3:20 p.m. EDT
MR PALLADINO: Thank you all for coming today. We have a special visitor who will lead us off at the top. It’s Ambassador Sam Brownback. He is our ambassador at large for international religious freedom. He will talk a little bit about his recent trip to Asia and then will outline what the United States government has coming up to promote international religious liberty. So – he’ll also be happy to take a few questions at the end. Please, Ambassador Brownback.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Thanks. Thank you, and thanks for allowing me to be here with you today. I want to talk briefly about discussing the lead-up to our 2019 Ministerial on Religious Freedom – to Advance Religious Freedom, and then religious freedom issues in China in particular, both my recent travels there and Secretary Pompeo’s meetings this week with Uighur Muslims and other minorities from the Xinjiang province. Last year, the State Department did its first ever groundbreaking and pioneering religious freedom summit, brought together over 80 foreign delegations, civil society groups, religious leaders.
This year’s event will be held July 16th to 18th here at State Department. We anticipate the civil society piece of this may be double, even triple the size of last year’s. We’ve had enormous interest in this. In the lead-up to it, we’re doing a series of regional summits. The first one was in Abu Dhabi about a month ago, and that was on educational materials. The last one was in Taiwan about two weeks ago about civil society’s role in religious freedom, and we had an excellent meeting there and Taiwan also announced their first ambassador at large for international religious freedom to work these topics.
During my trip in Asia, I gave a speech in Hong Kong at the foreign press club discussing China’s increasing aggression towards people of faith. China’s at war with faith, but it is a war they will not win. The Chinese Communist Party doesn’t seem to trust its own people to allow them to choose their own path for their souls, and there’s over a billion people at stake here. Just some of the activities that are taking place: No longer can Muslims name their children Mohammed; no longer can Tibetan Buddhists choose and venerate their own religious leaders as they have for over a thousand years; churches are being destroyed. Wang Yi was a gentleman that met with President Bush, the pastor of the Early Rain Church in Chengdu. He is in prison somewhere in China and we don’t know where. In the Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region, Chinese Government authorities have arbitrarily detained members of Muslim minority groups in internment camps, we believe over a million.
This week, Secretary Pompeo met with four Uighur Muslims, and just to give you a flavor of some of what’s taking place, one of those individuals that met with him is a mother of triplets. She was separated from her children and subjected to horrific conditions and abuses in an internment camp, and one of her children died while she was in Chinese Government custody. Following one of her detentions, she has now 26 family members that have been detained. Four have already died. There’s three other individuals that met with him as well, and that’s just give you a flavor and a taste for the horrific conditions and the specific stories that we have coming out of there. Just as I walked over here, I received another e-mail from a gentleman in the United States whose father is still in Xinjiang who hasn’t – he’s not been able to reach him for months, 75-year-old man, doesn’t know whether – where he is and whether he’s still alive.
So I join the Secretary’s call that China must end these counterproductive policies, release all arbitrarily detained, and end its repression that is taking place. We look forward to working with a number of countries around the world on religious freedom topics. I wanted to bring this one in particular to your attention. I appreciate greatly the international press’ interest in what’s taking place in Xinjiang and highlighting what’s taken place and is continuing to take place in that region. This is something that should not be allowed to continue. With that, at the end of the briefing, I’d be happy to take some questions or however you want to handle it.
MR PALLADINO: Sure, let’s start – Associated Press. Please.
QUESTION: Thanks, Ambassador. I’m just curious – presumably you raise these concerns– or at least try to raise them with the Chinese. I mean, do you have any luck with – in doing that? Are they willing to talk to you about this or do they just give you the cold shoulder, brush you off, don’t want to engage?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: The best example I’ve been able to raise that I’ve had was at the UN about two, two and a half weeks ago. And there was Chinese officials that were there when I raised the Xinjiang issue. They claimed at that time – and the story has been morphing over time of what is taking place in Xinjiang – at first they denied anything was happening, nothing’s going on here. And then later they said they were vocational training camps, and that’s what the individual was saying at this time, that these continue to be vocational training camps. To which I said, “I get and have lists of names, hundreds of names that are sent to me that people that can’t find their relatives. Would you please help me find them and tell their relatives where they are?” To which there was no response from the Chinese official.
QUESTION: Have they given any inclination that they might respond, that they’re interested in looking at this issue, or no?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: There was one report by a Chinese official in The South China Morning Post, I think it was, that said that they were looking at closing these facilities down over time as the situation allowed. I’ve not been able to verify whether that’s the – that’s the only further response that I’ve heard from officials, and that’s from a media source.
