Department Press Briefings : Department Press Briefing - March 9, 2017

By Newsroom America Feeds at 9 Mar 2017

Mark C. Toner

Acting Spokesperson
Department Press Briefing

Washington, DC

March 9, 2017

Index for Today's Briefing
DEPARTMENT/COUNTER-ISIS COALITION MEETING SYRIA MEXICO AFGHANISTAN DEPARTMENT/COUNTER-ISIS COALITION MEETING DEPARTMENT NORTH KOREA SOUTH KOREA SYRIA/REGION DEPARTMENT/COUNTER-ISIS COALITION MEETING INDIA SOUTH KOREA

TRANSCRIPT:


Today's briefing was held off-camera, so no video is available.

2:02 p.m. EST

MR TONER: Thank you so much. And welcome, everybody, to this – today’s briefing with the State Department, the first one in a long time by telephone, but hopefully it’ll be useful. And it’s a new format, so we look forward to it.

Just a couple things at the top, and then I’ll take your questions. Secretary Tillerson will host foreign ministers and senior leaders of the global coalition dedicated to the complete defeat of ISIS and will express his full support of the coalition’s mission. This meeting will be held on March 22nd, here in Washington, D.C. Secretary Tillerson has been crystal clear that defeating ISIS is the State Department’s top priority in the Middle East. He said it in his confirmation hearing, and he said it repeatedly to foreign counterparts.

ISIS has unleashed violence and havoc in the region by committing a mass homicide and terrorizing people in Iraq and Syria, unleashing a wave of refugees and – as well as a humanitarian crisis. Defeating ISIS is the start of a process to create, as well, stability in Syria.

This will be the first meeting of the entire coalition – all 68 members – since 2014. It’ll be the largest gathering of the coalition since its inaugural meeting. And while significant ground has been gained on the battlefield, there are new fronts, and that includes online, where we can improve our tactics, our strategy, and our coordination. Defeating ISIS requires the support of all members of the coalition, and the Secretary looks forward to stressing the importance of their cooperation as well as their contributions to the effort to eradicate ISIS from the region.

The meeting will cover other ground, including how to thwart foreign terrorist fighters, counter terrorist financing, stabilization of liberated areas, and the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Secretary Tillerson thanks all of our partners for their contributions to date and recognizes this is a key moment in establishing the roadmap to defeat this dangerous threat in the Middle East once and for all.

With that, I’ll turn it over to your questions. We’re going to just – given this is a new format, what I’ve worked out is that we’ll allow each questioner a follow-up question, and then we’ll move to the next questioner.

Thank you. Go ahead.

OPERATOR: Thank you. The first question comes from David Clark with AFP. Please, go ahead. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, Mark. Thanks for doing this. So the – this meeting of the coalition, what level will the people be represented at? Will it be just diplomats, or will general officers be there as well? And will Russia be there in any capacity? I know it’s not a member of the coalition per se, but obviously, they’ve got forces on the ground de-conflicting with the coalition. And do they have an observer role or a guest role in this?

MR TONER: Thanks, David. So this is at the ministerial level, so it will be with foreign ministers. Now, that said, on March 23rd the coalition’s working group co-leads will meet as well to coordinate across all lines of effort. That includes military, counter-finance, counter-messaging, counter-foreign-fighters, as well as stabilization – all aspects of the campaign. I can imagine that will involve all aspects – certainly both military and government as well.

With respect to your question about Russia, no, Russia will not be part of these meetings. They’re not part of the global coalition.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: And then just my follow-up, then.

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: You say that it’s the administration’s top priority in the Middle East, and you say that defeating ISIS is a prelude to establishing stability in Syria. You no longer then regard the role of Bashar al-Assad’s regime as being the prime driver of instability in Syria?

MR TONER: I wouldn’t say that, David. But we obviously – this is – and we talked about this before. This is a – there’s two tracks in Syria, two conflicts that we need to resolve. Obviously, first and foremost is the fight to destroy ISIS, and that’s where we are focusing our efforts during this ministerial meeting, but certainly going forward in how we look at the situation on the ground. But that certainly doesn’t change our focus on trying to resolve the civil war that’s ongoing in Syria. We just are – there’s essentially two difficult challenges to resolve within Syria. One is the removal of ISIS, and certainly the other one is a peaceful political resolution to the civil war. And let me be clear as well that the primary driver of that civil war is the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Tracy Wilkinson with Los Angeles Times, please, go ahead. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. Yes, thank you. Hi, Mark. I see that the foreign minister of Mexico is in town, Luis Videgaray, meeting with – according to the Mexicans – Kushner, Gary Cohn, and McMaster. Is there no State Department meeting with him? And if not, why not?

