was going to have to be by January.
SECRETARY KERRY: No. This needs to be signed as soon as possible. And I think he understands that.
QUESTION: How long do you want troops to stay there?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, that’s up to the President of the United States and it’s up to the process on the ground. But the President has already said we are prepared to be there for a number of years going forward in a very different role, a very diminished role of training, advising, and equipping the Afghans. We will not be in combat. America will not be engaged in combat.
QUESTION: But counterterrorism troops, you want there as well.
SECRETARY KERRY: It’s a very different. We will be doing counterterrorism. That is correct.
QUESTION: That’s combat.
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, it is – not automatically, not directly. It can be intel gathering. It can be providing information to the Afghans that they act on. And in some cases, it might wind up being kinetic by American forces. But the point is, it’s not day-to-day combat against the Taliban on behalf of the Afghan people. It’s counterterrorism to fight against terrorists – al-Qaida, and Haqqani Network, others – who are threatening American assets and America itself.
QUESTION: You’ve put so much effort in your first year into Mideast peace. You’ve got the parties talking, but has there been any real concrete progress on the really tough issues?
SECRETARY KERRY: Yes. Actually, there has been. But we’ve agreed not to be talking about what we’re doing, because it just creates great expectations, it creates pressure, it creates opposition in some cases. If this conflict was easy, Martha, this would have been done years ago. It’s confounded presidents and secretaries of state for 30 or 40 years. And it’s complicated.
QUESTION: And you feel this time its different?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think we’re in a different moment now. And hopefully the leaders will seize this moment and at least move the balls forward somewhat.
QUESTION: We’re sitting in Ho Chi Minh City. You’re a Vietnam War veteran and an anti-war activist after the Vietnam War. How much of your world view comes from your time spent here?
SECRETARY KERRY: Well, obviously, some of it Martha. But one thing I’m very careful – very, very careful – not to do is see everything through the lens of Vietnam. That would be a huge mistake. And it’s informative, but it doesn’t imprison me. It doesn’t dominate me.
QUESTION: Thanks very much, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY KERRY: Thank you.