Remarks at a Press Roundtable
Secretary of State
AMBASSADOR BRANSTAD: (In progress) ambassador’s residence. My wife Chris and I are really honored and pleased to have Secretary of State Rex Tillerson here with us today. He’s had an extremely busy schedule. Had a little plane problem getting in, but he got in all the meetings. Met with President Xi Jinping, met with State Councilor Yang --
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Jiechi.
AMBASSADOR BRANSTAD: -- Jiechi. He – good, thank you. And Foreign Minister Wang Yi. And they were all – I had the honor and opportunity to sit in on all those meetings, and I think the Secretary of State represented us very well, and great progress is being made in preparing for the President’s visit later this year.
So without further ado, I’m very honored and proud to introduce Rex Tillerson, our U.S. Secretary of State.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Evening, all. I’ll just – I’ll be real brief because I know we need time to get to your questions. So yeah, the principal purpose of this trip was twofold: one, to move along the preparations for the presidential summit that’ll be in early November. I think the White House issued a release the other day on the dates and the countries that the President’s anticipating visiting upcoming. As you know, this summit’s at the invitation of President Xi, reciprocal to the Mar-a-Lago summit. So the dates were set following sufficient progress on a number of dialogue areas that were kicked off in Mar-a-Lago. I think you’re familiar with the four major dialogue areas that the two leaders agreed we were going to initiate. This was an effort to elevate the dialogue from what it had been in the past couple of administrations. I think when we came in, my recollection is there were 26 dialogues, U.S.-China dialogues. We now have four, and we – and they’re at a much higher level now.
So we have a Security and Diplomatic Dialogue that Secretary Mattis and I chair from our own side; we have an Economic and Trade Dialogue that Secretary Ross and Secretary Mnuchin chair; we have a Social, People-to-People Dialogue which I’m facilitating along with Secretaries Chao and Secretary DeVos that met – that dialogue met last week; and then we have a Law Enforcement and Cyber Dialogue that’s upcoming, and Attorney General Sessions will be involved in that one. So those are the four major dialogues that are really driving the agenda for U.S.-China relations and the discussions between the leaders.
So this trip was to get some agreement around the details for the upcoming visit, and then, obviously, an opportunity to have some discussion around issues that are current, like North Korea. So we did have discussions about North Korea as well. So that’s really – it was kind of a real quick trip. We wanted to get it in before they got too busy with their party congress. And so that was – and also well enough in advance that we could get the preparations ready for the President’s visit.
So I’ll stop right there and --
MODERATOR: Nick Wadhams.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thanks for doing this. I just wanted to ask you a little about North Korea. There’s certain widespread belief that sanctions alone will not change North Korea’s behavior. And if you look at Iran, it was a combination of sanctions, military buildup, and then cyber sabotage in Natanz plant. So that’s what brought them to the table. Do you think that all three of these in some sort of combination would be required to bring North Korea to the table?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I do think the broad-based sanctions are beginning to have an effect. We’re seeing it from some of what we can observe, and the Chinese are also telling us that it’s having an effect, and they have a pretty close-up view of it. But I think it’s also the uniform voice coming from the international community, and there’s almost no one aligning with North Korea on this nuclear program of theirs. And they clearly – they are seeing a military response in the region with a greater defense posture on the part of the Republic of Korea, Japan taking steps to beef up its defense posture. And so there is in that respect a regional military response.
But I think it’s – it is also gaining – we’re gaining the support of the Chinese. They are actively engaged in putting pressure on the regime in Pyongyang. And so we’re hopeful that, as you’ve heard me refer to the peaceful pressure campaign is going to cause the leadership in North Korea to want to engage, and engage in the right conversation. And we’ve made it clear that we hope to resolve this through talks as well. That’s our principal objective, is a peaceful resolution.
QUESTION: Thank you. And thank you, Mr. Ambassador. The last time I think I was in this house was during a dinner with Jim Lilley when you had a Chinese dissident living down in the basement. (Laughter.) So it was a while ago.
AMBASSADOR BRANSTAD: It’s been a while.
QUESTION: And it was right after Tiananmen. Mr. Secretary, as you have thought about and described your strategic objectives with the North Koreans, you have said repeatedly that you’re moving toward – ultimately toward denuclearization. But maybe in the intelligence community, many of your own colleagues, have said you’re not going to see that for years. So can you talk us through a little bit of what your medium-term objective here is? We’ve heard General McMaster say the other day it’s not just a freeze, because that would enshrine the current level of nuclear capability. So you might have been able to do that 10 years ago; not now. So what is it that you need to see the North Koreans do that would resolve the current crisis or that would actually get you engaged in conversation with them?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, look, the objective of denuclearization is not just ours. That’s the objective of the Chinese as well. They’ve been very clear in their policy. And it’s the objective of the Russians, it’s the objective of everybody in the neighborhood, is a denuclearized peninsula. So that’s not a policy that only the U.S. holds.