MR TONER: Tracy, good question. We’ll take that and get back to you. I was unaware that he was – the foreign minister was in town. And I’m not sure – I can’t speak to whether there’s going to be any meetings at the State Department at any level. I’ll take the question.

QUESTION: Okay. Okay, thank you.

MR TONER: Yeah. Please, next question.

OPERATOR: Next we’ll go to Conor Finnegan with ABC News. Please, go ahead.

MR TONER: Thanks, Mark. I was wondering about U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Given the attack yesterday that ISIS claimed credit for, is the U.S. reevaluating its position in Afghanistan? What, in particular, would be involved in that review? Are we considering sending more troops or increasing foreign assistance? And would that be the case despite the possible budget cuts in something like foreign assistance and despite President Trump’s statements, both as a candidate and as a private citizen, that he thought the U.S. was wasting money in Afghanistan?

MR TONER: Thanks for the question. So first of all, our mission currently in Afghanistan is, along with our NATO partners, how we provide training, advice, assistance to the Afghan Security Forces. Our assistance as well supports a broad range of Afghan civilian and security institutions, essentially with the goal of how we develop – or are trying to develop, rather – the capacity to prevent these kind of ongoing attacks and how we can build up the Afghan forces’ capabilities to respond effectively to them when necessary, and bring the perpetrators to justice, of course.

With respect to how we look at that policy going forward, I mean, I think we’re looking – as I said, at the outset of a new administration, we’re looking at a broad review of current policies. But let me just stress that our commitment to Afghanistan remains rock solid. I know the Secretary has spoken to both President Ghani and as well as CEO Abdullah in recent weeks – in days, in fact. He emphasized in those conversations his continued support for the National Unity Government of Afghanistan. And of course, we continue to work with our Afghan partners across a broad spectrum of issues that include security force development, counterterrorism cooperation, as well as economic development.

Any other --

QUESTION: Can I ask a follow-up on that, Mark?

MR TONER: Yep.

QUESTION: Does the U.S. see the threat from ISIS as growing in Afghanistan? Is there increased concern given yesterday’s attack and some previous attacks from ISIS Khorasan?

MR TONER: Look, I think with respect to ISIS we’ve always been clear that this is an organization that, as we attempt to eradicate it from its home base in – Iraq, rather, and in Syria, it’s trying to set up new affiliates, if you will, in other places around the globe and in some of those ungoverned spaces, which, again, supports why it’s so important for us to continue our efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, to work with the Afghan Government and Afghan Security Forces to increase their capabilities to provide that kind of security.

But I would say certainly we’re concerned about anywhere that ISIS might look to establish a foothold. We’ve seen it also in places like Libya. But we’ve also been successful in, where we do have opportunities to strike ISIS leadership in those places, we take advantage of them. It’s just something we’re obviously aware of and we’re coordinating with our partners on the ground to go after ISIS wherever it seeks to establish itself.

Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Next we’ll go to Guy Taylor at The Washington Times. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, Mark, how are you? I wanted to follow up on the ministerial meeting of the counter-ISIS coalition and see if we can kind of pull you back into that a little bit. I’m just reading through the release that State put out as the call started. Is there really anything new that the Trump administration hopes will come of this meeting? What is the administration actually hoping to achieve by doing this now or get out of hosting it, strategically?

MR TONER: Sure, fair question. So I think – look, I mean, there have been meetings of this coalition both at the small group level but as well as the entire coalition periodically throughout its existence. I think the full coalition met soon after it was founded in December 2014. It’s now at – was down at 68 – 60 partners, rather. Now it’s grown to, I think, 68 members. And this is the first full coalition meeting since it’s now at 68 members. But again, at the small group level it has also met periodically as well.

I think what sets this meeting apart – obviously, it’s the first meeting of the new administration. I think it’s an opportunity for Secretary Tillerson to lay out the challenges that are facing the coalition moving forward. I think we all recognize that we have seen progress in defeating ISIS on the ground, certainly on the battlefield. They’ve lost territory. How do we leverage that success? How do we build on that success? How do we augment our capabilities? And also, as I said, what are the next challenges? I mentioned – and cyberspace as one area that they’re going to look at – how we augment our work. But I think, again, there’s also dealing with finances, dealing with the foreign fighters. I think he wants to get a sense, working with partners on all of those issues, what are the best ways forward.

I also think that this also is an opportunity for our coalition colleagues, our coalition partners to get together and share their view, and also it’s a chance for us all to recommit ourselves to ISIS’s ultimate defeat, and also how we burden-share, how we share our capability – or how we share the costs certainly going forward, and better share our capabilities on the ground.