MR PALLADINO: Fox, please.
QUESTION: Thanks, Mr. Ambassador. Has the U.S. raised this issue in other forums such as discussions over the economy and discussions that the Secretary is having with his counterparts?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: There was a forum that we and other countries had in Geneva about two weeks ago, a week and a half ago, where the issues of Xinjiang were brought forward, and there were delegates from other bodies that were there. And it was widely attended and discussed. So it was raised in that forum. But again, the Chinese there said these are vocational training facilities, nothing to be concerned about.
So it’s being raised in multiple forums by the United States, and consistently.
QUESTION: And allies?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: And allies are raising this as well. The European allies, Turkey President Erdogan called the Chinese out about this. And I think you’re going to continue to see a growing chorus about – this is horrible to think, in 2019 or ever, but particularly in 2019, you have this level of repression taking place. And then the new systems that are being brought into it as well, where you have these cameras, security cameras brought around with artificial intelligence systems behind them that can data analyze, facial recognition within, I’m told, three seconds of this individual, and a social credit system that you can get downgraded for going to the mosque, to the church, and then have that affect the rest of your life and your family around you. And one of the concerns is the Chinese are perfecting this system and will be exporting it, and using it in other places. This is coming up in meetings. I had an unconfirmed report that they are exporting it to other countries just yesterday, again. And this is deeply concerning, of what they’re doing, and then the systems that they might export.
The Chinese Communist Party chairman over Xinjiang is the same gentleman that was over Tibet in the past, and has now been moved to Xinjiang, and did a repressive treatment of the Tibetan Buddhist culture there, and is now doing so with the Muslim Uighur culture.
MR PALLADINO: CNN.
QUESTION: On that same – I was going to ask you about that same subject, because the other day on a call that you did with faith-based media, you called for aggressive global pushback against China’s use of those surveillance systems. So what do you envision that pushback looking like? And is that something that the State Department as a whole intends to back you up on?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, first I think we need to point it out, that these systems exist and are being used. And then second is the pushback about how they’re being used, both us putting it forward but other governments also recognizing that that’s taking place. Other actions I would hope would follow on that. But these are virtually ubiquitous systems now in some of these places in China. And if you’re in a house of worship, they’re requiring you put up surveillance cameras that feed out to local law enforcement. Actions are being discussed and will be discussed further. I think the thing right now to call out is to point out that these systems exist. No new technology needs to be invented to put these in place, and they’re being used.
QUESTION: Also on that, if you don’t mind my asking you, it reminds me, on that same call you were asked by somebody – they said from a biblical perspective, where would you say the U.S. is as a nation today. And you responded that you didn’t feel it was appropriate to answer that question. Why did you feel it was not appropriate?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Well, I’m a man of faith, but I’m – this is the role I’m in here. It’s an ambassador position, and I try to deal with all these matters just laying out this is what factually is taking place and these are the actions that we recommend, rather than bringing forward perhaps my view of that. That’s why I answered why —
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PALLADINO: Bloomberg, please.
QUESTION: Mr. Ambassador, is there any indication – you mentioned actions are being discussed. Is there any indication that the situation in Xinjiang and your concerns could be a factor in the broader discussions with China over trade and tariffs? Do you see this as potentially being an element that could weigh on or influence the course of those discussions, or be put on the table as a condition that China needs to meet?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: I can’t respond to that. You would need somebody that has the broader portfolio. I know what I’m seeing in my account.
QUESTION: Are you advocating for that to be —
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: I’m advocating as strongly as I can. I think these are horrific things that are taking place, and by a country that wants to be a global leader and treating their religious people – which there are a lot of in China, and of a lot of different faiths – in such a horrible fashion across the board. Falun Gong as a group has been persecuted by the Chinese for years as hard as you could possibly imagine. Even a British report out or a British tribunal that fed out of organ harvesting of the Falun Gong – that there was an interim report by a British tribunal that found that.
So I point these out as this is an across the board approach that the Chinese Communist Party is doing. About two years ago, the Communist Party in China took over the regulation of religion from the government. And that may seem a difference without a distinction, but what has taken place since then is a much harsher hand and much harsher oppression of all peoples of faith.
MR PALLADINO: New York Times.