I think in terms of how you realize that, it’s going to be an incremental process to get there. I don’t think anyone – you’d be foolish to think you’re going to sit down and say, “Okay, done, nuclear weapons are gone.” This is going to be a process of engagement with North Korea that will be stepwise. I think the most immediate action that we need is to calm things down. They’re a little overheated right now, and I think we need to calm them down first. And then first conversation is around: What are we going to talk about? Because we’ve not even had that conversation. And so the first time I would have the opportunity to sit with the North Koreans, it would be to say: What do you want to talk about? We haven’t even gotten that far yet.
But the objective is clear. We’ve been clear publicly, the region’s been clear publicly, that we’re not going to accept a nuclear-armed North Korea. That is never going to be acceptable.
QUESTION: It’s in their constitution. They’ve also made it clear they’re not going to get into a conversation that involves their denuclearizing.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: They could change their constitution. I think they created it, they can change it. Especially the guys who are running North Korea – it’s pretty easy for them to change it.
STAFF: All right. Emily?
QUESTION: Thank you. Emily Rauhala, Washington Post. I wanted to talk about the idea of regime change. You said that’s not the objective. Why not? And --
SECRETARY TILLERSON: I’m sorry, the – say it again? What’s not the --
QUESTION: Your objective is not regime change in North Korea. Why not?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I think if you – everyone who has studied the situation and – to try to understand what is motivating North Korea, and more particularly what is motivating Kim Jong-un to step up the pace of this weapons development program, I think – and all of you are aware I think he has conducted some 84, 85 missile tests; he’s conducted, I think, four nuclear tests, in the short of, time of his regime. His father conducted, I think, only 10 missile tests over 20 years.
So this is clearly someone that’s different. Why is he doing that? And obviously, the stated reason is for his own security and his own regime’s survival. So I think it was important to say, to us, “Look, our objective is denuclearization. Our objective is not to get rid of you. Our objective is not to collapse your regime. That’s not our objective. Our objective is denuclearization. So if you’d like to meet with us on a way to do that, that’s what we prefer to do.”
So I said that because that is the case.
QUESTION: Hi. If North Korea conducts an atmospheric test, if it flies an ICBM over Japanese air space to do so, would that require an immediate military response?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: That would be the Commander-in-Chief’s decision.
QUESTION: But that – is that a redline for the United States?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: As far as I know, the Commander-in-Chief has issued no redlines.
MODERATOR: Charles? You’re passing up a question? Don’t let other people find out about that.
STAFF: All right. So Matthew.
QUESTION: Yeah. Matt Rivers with CNN. Over the last couple days, we’ve been up in the northeastern part of China, and we’ve seen at least on a small scale some evidence that sanctions against North Korea have been violated, at least in terms of what’s being sold up in the northeastern part of China. Not sure about the scale, but how comfortable are you – a knock against the Chinese for a long time is that they’ve not been willing to really enforce the sanctions that they’ve signed onto. Are you confident that they’re really enforcing at this time?
AMBASSADOR BRANSTAD: I was in Jilin Province, which borders on North Korea, I think three days after the nuclear test. I met with the party secretary of that province; I also went to the border at Tumen. The party secretary assured me that they are indeed enforcing the sanctions, and I saw very little activity on the border. So I have every reason to believe – and I’ve talked to a lot of people here as well. And obviously, that – it is a significant economic impact on Jilin Province, because that’s their neighbor, and they have a significant number of North Koreans employed there. But – and we’re trying to do everything we can to verify that they’re doing that, but I think the situation has changed a lot in the last few months. And frankly, they felt the impact of that nuclear test, and they’re testing their water and their air. So they’re very concerned about the situation, and I feel that they’re conscientiously trying to do what they can to enforce the sanctions.
QUESTION: Would you call that a significant shift in what you’ve seen from the Chinese in the last couple years?
AMBASSADOR BRANSTAD: Yeah. Obviously, I’ve only been here three months, but I think we’ve seen significant change. I want to give the President, the Secretary of State, and Haley – our ambassador to the United Nations – I think the two resolutions that have been approved recently are much stronger than a lot of people thought could be approved. They were approved unanimously with the cooperation of China, and I think China probably played a role in getting Russia’s support as well.
QUESTION: Chris Bodeen from Associated Press. When you talk about the rhetoric being a little overheated, does that apply also to President Trump? And should President Trump maybe tone down some of his comments as well?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: I think the whole situation’s a bit overheated right now. I think everyone would like for it to calm down. Obviously, it would help if North Korea would stop firing off missiles. That would calm things down a lot.
