Background Press Call by a Senior Administration Official on North Korea Announcement

The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
March 8, 2018
Via Teleconference

*Note from a senior administration official in addition to the below – the Vice President was in the Oval Office meeting discussed in the transcript*

8:03 P.M. EST

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hello. Good evening, everyone. I’m just going to set the ground rules and introduce our speaker. You may quote him, and attribution is to a senior administration official. This briefing is embargoed until the end of the call, at which point the embargo lifts and you’re free to publish. And I have nothing further, so with that I will introduce our speaker.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hi, good evening everyone. You, I think, by now have probably heard the statement that was given by the South Korean envoy who visited the White House today. He made a statement about an hour ago. And I’d refer you to that statement and, of course, we can provide you with an English-language transcript of that if you need one.

Our Press Secretary also put out a statement as follows: The President “greatly appreciates the nice words of the South Korean delegation and President Moon. He will accept the invitation to meet with Kim Jong-un at a place and time to be determined. We look forward to the denuclearization of North Korea. In the meantime, all sanctions and maximum pressure must remain.”

So what I thought I would do is just take a couple of minutes to provide a little bit of context of how we arrived at this juncture. When President Trump came into office in January of last year, he determined on day one that the urgent matter of denuclearizing North Korea was something that would require a new approach. It would require us avoiding the mistakes that have been made over the past 27 years of dialogue and failed approaches to denuclearizing North Korea.

So, in short, within a matter of weeks, the administration had developed a policy that the President signed to maximize pressure on North Korea. That meant maximizing economic pressure. It meant isolating North Korea diplomatically, and marshaling not only our resources, not only the resources of our allies and friends, but really of the entire world to resolve something that is destabilizing to the region and really to the world at large.

And so in the year that he’s pursued that policy, he has always left the door open to dialogue of some kind. He’s left the door open to dialogue at the right time. And today, he was briefed by President Moon’s — a couple of national security officials — his National Security Advisor Chung Eui-Yong and his Intelligence Director Suh Hoon — who came into the Oval, gave a briefing to the President, as well as several Cabinet officials — General McMaster, Secretary Mattis, Deputy Secretary of State Sullivan, Chief of Staff General Kelly, Director Dan Coats, and CIA Deputy Director Gina Haskell — and explained the — and conveyed a message from Kim Jong-un to the President.

Part of that message was a commitment to denuclearize. It also was a commitment to refrain from testing nuclear weapons or missiles. And it was also an indication — oh, and I would also add that Kim Jong-un had made clear that he understands that routine defensive exercises between the Republic of Korea and the United States must continue — or something that will continue. And he conveyed that he wants to meet with President Trump as quickly as possible.

And so President Trump has agreed to accept an invitation to meet with Kim Jong-un in a matter of a couple of months. And the exact timing and place is still to be determined.

And I would also highlight that the President’s point that he made tonight, in the statement through Sarah, that sanctions and maximum pressure must remain, is really what differentiates the President’s policy from the policies of the past. If we look at the history of these negotiations that took place under prior administrations, they have often led to the relinquishing of pressure. They have often led to concessions being made to North Korea in return for talks.

President Trump has been very clear from the beginning that he is not prepared to reward North Korea in exchange for talks. But he is willing to accept an invitation at this time to meet and to allow — and, really, he expects North Korea to start putting action to these words that were conveyed via the South Koreans.

So, with that, I’ll open it for a few minutes of questions.

Q Hi, this is (inaudible). Just to clarify whether this offer that was conveyed was a letter by Kim Jong-un. And is there any timeline in terms of how long you’ve committed to those things in that letter? And also, what sort of place would be suitable for a meeting? Would that be a neutral country? Could that be in South Korea? If you could elaborate on those. Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. Thanks for the question. Just to clarify, there was not a letter. This was a message conveyed orally by Kim Jong-un to the National Security Advisor of South Korea during the several hours of meetings that they held just a couple days ago in Pyongyang. And Ambassador Chung, who is the National Security Advisor, then conveyed it orally to the President today in the Oval Office.

And the question about an appropriate place to meet, those are things yet to be worked out.

Q This is Brian Karem with the Sentinel Newspapers. My question is, any part of the negotiations, would it include inspections of nuclear facilities in North Korea? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, thanks for the question. Look, at this point we’re not even talking about negotiations, right? What we’re talking about is an invitation by the leader of North Korea to meet face to face with the President of the United States. The President has accepted that invitation.

Obviously, verification goes hand in hand with any kind of acceptable deal for the permanent denuclearization of North Korea, and we will settle for nothing less than that outcome. It’s the outcome that the entire world expects, as exemplified under all those U.N. Security Council resolutions — the four of them that have passed in the time that President Trump has been in office and under his leadership.

The President has been coordinating very closely, obviously with South Korea, through this whole process, as well as with Japan. President Trump spoke tonight on the phone with Prime Minister Abe about all of these events, as he’s been doing the entire time he’s been in office. Thanks.

Q Hi, I’m Dave Nakamura with the Washington Post. A couple quick things. There’s never been a face-to-face meeting or even phone call, I believe, between sitting leaders of the two countries. Why not start with meetings at a lower level? And what gives you the confidence that this is not — you even, I think, mentioned in a call the other day — something that could be less than advertised? And you’re already, sort of, agreeing without maybe — as you said, there’s not even a written letter. Isn’t that somewhat risky?

And then the other thing I’m wondering is also — have you gotten any sense that there would be any talk about the North Koreans showing some goodwill by releasing the other Americans who are being held there, given the President’s clear interest in detainees, including Otto Warmbier?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great. Thanks, Dave, for the question. You know, President Trump was elected in part because he is willing to do — take approaches very, very different from past approaches and past Presidents. That couldn’t be better exemplified than it is in his North Korea policy. Literally, going back to 1992, the United States has engaged in direct talks at low levels with the North Koreans, and I think that history speaks for itself.

In the case we have right now is — what we have now is an invitation from the leader of North Korea. As President Moon expressed, he believes that we’re at this juncture precisely because of the approach that President Trump has taken with maximum pressure.

President Trump made his reputation on making deals. Kim Jong-un is the one person who is able to make decisions under their authoritarian — uniquely authoritarian — or totalitarian system. And so it made sense to accept an invitation to meet with the one person who can actually make decisions instead of repeating the, sort of, long slog of the past.

Okay, we’ve got to cut there.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay, I want to reiterate for everyone. This call is on background. You may attribute any quotes to him to a senior administration official, and the embargo — the call being concluded, the embargo is now lifted.

END 8:11 P.M. EST