QUESTION: Are you at this current moment advocating for Magnitsky Act sanctions against officials deemed responsible for this, including the head of – the party chief in Xinjiang, the person you mentioned? And if you’re advocating for that, why is – why haven’t those sanctions been approved by other people within the U.S. Government yet?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Those are matters that are being discussed within the government, and when there’s announcements to be made, they’ll be made. Global Magnitsky is handled by Treasury Department, and when people are ready to make announcements, they will. What I’m pointing out’s what – what is taking place today that we know about, that’s in the public venue, that’s of a deep concern to this government.
MR PALLADINO: Let’s go Reuters.
QUESTION: Mr. Ambassador, hello. I wanted to ask you – there was a report today about funds, pension funds and other funds, that have invested in Xinjiang and are now withdrawing because of fears of some kind of sanctions or measures being imposed by the U.S. Is this something that the U.S. is pushing? Is this something you would welcome, that companies are pulling out of that area because – over the Uighur issue and over fears or a threat or a risk that the U.S. could impose sanctions?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Those are decisions that those funds have to make on their own. I find most people that operate funds like that are generally very astute and watching of what current events are taking place, and I presume that’s what they’re doing in this particular situation. I can’t say whether that’s something the U.S. Government advocate for or against at this point in time. We are advocating strongly against these actions that the Chinese Government is doing and continues to do, and we strongly recommend that they would change course and open up to religious freedom and allow their own people to operate freely as they would choose. These are the harshest of actions that are taking place, and deaths are happening.
MR PALLADINO: Voice of America.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, Ambassador. You just mentioned the Geneva talk. In the past years, there is a regular mechanism between U.S. and China – it’s called human rights dialogue – but it has stopped. Could you – do you know why is the reason for stopping, and is there any discussion to resume such regular dialogue? That’s number one.
And number two, have you faced any challenges or pushback from the Chinese Government when you try to make a travel to mainland China?
And number three, just a follow-up to New York Times question: There has been discussion on the visa restriction on those Chinese officials involved in the Xinjiang’s camp. Can you give us a sense of where we are? Is that going anywhere?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: I’m not understanding your third question.
QUESTION: The visa restriction to —
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Visa restrictions on?
QUESTION: On the Chinese official who actually involved in Xinjiang’s or Tibet’s camp.
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: Okay. All right. The new issue on the human rights dialogue is in another portfolio than what I am in. I think we ought to be aggressively addressing these in any forums that we’re able to get a voice forward.
I was able to travel to China, was able to travel to Hong Kong. But as you’ll recall, Hong Kong is a part of – this is one country, two systems. And when the handover took place of Hong Kong from the British to the Chinese, it was guaranteed that Hong Kong would operate separately in its own system for 50 years. It’s been 20, it’s not been 50, and they should be allowed to travel freely.
And that’s where I was invited there to speak by the Foreign Press Club, and I spoke about the situation and wasn’t restricted. I haven’t since tried to travel into mainland China. I’ve been there many times before.
The visa restrictions – I – when there will be – when there are announcements ready to be made, those will be made if decisions are made to do something in that area. I’m here today to speak about what we see taking place and to comment about how we believe the Chinese should be changing.
MR PALLADINO: Last question. Let’s go to CBS.
QUESTION: Mr. Ambassador, just there was a report recently that some Turkish nationals have been caught up in this crackdown in Xinjiang. Do you know, are there – can you confirm whether or not there are other citizens of other countries that have been detained in these camps and whether or not any American citizens or lawful permanent residents are there?
AMBASSADOR BROWNBACK: We know there are a number of people currently in Kazakhstan that have been in Xinjiang and a number of which have been in or have been detained in the camps previously, that there are individuals that have been interviewed from – that are in Kazakhstan that have been there. We have reports and confirmed reports on Turkish individuals.
We have – if I get verified, this gentleman that I just was reading the email about has legal status in the United States. Now, he’s not a U.S. citizen, but he had legal status being here, traveled back to Xinjiang after being here with his son in California, and then has not been heard from since. It’s a – and deeply concerned about whether – what his treatment is. And he has a number of chronic illnesses. He’s a 75-year-old man and an intellectual. Again, I don’t have that to confirm to you.
I am getting list of names and a number of which from multiple countries. And it’s not just Uighurs. It’s Kazakh – ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz as well that we know in numbers in these camps. And it’s not just the camps anymore. Entire villages are being encased and people limited on their movement in and out of the villages in that region. That’s occurring as well. The situation continues and in some cases appears to be escalating, not de-escalating.
