Previewing Secretary Tillerson's Travel to Japan, South Korea, and China

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Senior State Department Official
Via Teleconference
March 10, 2017


MODERATOR: Thanks. Excuse me. Thanks, everyone, for joining us on Friday afternoon, and happy Friday. This is a background call that will preview Secretary Tillerson’s first trip as Secretary of State to Asia, and to preview that trip we have with us today a senior State Department official who can walk us through the schedule for next week’s trip. The trip has been – obviously, been announced since last Tuesday, March 7th. Just a reminder that this call is on background and embargoed until midnight Saturday, March 11th. A transcript of this call will be posted on state.gov as of Sunday, March 12th at 8:00 a.m.

So let me introduce you to our speaker today. It’s [Senior State Department Official], who, as I say, will henceforth be known as and for reporting purposes as Senior State Department Official.

So with that, I’ll hand it over to our senior State Department official. Go ahead.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you, [Moderator]. So Secretary Tillerson will be traveling to Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing next week on what will be his first trip to Asia as Secretary of State. He will arrive in Tokyo on March 15th, and continue on to Seoul on March 17th, and then will head to Beijing on March 18th. This trip will allow the Secretary to continue to engage allies and partners on not only a range of bilateral issues, but also importantly to discuss and coordinate strategy to address the advancing nuclear and missile threat from North Korea.

The United States is committed to holding North Korea accountable for its flagrant and repeated disregard for multiple UN Security Council resolution violations which expressly prohibit its ballistic missile and nuclear programs. And we will defend our friends and allies, the Republic of Korea and Japan, and we will seek to work collaboratively to the maximum extent possible with important partners such as China.

In Tokyo, Secretary Tillerson will meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Kishida. This trip builds on Prime Minister Abe’s visit with President Trump in Washington and in Mar-a-Lago in Florida on February 10th through 12th. Secretary Tillerson has also connected frequently with Foreign Minister Kishida, including by phone on February 7th and in a meeting that the two of them had here in Washington on February 10th. They met again in Bonn, Germany during the G20 foreign ministerial meetings for a trilateral session with the Republic of Korea counterpart Foreign Minister Yun.

As President Trump has stated, strong U.S.-Japan bilateral relations serve as the cornerstone of peace and security in the Asia Pacific region. So in Tokyo, of course, the Secretary will discuss our shared regional and global objectives, including strengthening security cooperation within the U.S.-Japan alliance, working together to enhance a rules-based approach to the maritime domain, and particularly exploring efforts to deepen U.S.-Japan and ROK trilateral cooperation in the face of North Korea’s dangerous pursuit of weapons programs.

In Seoul, the Secretary will meet with acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn and with Foreign Minister Yun. This will be the Secretary’s first meeting with acting President Hwang. His last bilateral meeting with Foreign Minister Yun was, as mentioned earlier, in Bonn, Germany, and – where they also had the trilateral with the Japanese. In Seoul, the Secretary will certainly convey the United States’ continued strong support of the U.S.-South Korean alliance.

From there the Secretary will travel to Beijing on March 18th where he will meet with a number of senior Chinese officials to follow on his recent conversations with State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Of course, as you’re aware, President Trump and President Xi Jinping spoke by telephone on February 9th, and since then Secretary Tillerson has spoken to State Council Yang on February 21st by phone, and they also had a meeting at the State Department on February 28th. The Secretary had previously met Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Bonn, Germany on February 14th.

These calls and meetings early in the Trump Administration are just examples of how the United States and China are moving to quickly establish good lines of communication. We’re pursuing a constructive and results-oriented relationship with China, one that benefits the American people, remains faithful to our allies, and presses China to abide by international rules and norms. At each meeting with these counterparts, Secretary Tillerson urged China to use all available tools to change North Korea’s destabilizing behavior, and he discussed the need to create a level playing field for our trade and investment interests.

We expect that each of these stops on Secretary Tillerson’s first visit to Asia will be forward-looking and will involve discussions of ways to strengthen our cooperation in order to advance the security and economic well-being of the American people. The visit will be the first of many in what we envision will be close, ongoing working relationships.

In advance of his first trip to Asia, the Secretary met this morning with the Washington-based ambassadors of the 10 ASEAN member countries to hear important views from Southeast Asia. Of course, I want to say in getting near the close here that the United States remains a Pacific power and we will be active and engaged in Asia in this administration. In sum, the visit will focus on our pursuit of a constructed and results-based relationship with China as part of a larger Asia policy that prioritizes our alliances and strategic friendships. Those have been the bedrock, of course, of peace and security in the region. We’ll also focus on the administration’s commitment to further broaden and enhance U.S. economic interests in the Asia Pacific region. Of course, we’ll focus on the continued security cooperation with our two key allies in Asia, and we will try to look to enhance our foreign policy cooperation on global and regional challenges with all of these partners.