QUESTION: Oh, I’m sorry. Yes. You just were talking about the actions that China has taken recently. And what’s behind that shift that the ambassador talked about what – China’s concerns, and how that might be playing into the shift. But what about the threats of trade actions from the United States? Do you think that that’s playing a role here, that China’s feeling pressure on the trade side, and that’s having some impact on their actions?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I think you’d have to ask the Chinese that question. I think we have not deliberately linked those two actions. Trade is a – obviously, it’s an extremely important issue to the President, because it’s an important issue to the American people. We have a very significant trade imbalance, as you’re well aware. The President knows that’s important to the American people. It’s important to the American economy and jobs, and he intends to address it. We’ve never directly connected those two.
I think the reason we’re seeing a very different posture on the part of China and the uptake on enforcing sanctions and their support for sanctions is because they too see how advanced this program now has become in North Korea. And I think they also have a sense that we’re beginning to run out of time, and that we really have to change the dynamic. Perhaps in years past when this was attempted – and we’ve said this before – unfortunately, our predecessors burned up a lot of runway, and I think even the Chinese realize that there’s not a lot of runway left now to solve this. And so that – I think perhaps that is what motivates them, because I do know that they are – they’re very committed to that policy of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, because they understand the implications of just allowing North Korea to become a nuclear state. If North Korea becomes a nuclear state, they want it to become the last country to become a nuclear state in this region.
MODERATOR: We have time for two more.
QUESTION: I’m Anthony Kuhn with NPR. Secretary Tillerson, I’m very curious about a statement you made in a speech at the State Department about the difference between values and policy. And it seems to me that implies very much in China. So what does that mean in terms of our policy towards China? Does that mean we adjust our expectations? Does it serve as a justification for dealing with people or actors that we wouldn’t otherwise? What does it mean, in terms of policy?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, what I said is that policies can and do change based upon conditions, based upon circumstances with a particular country, based upon the issues. Your values never change. And so those values that the American people hold dear around human rights, treatment of people, of freedom – all of that is constant. And my point is if you try to shape policy around those values, in my view, what are you saying? Because policy can change. And so my view is the values are with us everywhere. They’re – you could say they’re embedded in everything we do. Policies, though, have to be crafted to deal with the circumstances at hand. And that’s – and when you – if you try to condition everything, one on the other, then you may not be able to create conditions on the ground to achieve your values.
I think people are getting killed because of conflict and wars – the most important thing to them is to not get killed anymore. Not the most important – the most important thing to them may not be women’s empowerment or other issues. And that’s not to diminish those, but it’s to say that policies to deconflict need to be focused on deconfliction. And if we can create the conditions on the ground that allow us to advocate our values, we have a better chance of those values becoming more widespread.
So I just – maybe it’s the way I tend to think about things, but I craft the policies, and the values are always embedded in those policies. The policies don’t – are going to have to fit the circumstance; the values are constant.
QUESTION: You’re not by any means saying – de-emphasizing human rights --
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Not at all. Not at all.
MODERATOR: Is that part clear, though? Anthony? Okay.
AMBASSADOR BRANSTAD: I would say – I’ve had an opportunity now to respond and meet with the Chinese on some of these issues involving human rights, and I’ve tried to – it’s part of our DNA. It’s part of what we – values that we have. And yet we need to recognize that they have a different system, and they may not share some of the values we have, but we still need to articulate those values and stand for those values that we think are universally human rights.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, Ben Tracy from CBS News. You mention that we’re not even at a point yet where we’re sitting down with the North Koreans to ask them what they want to talk about. Has the U.S. Government or the Chinese Government or the South Korean Government, for that matter, have any indication that they actually want to talk? Or do you think they want to complete their program first?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: We are probing. So stay tuned.
QUESTION: How do we probe?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: We ask, “Would you like to talk?”
MODERATOR: Abbie, take the last question.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: We have lines of communications to Pyongyang. We’re not in a dark situation, a blackout. We have a couple, three channels open to Pyongyang. We can talk to them. We do talk to them.
QUESTION: Through China?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Directly, through our own channels.
MODERATOR: Abbie, take the last question.
QUESTION: Given the current debate from the administration over whether or not to withdraw from UN-endorsed multilateral deal with Iran over their nuclear program, does that – do you have concern over what effect that might have on North Korea’s willingness to come to the table to discuss a possibility of their own denuclearization or drawdown?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, we’re dealing with two very, very different situations in Iran, which does not have a nuclear weapons program and was not nearly as far advanced as North Korea is. We’re also – in Iran you’re also dealing with a very large nation, 60 million people, largely participating in the global economy, participating in global affairs. North Korea is a small, isolated country; they don’t participate in global affairs. Very limited participation in the global economy. So it’s – you have to use very different approaches with the two of them.
I think in terms of how they – I don’t know if they’re watching what we do on the Iranian situation or not. And I don’t want to suggest to you that we’re not going to stick with the Iranian deal. The President will have to make that decision; ultimately, it’s what he wants to do. Having said that, we’re not going to put a nuclear deal in place in North Korea that’s as flimsy as the one we have in Iran. I can tell you that.
MODERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much.