Thank you for being here, and I, again, want to thank the international press community that was really some of the first that covered this topic and has been good. This is a hard place to find a story or to dig a story out of, and people – a number of organizations have invested in doing that, and it’s deeply appreciated. Thank you.
MR PALLADINO: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PALLADINO: Thank you, all. And – yeah, all right.
QUESTION: When is your replacement coming? Is it happening now?
MR PALLADINO: We have no personnel announcements today, and I have nothing for the top as well. But I do need some water, and I maintain that request.
QUESTION: Do we have to wait for you to get your water?
MR PALLADINO: No, go ahead. Go ahead, please.
QUESTION: You sure?
MR PALLADINO: I am sure.
QUESTION: There’s a fountain right out in the hall.
MR PALLADINO: Yeah, maybe I could take breaks. That would be great.
QUESTION: I want to start with Venezuela, if I could. You may have seen – at least I hope you’ve seen, since I pointed it out – that the government that you no longer recognize as legitimate has declared that your – the person you support as the interim president, Mr. Guaido, is ineligible to hold public office for 15 years. And I’m wondering if you have a comment on that.
MR PALLADINO: I haven’t read that comment, but I confirm that you read that comment to me. And my immediate reaction would be that’s rich and that’s ridiculous.
QUESTION: Okay. But you don’t have any – you don’t – you’re not aware of this, other than from news reports?
MR PALLADINO: I haven’t read that yet, other than news reports, no.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MR PALLADINO: Venezuela. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. So testifying before Congress, Secretary Pompeo yesterday said that he personally has been in contact with governments of Mexico and Norway to talk about the possible exile of Maduro. So I wanted to see if you could please go a little bit in deep in these conversations, if they were actually talking about a possibility for Maduro to go out, or what was the —
MR PALLADINO: I don’t have anything additional to read out from those conversations. But the Secretary and the special representative are very active, talking to allies and partners in the region about ways to keep pressure on the situation to restore democracy to the Venezuelan people. That’s something we remain very focused on. All right.
QUESTION: Saudi Arabia?
QUESTION: South Korea?
MR PALLADINO: Let’s stay in – if we’re done with Venezuela —
QUESTION: Yeah. Saudi Arabia authorities have released today three women activists and there is still eight more in prison. Do you have any comment on that?
MR PALLADINO: Saw those reports indicating the release of detained women activists. I – the United States would certainly welcome this news. Nothing beyond that.
QUESTION: And on Saudi Arabia —
QUESTION: Was there any – is there any connection between the Secretary’s meeting today with Prince Khalid and this decision to release?
MR PALLADINO: You saw the readout that we put out. The Secretary did meet with the deputy defense minister today. He’s the deputy defense minister, I would point out, and that was to congratulate the minister in his new role and to indicate that we look forward to continuing to work together on the United States-Saudi Arabia partnership and to express appreciation on their continued support for Special Representative – Special Envoy Martin Griffiths’ work to advance the political process in Yemen.
I would also point out what the Secretary said yesterday during his hearing, and that is we have had interactions at every – nearly every level about specific cases that we’re aware of and policies in general, and we have every hope and expectation that Saudi Arabia will engage us on these issues.
QUESTION: Wait, wait. So you’re saying that even though he’s – his portfolio is strictly defense that more than just defense issues came up?
MR PALLADINO: No, I didn’t say that. I have nothing beyond the readout for this meeting. But to Michel’s question on human rights in general —
MR PALLADINO: — we take the opportunity to raise specific cases that we have knowledge of when we have those opportunities.
QUESTION: Well, so was this one of those opportunities?
MR PALLADINO: I have nothing to offer beyond the readout that I put out at this point.
QUESTION: Well, I mean, as you point out, the Secretary was fairly peppered with questions on this subject, human rights in Saudi Arabia, especially the case of Jamal Khashoggi. And so, I mean, I don’t think it’s not – I don’t think it’s inappropriate to ask the question. If you are in fact raising these issues at various – at all levels, high levels, I mean, is the deputy – even though it’s not strictly his portfolio, isn’t it something you would raise with the deputy defense minister?
MR PALLADINO: I have nothing to offer beyond the readout itself. And that’s all I have.
QUESTION: Okay. So you bring it up in many meetings, but you can’t say that you brought it up —
MR PALLADINO: I have nothing beyond the readout.
Please, go ahead, Laurie.
QUESTION: One more.
QUESTION: I would like to ask you about the —
QUESTION: Sorry, one more on the Saudi prince.