So with that, I’ll close and be happy to take a few questions.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press *1 at this time. Our first question is from Nick Wadhams with Bloomberg News. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for doing the call. I had a quick question – two questions. One is: In China, will the Secretary be doing anything to lay the groundwork for a potential visit by Xi Jinping to the United States? There’s been sort of talk that that might be in the works. And also on North Korea – I mean, we heard from the briefing earlier this week that U.S. strategy and the international community’s strategy with North Korea has basically failed and that the U.S. will be looking for new approaches. Can you give more details about what those new approaches might be and whether we can expect an announcement out of this trip that might signal the start of some new process or approach? And then just to follow on on that, would the U.S. be willing to consider direct talks without preconditions with North Korea? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, thank you very much for those questions. On the first question, there has been a lot of talk about a potential high-level meeting at the leaders’ level between the U.S. and China, I think, probably following on the presidential telephone conversation itself in which the readout mentioned that the two presidents expressed an interest in having an early meeting. So it’s not anything that is not known. But I don’t think that we’re going to have anything to announce on when that kind of a meeting might take place. Certainly anything that the Secretary is doing and working with the Chinese on this trip would be as a sort of a prelude to further high-level engagement, but we don’t have anything to announce at this time on a visit like that.

On the second question, on the issue of what kind of details we might share on new approaches: North Korea really needs to demonstrate a recognition that the only way out of its isolation and economic failure is to relinquish its very concerning nuclear and ballistic missile programs and come into compliance with its international commitments and obligations. I think it’s well known that we are looking currently at approaches to the North Korea question and that there is a range of things that are being considered, taking – the new administration, reasonably, I think, is taking a fresh look at this problem, and we’re trying to come up with what the approach of the new administration is going to be. I don’t think that there’s going to be any announcement today on that, and I’m sure this trip will involve conversations about that, but I don’t have anything to read out to you on what the details of that is at the moment.

MODERATOR: Next question.

OPERATOR: The next question is from David Clark with AFP. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. A couple of questions. Does the – has planning for the trip been affected by the constitutional issues in South Korea? Obviously, the president has been deposed, but the prime minister’s been acting ruler for a while, so just has any – have any of your plans had to change because of that?

And just as a separate question, it won’t have escaped your notice there were a lot of op-eds today criticizing Secretary Tillerson’s low public profile. On the briefing call yesterday, Mark suggested that a decision hadn’t been made on whether any press would accompany on the plane. Obviously, no one from the bullpen is going. Will anyone be on the plane as non-government press aside from us? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, on the first question about the – whether the planning for the trip’s been affected by the political events in the ROK, of course we’ve been following very closely the events there, but so far we have no change in our plans. The United States continues to be a steadfast ally, friend, and partner with South Korea. Our alliance is going to continue to be the linchpin of regional stability and security, and I think what we’re seeing play out now is a manifestation of sort of democratic processes in South Korea. These are the kinds of institutions that make us such close partners and friends with people of South Korea, but we’ll continue to work with acting Prime Minister Hwang for the remainder of his tenure and we will look forward to a productive relationship with whomever the people of South Korea elect to be their next president.

And I think for the question on the logistics for the press on the trip, I’m going to revert back to [Moderator] here.

MODERATOR: Thanks. And – excuse me – yeah, David, so, as you know, members of the U.S. media are going to be traveling commercially to all three locations – Japan, Korea, and China – in order to cover the trip. And we’re going to provide transportation, lodging, and logistic support on the ground to try to accommodate and ensure that they can cover the Secretary. I mean, all of you know, essentially, that we’re taking a much smaller plane, and so the Secretary’s overall footprint in terms of who he can accommodate or who we can accommodate on the plane is somewhat limited.

But I think what I can promise, like I said, is that we’ll do our best to accommodate those U.S. media who do travel either to one or two or all of three locales as much as we can. I can also speak to the fact that he’ll give at least one press conference or press availability during the trip. There may be others, but at this point, it looks like there will certainly at least be one.

And with respect to whether there is any space for press on the plane, I just can’t speak to that at that time – at this time definitively. Again, we’re still trying to iron out the logistics and finalize the logistics for who’s on – actually on the plane. But I think going forward, as I said yesterday, it’s going to be a priority for this Secretary to try to include a contingent of media on his future trips.

Next question.

OPERATOR: Is from Barbara Usher with BBC. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, thanks. Just a question about sanctions: Can you tell us what the Secretary might be set talking about in terms of any possibility of having tougher sanctions? For example, squeezing North Korea out of the international finance system; there’s been talk about secondary sanctions on Chinese companies that do business with North Korea. Is he going to be raising any of these issues?

And [Moderator], can you just clarify on this press availability, is the Secretary going to be taking questions, do you know?

MODERATOR: Sure, just quickly to – on your press side, yeah, that’s what I mean by a press availability. Yep.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, I think – thank you for the question on North Korea. Certainly, as I mentioned, we’re looking at a whole range of options right now on how to address the very severe concerns that everybody has about the advent of the and continued sort of development of North Korean weapons. I think we’re going to continue to assess a range of potential sanctions options. You mentioned the issue of secondary sanctions. That’s come up previously. Certainly we’ve talked to the Chinese about these issues before and will continue, I’m sure, to be talking with them about it this time, as well as with our other partners in Seoul and Tokyo. I think basically all of the existing tools that we have to try to bring pressure on North Korea are on the table, and we’ll be looking to try to see what the most effective combination of things is that we can use to get some progress on this issue.