QUESTION: No, no, no. We have more on Saudi Arabia back here.
MR PALLADINO: Let’s stay with Saudi. Go, Michel.
QUESTION: Did you discuss the nuclear technology that the U.S. will provide to Saudi Arabia?
MR PALLADINO: I’m sorry. What is the question?
QUESTION: The nuclear technology that the U.S. may provide to Saudi Arabia.
MR PALLADINO: This was something that was discussed yesterday, again, during the hearing. Those technologies – that’s something that the Department of Energy oversees that whole process, and for anything more specific on that, that’s something for the Department of Energy to respond to.
MR PALLADINO: Yeah. Saw those reports, and they are tragic. Give me a chance, please.
We saw those reports. They’re awful. The United States takes them seriously, and we’re seeking more information. We understand that the Saudi-led coalition has referred the results of this targeting operation to the joint incidents assessment team for their review and their investigation. We’re going to continue to call upon all parties to take appropriate measures to mitigate the risk for civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure. And we – the United States urges a transparent investigation by the joint incidents assessment team into these alleged incidents, as well as swift implementation of the resulting recommendations.
QUESTION: Was that discussed this morning?
QUESTION: If you —
MR PALLADINO: We have more on Yemen?
QUESTION: Was that discussed this morning with the Saudis since that – since he was here for that? Did the Secretary make that call?
MR PALLADINO: I have nothing to offer beyond the readout at this point, and so —
QUESTION: So you understand what the issue is here. So yesterday the Secretary is peppered with questions about this kind of thing, and he says that this comes up in meetings all the time, you regularly raise it, you never miss an opportunity to raise it. And then the – literally the first opportunity that he has to meet with a senior Saudi official, you can’t say whether any of these issues were raised.
MR PALLADINO: I have —
QUESTION: Doesn’t that strike you as being a little bit —
MR PALLADINO: Matt, the way this works is we have a readout of the meeting, to which I personally was not a part of.
MR PALLADINO: Okay? And so I can’t go beyond the readout at this point because I have nothing further I can provide at this point. This is the way this works. Laurie, please, go ahead.
QUESTION: On Tuesday, you announced —
MR PALLADINO: We’re going (inaudible) to Laurie. Go ahead, Laurie. Please.
QUESTION: On Tuesday you announced sanctions against a significant number of companies in Turkey and the UAE that acted as front companies for the Iranian military. And earlier this month, the Iranian president visited Iraq with a large economic delegation. Are you concerned that Iran is going to use Iraqi companies for such purposes, and how will you deal with that?
MR PALLADINO: The United States will aggressively enforce its sanctions authorities, and entities that continue to engage in sanctionable activity involving Iran will be exposed to United States sanctions. The United States will continue to apply maximum pressure on the Iranian regime until its leadership decides to change their behavior, respect the rights of their people, and return to the negotiating table.
QUESTION: And that applies to Iranian economic activities in Iraq as well?
MR PALLADINO: It does. We are – but we’re continuing to work with Iraq, same time, to increase its energy independence and expanding the use of Iraq’s own natural resources, and diversifying energy imports will strengthen their economy and development as well. Let’s stop there.
MR PALLADINO: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Back to Yemen.
MR PALLADINO: Go ahead, CNN. Let’s go.
QUESTION: On Yemen, when you mention you call on all sides for transparent investigation, if the Saudis cannot be reliable for transparency on something like the Khashoggi murder, why would you have any expectation at all that they would be transparent and fair in an investigation like this?
MR PALLADINO: They are our partner in the Middle East and they are essential to the security and stability of the region and the safety of the American people. We are – we have frank discussions with them. We’ll continue to work with them, and – look at the neighborhood. We are dealing with an Iran on the move that is threatening neighbors and sponsoring via proxies destabilization throughout the region. This is something that the United States is – will continue to push back against. Please.
QUESTION: North Korea?
QUESTION: Robert. Robert.
MR PALLADINO: Let’s go North Korea. Okay. Please.
QUESTION: Two North Korea-related questions. One is: South Korea media is reporting that Kim Han-sol, the son of Kim Jong-nam, is currently in New York and under the protection of U.S. authorities. I was wondering if you had a comment on that. And a second question is —
MR PALLADINO: I don’t have – I don’t know anything about that, sorry, but —
QUESTION: Okay. Second question is: There’s also reports that U.S. humanitarian aid group is currently in North Korea thanks to an exemption on the travel ban. Can you confirm whether State Department has started approving these special validation status?
MR PALLADINO: We can’t – we don’t comment on individual requests.
QUESTION: But in general, have you started giving out these exemptions?
MR PALLADINO: We would say the – that the protracted humanitarian crisis faced by the North Korean people is something that is created by the regime and it’s something that we remain focused on. We – our position is that the government must take greater responsibility for the well-being of its population, and I’m not able to comment on anything beyond that at this point.
QUESTION: Robert, a follow-up?
QUESTION: (Inaudible) North Korea?
QUESTION: Robert —
MR PALLADINO: North – let’s go to North Korea.
QUESTION: Regarding the raid on the North Korean embassy in Madrid, the Spanish authorities have said – have issued international arrest warrants for two people, one U.S. resident and one U.S. citizen accused of raiding – is the U.S. cooperating to find them? Are they still in the United States? And do you think that this raid was – what is your general response about this raid? Do you think it was a good thing to protest that way or not?
MR PALLADINO: As to your first question – nothing for the State Department on anything like those – the answer – that’s not something —
QUESTION: Those two individuals?
MR PALLADINO: Correct. And as to the second question, I mean, the Spanish authorities are still investigating this. All facts are not known. Diplomatic missions overseas are something that ought to be respected and are protected by treaty, and we’ve – we have been consistent in that regard on the protection of diplomatic facilities worldwide, and I’d leave it there.
QUESTION: Robert —
QUESTION: So you can’t say whether the U.S. is assisting the Spanish and trying to find these people or anything like —
MR PALLADINO: This is a law enforcement matter right now.
MR PALLADINO: So for law enforcement matters, I would have to refer you to the Spanish legal authorities or to our American equivalent, the Department of Justice. It’s not something that the State Department would be talking about, okay?
QUESTION: On North Korea?
QUESTION: South Korea? Thank you.
MR PALLADINO: Let’s give Janne a chance. Go ahead, Janne.
MR PALLADINO: I can’t confirm that at this point. It’s just I haven’t seen the schedule yet. I’m sorry, but – sorry, cannot.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PALLADINO: All right.
QUESTION: Robert, Iraq?
QUESTION: One more on North —
MR PALLADINO: North – yes, let’s —
QUESTION: One more North Korea, that —
MR PALLADINO: Okay. Go ahead. North Korea, please.
MR PALLADINO: We remain optimistic, as the Secretary said yesterday, that diplomacy will be able to proceed forward, and I’ll stop there.
MR PALLADINO: Sure, AFP. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Different topic, Algeria.
QUESTION: Can we finish North Korea?
MR PALLADINO: North Korea, go ahead.
QUESTION: Do you mind? So if the State Department and the U.S. Government in general holds Bashar al-Assad responsible for killings that happened in Syria, if you hold Maduro responsible for what’s going on there, why, when asked, does the Secretary of State say it’s a political football and not hold Kim Jong-un responsible for the death of an American citizen?
MR PALLADINO: I’m not quite tracking what the —
QUESTION: It’s from the hearing yesterday. He was asked if Kim Jong-un is responsible for the death of Otto Warmbier. He wouldn’t answer and he said it was a political football. Why?
MR PALLADINO: I think we’ve been on – we’ve spoken out about these – that tragic incident repeatedly and often from the United States Government and —
QUESTION: But if other —
MR PALLADINO: — there’s nothing to add beyond that at this point. And so I wouldn’t go beyond what the Secretary said yesterday. We’re also very much now in a time of trying to move forward, and this is a matter of nuclear proliferation and it’s something that we are focused on to protect the American people. And for that reason, it’s important for us to remain engaged on these issues and attempting to move this forward, and I’ll stop there.
QUESTION: So is it – does the State Department believe that Kim Jong-un is responsible for this death or no?
MR PALLADINO: That’s not what I said. That’s not what I said. We’re going to move on.
QUESTION: No, no, I asked you: Does the State Department believe he’s responsible?
MR PALLADINO: We have been explicit in our Human Rights Report, we’ve spoken out about these topics often, the Secretary’s spoken about as well, and I’m not going to go beyond that at this point.
QUESTION: Well, is there a concern that if you do – if you or the Secretary or some – any other official in public says that you believe Kim Jong-un is responsible for Otto Warmbier’s death, that somehow that might – that will hurt the diplomacy that’s going underway? Because it seems to me that it’s a pretty fairly straight – it’s a straightforward, logical assumption, when the Secretary gets the question and he says, “We hold the regime responsible,” and then you ask who leads the regime, and that would be Kim Jong-un. It seems to – it’s a syllogism, right? So Kim Jong-un leads the regime, the regime is responsible, therefore Kim Jong-un is responsible, right? Why is that so difficult for you guys to say?