OPERATOR: The next question is from Alicia Rose with NHK. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, hi, [Moderator], thanks for doing the call. I was wondering if we could get more information on the schedule, and also when the press availability will be and will it be open to press outside of U.S. media, and then, if you have them, approximate times for the bilaterals in each of the countries.

MODERATOR: So – well, we did walk through, broadly speaking, the schedule. I think we’ll wait a few more days because, obviously, we’re still finalizing the times and the content of some of these meetings, some of these bilateral meetings, and some of these visits. So I think it would be premature for us to try to give you times at this point. And sorry for that, but that’s just a reality.

With respect to the press availability, again, there is one on the schedule. I can’t give much details beyond the fact that – confirming he will do a press availability during the trip and, of course, it will be a open event. So beyond that, I just don’t have much more detail to provide you.

Next question.

OPERATOR: Is from Andrea Mitchell with NBC.

QUESTION: Thanks very much. Maybe I didn’t hear fully, if you could clarify whether any decisions on sanctions have been made or will be addressed on this trip regarding North Korea, whether any kind of new policy will be laid out. How far along has that gone?

And if – Mark, if you could, on some background basis, give us an outline of the schedule. We’re trying to figure out, because it’s logistically so hard given the time differences our broadcasts – for those of us who are broadcasters – and since we don’t even know travel times within these cities and what the destinations are. If you could give us a preliminary schedule on some sort of a background or totally off-the-record basis for planning purposes, we are really strapped given that we’re not traveling with you and not getting that on the plane.

MODERATOR: Sure, Andrea. That’s a legitimate request, and I think we are going to be able to give it to some of the folks who are traveling, at least the times and dates and – so you guys can coordinate, obviously, given some of the logistical challenges. So we’ll do that. We’ll just do it offline, if that’s okay.

[State Department Official].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes. Thank you, Andrea, for the question about the sanctions. I mean, I think we have been talking continuously with all of our partners about how we can ramp up sanctions, so we don’t have any new decisions to announce in the context of this trip. But that’s a continuing conversation that we’re having, and that’s part of our diplomatic approach. And one of the, I’m sure, reasons why Secretary Tillerson wants to go out to the region and talk to his counterparts out there is to discuss precisely this issue of how is the pressure through the current regime of sanctions working, and what more can be done and what other kinds of suggestions partners in the region have as to how we can ramp up the pressure.

You know we’ve been working on ramping up this pressure campaign. The North Koreans are under two very tough UN Security Council resolutions at the moment: 2270 and 2321. Additional measures continue to be taken by various members of the international community. And so we’ll be looking to see what other measures we might be able to take, but there’s no specific decision to take at the – to announce at the moment.

MODERATOR: Next question.

OPERATOR: Is from Matthew Pennington with Associated Press.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you very much for doing the call. First of all, when the Secretary goes to South Korea, will he meet with anyone from the political opposition given that there’s going to be a transition in power before long?

And secondly, in Beijing, do you expect the issue of the THAAD deployment to be discussed? And are you at all concerned that this is going to hurt Chinese cooperation in working with the U.S. on North Korea and putting more pressure on North Korea? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, thank you for those questions. On the question of the meeting with – potential meeting with the opposition candidates or party members in South Korea, no, we do not currently have plans to do that. It’s a pretty fast-moving situation in South Korea, and we are sticking to our diplomatic agenda that we have and working on these very sort of compelling issues that are confronting us, including working on the alliance, working on the threat from North Korea, and making sure that we are staying in lockstep with our partners. So I think we do not have that in the plan for the moment.

On the issue of the THAAD deployment, there’s been quite a bit of talk about the THAAD deployment in the news this week after the announcement of some of the initial steps moving forward in South Korea. Of course, the Chinese have expressed their opposition to the THAAD deployment, and we have made very clear in response to those complaints that we see it as a very reasonable set of defensive measures taken by the South Koreans to protect them from what is a clear and imminent threat. And we have explained to the Chinese on multiple occasions that this is a defensive system and it presents no security threat to China and that we would be happy to discuss it with them in further, but that there is no compelling reason why the South Koreans should be prevented from mounting whatever defense they can possibly mount.

I think we’ll continue to discuss this with China. They’re clearly not convinced yet. But I think so far it continues to be a discussion, and it isn’t going to prevent us from continuing to have our cooperative discussions about how we want to jointly work together to approach the North Korea threat. So I think it will be – continue to be discussed, but it is not the only thing that we’ll be discussing.

MODERATOR: All right. Well, thanks, everyone, for joining us. Hope this was informative. Again, I just want to reiterate the ground rules for this. This is an on-background call – and also just reiterate the embargo, which is midnight on Saturday, and with the transcript being posted on Sunday, March 12th at 8:00 a.m. So I hope everyone has an enjoyable weekend. Thanks again for joining us.