MR PALLADINO: You said it. You said it. The regime is responsible.
QUESTION: That doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t —
MR PALLADINO: And I have nothing further to add on this.
QUESTION: It doesn’t mean anything when I say it.
MR PALLADINO: Please, NBC.
QUESTION: Do you have anything further to tell us about Special Representative Biegun’s trip to Beijing? Do you have a readout of his meetings there, or can you say if he’ll be traveling anywhere else in the region while he’s there?
MR PALLADINO: No new travel to announce. He was in Beijing to continue United States-China coordination on our policies related to North Korea. We consult regularly with China and other partners on this regard. And we remain committed to the same goal: the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea. No future travel to announce. Special Representative Biegun has returned. That —
QUESTION: Can you say whether he met with any North Korean officials while he was there?
MR PALLADINO: I’m not going to go into any details on his meetings that he had. Nothing further to share about his schedule. We’re in negotiations, and we are not going to be able to read out everything that we’re doing from a podium, okay? Thanks.
QUESTION: Robert, on this?
MR PALLADINO: On this subject? Go ahead.
MR PALLADINO: We’ve spoken on this issue before, and sanctions enforcement is something that’s important for all nations to be a part of. And we’ve said many times that China’s enforcement has been very helpful, and the role that China is playing on the North Korea issue has been very helpful, and there’s always more room for China to help on this regard as well. All right.
QUESTION: Can we stay on China?
MR PALLADINO: On China.
QUESTION: Same topic.
MR PALLADINO: Okay, go ahead. China.
QUESTION: The China has given a very hostile reaction to the U.S. move to go directly to the UNSC on Masood Azhar designation as a terrorist. To quote, they said, “This is not in line with the resolution of the issue through dialogue and negotiations.” Whom the Chinese are planning to have dialogue with and negotiations with, and with what’s going on in their backyard? But what is your reaction to this immediate hostile reaction from China?
MR PALLADINO: Hostile reaction to what? I’m sorry, Tejinder.
QUESTION: The U.S. has – the Chinese said the U.S. has bypassed the 1267 because in UN U.S., along with France and UK, has put – it’s the first time are putting directly to the UNSC to designate Jaish-e-Mohammed chief as an international terrorist. Earlier they always went through listing proposals in Sanctions Committee.
MR PALLADINO: Okay, thank you. Thank you for – the United States views on Masood Azhar and Jaish-e-Mohammed are well known. We’ve spoken that – about that here before. JEM is already a United Nations-designated terrorist group. And Azhar is the founder and the leader of JEM, and he clearly meets the criteria for designation by the United Nations. JEM has been responsible for a number of terrorist attacks, and he’s a threat to regional stability and peace.
And so regarding 1267, what I would say is that the United Nations Security Council created the 1267 committee to designate ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists, and the United States intends to ensure that that responsibility is taken seriously. And I can’t go beyond the deliberations farther than that, but I would say in regards to China that the United States and China share a mutual interest in achieving regional stability and peace, and any failure on the Security Council’s part to designate Azhar would run counter to this goal.
QUESTION: Saudi Arabia and China.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PALLADINO: China.
QUESTION: So we’re talking about human rights in China with the Uighurs. There seems to have been a big push. I don’t want to say all of a sudden because I know people here have been working on this issue for a while, but a bigger push in the last couple weeks, talking about human rights in Saudi Arabia, talking about human rights in North Korea. And I’m wondering, because in the intro to the 2018 Human Rights Report the Secretary says that regardless of human rights records, the United States will continue to pursue its strategic interests with these countries where it sees fit.
So I don’t understand what kind of leverage or mechanism or impetus we think for these countries, especially in places like China, we have to change when there are so many other pressing issues. And to me that statement says, well, if you offer us something we need better, we’re going to deal with that later and push this to the side.
MR PALLADINO: This is diplomacy. This is something that we do with countries with whom we have shared interests that need to be advanced as well as real concerns that have to be addressed. These are – it takes a whole-of-government approach to address these issues, and with a country like China there are – there are many areas in which we’re able to come to an agreement where things are in our mutual interests and we’re able to achieve kind of constructive results. And at the same time we’re going to have to be frank on a number of issues where we disagree.
QUESTION: But where is this on the priority list, especially with China, where you’ve got so many issues – counterterrorism, intellectual property, trade, North Korea? Is the U.S. saying that this human rights violation is bad, is important enough that we would be willing to compromise negotiations on some of those other issues?
MR PALLADINO: These are all important issues, and the bilateral relationship and for what the United States stands for and is going to seek to promote internationally. I’m not going to prioritize one thing over the other. We can do many things at the same time. That’s something we’re going to continue to push and pursue.
QUESTION: Iraq, please.
MR PALLADINO: Please, let’s go (inaudible).
QUESTION: Two different topics quickly. First, Sunday is sort of the halfway point of the fiscal year. The State Department set a refugee cap of 30,000. So far you’ve allowed about a little bit over 11,000 to enter. Are you committed to meeting that cap, and can you talk about why you sort of seem to be slow-walking refugee admissions?
MR PALLADINO: Yeah, I don’t have anything today on our refugees, and it’s just – I just didn’t have a chance to look at that before coming.
MR PALLADINO: So I don’t want to misspeak. So go ahead, Conor. Sure.
QUESTION: And the second question, just to clarify, back on Saudi Arabia. I’m sorry to jump around.
MR PALLADINO: Okay.
MR PALLADINO: Okay.
QUESTION: The State Department readout at the time said they discussed his disappearance.
MR PALLADINO: Okay.
QUESTION: Did the Secretary discuss his murder, or did he know that he had been murdered at that point in time?
MR PALLADINO: I wouldn’t have anything to add beyond what the Secretary said, and I’d have to go back on the timelines. I don’t want to put too much —
MR PALLADINO: Israel?
MR PALLADINO: Gaza.
MR PALLADINO: And then Shaun, you’ve got that look too, like you’ve been doing this a lot and that – did I call on you already? I can’t remember. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: All good, all good.
MR PALLADINO: All right. Go ahead, Shaun. Go ahead.
MR PALLADINO: You did ask me about Algeria. You’ve been very patient as well, and —
QUESTION: I did ask yesterday. We got to it. Yes, I try to be (inaudible).
QUESTION: He asked you about it the other day.
MR PALLADINO: Okay, you did. All right.
QUESTION: But I wanted to see if you had anything to say about it.
MR PALLADINO: Okay.
QUESTION: There have been growing pushes, growing statements, for President Bouteflika to step aside. Does the United States have any contacts with him or with the people around him? Does the United States have any message on what it thinks the best way forward is right now in Algeria?
MR PALLADINO: Yeah. We, the United States, respects the rights of the Algerian people to assemble and to peacefully express their views about fulfilling their political and economic aspirations. And I’d say that this transition period that’s undergoing, that’s something for the Algerian people to answer the question of how to accomplish that. But we respect the rights of the Algerians to peacefully express their views, we’ll continue to do so, and we would also commend the Algerian Government’s commitment to ensure the safety of all demonstrators.
QUESTION: Great. Do you have any statement on the fate though of President Bouteflika? Is that something that the U.S. takes a stand on one way or —
MR PALLADINO: I – nothing beyond that at this point, Shaun. Please.
MR PALLADINO: Last question. Go ahead —
MR PALLADINO: — Abbie.
MR PALLADINO: All right.
QUESTION: So we had talked earlier about this, but the three women that were released were women activists in Saudi Arabia. I wondered, 28 countries – 28 EU members, Canada, and Australia have all called for Saudi Arabia to free the remaining activists. Does the U.S. call on them to free the activists that are still imprisoned?
MR PALLADINO: We’ve just seen reports so far about what’s taken place. And were those reports to be true, it would be welcome. Our position remains – we have expressed our concern about the detention of peaceful activists in Saudi Arabia, and we take these allegations of abuse seriously. And we urge the Government of Saudi Arabia and all governments to ensure fair trial guarantees, freedom from arbitrary and extrajudicial detention, transparency, and the rule of law.
QUESTION: Robert, can we again – just one briefly on the Middle East, on Israel? I just want to go back to last week for a second and ask you about the coordination between – interagency coordination on the announcement – the President’s announcement of recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan. Specifically, how well coordinated was it in the interagency and were you prepared for it when it happened?
MR PALLADINO: Well coordinated and yes, we were prepared. Thank you, all.
QUESTION: Can you explain —
MR PALLADINO: Bye-bye now. Thanks.
(The briefing was concluded at 4:09 p.m.)