Next – do you have another one?

QUESTION: Mark, quick – actually, quick follow-up.

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: So the administration more than a month ago ordered all agencies to do a comprehensive review of Washington’s ISIS, counter-ISIS strategy, that I believe has been delivered to the White House from Secretary of Defense Mattis’s office. Will that review factor into this coalition meeting? Is it something that there’s going to be some new strategy that the administration is hoping to roll out for all of these partners at this meeting?

MR TONER: So you’re right. On January 28th, obviously, the President, as you mentioned, directed Secretary of Defense Mattis to work with interagency partners to develop that preliminary plan, and the State Department was involved in that process and the drafting of the plan, and it was delivered to the White House on February 27th for consideration and for broader discussion. Now, the details of that plan are still classified. I can’t really provide further information on the contents of that plan, but I think that broadly speaking, we’re going to look at how we approach this in new ways, how we augment, I think, existing capabilities and processes on the ground, as I said, to really take advantage of what’s been progress in – certainly on the battlefield with ISIS. But I just can’t really speak to what those new initiatives could look like at this point in time. Sorry. Thanks.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And next, we’ll go to Kylie Atwood with CBS News. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you so much. Hi, Mark. We just saw in the White House briefing that Sean said that he hadn’t heard that the Secretary was traveling without press to Asia. Can you talk a little bit about the discussions between the State Department and the White House regarding this trip? And could you also give us a reason? I know that you said you’d get back to us on why the Secretary is taking a smaller plane, but could you get back to us on that, please?

MR TONER: Sure. Thanks for the question, Kylie. Look, I mean, we coordinate with the White House on – obviously, on the substance and the logistics involving the Secretary’s travel because we need to be knitted up at an interagency level on the policies going forward, and that’s certainly underway with respect to this trip. We also work closely with our NSC and White House colleagues on press issues as well, although that’s not necessarily sharing of the logistics. So it’s not surprising that he might not have been aware of the press posture for this upcoming trip.

That said, with respect to the trip to Asia, we’re still working out the logistics, so I really can’t say specifically or speak definitively, I guess, as to whether we will be able to accommodate any press on the Secretary’s plane. I think we’re all aware that it is a smaller plane for this particular trip. There will, as you know, going to – there will be some U.S. media who will be traveling to the destinations, each destination, and of course, we will do our utmost to support them at those destinations and provide whatever access we can.

And I think going forward, the State Department is doing everything it can to – and will do everything it can to accommodate a contingent of traveling media on board the Secretary’s plane.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR TONER: Yep. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Next we’ll go to Carol Morello with Washington Post. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, Mark. Greenpeace said today it was starting a petition drive to ask the Office of Government Ethics to urge Secretary Tillerson to recuse himself from any decisions regarding the Keystone pipeline. Is that something he would consider, or does he rule it out once he’s completed the process of divesting himself from his ExxonMobil stock?

MR TONER: Hi, Carol. With respect to the Keystone pipeline, I wouldn’t want to speak to the contents of the letter until we’ve had a chance to see it, so I’m going to take a pass on that. We will get a response to you once we’ve had a chance to read the letter and evaluate it.

With respect to his divestiture of his stock and involvement in Exxon, I think I spoke to this a little bit the other day. But the Secretary made very clear that he was going to comply with federal ethics rules, and he is in the process of meeting the terms of that agreement. I don’t have anything to add to that.

Next question.

QUESTION: Can --

MR TONER: Oh, go ahead. I’m sorry, Carol.

QUESTION: I was just going to say can you tell us how far along he is in the process of divesting himself? Halfway there, three quarters of the way?

MR TONER: I don’t – I just can’t at this point. And that’s not – I just – I’m unaware. Like I said, this is a process that he’s working with the Office of Government Ethics in doing, and we don’t really have a role in that, so I can’t give you a progress report.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks.

MR TONER: Thanks.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Next we’ll go to Nick Wadhams with Bloomberg News. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hey, Mark. I just wanted to circle back on the Asia trip and North Korea. The first is: Do you have an idea of who’s going to be traveling with him given that Danny Russel has now left the building? Will it be the acting assistant? And then I have a follow-up to that question.

MR TONER: Sure. With respect to who will be traveling with him, I know that Susan Thornton is the acting assistant secretary since Danny Russel has departed that position, so I know she’ll be on board. You had a follow-up question?

QUESTION: Yeah. Just to circle back to something you said about North Korea yesterday, which was that, essentially, what everybody had been doing to get – achieve a denuclearized North Korea had not worked so far, and the Secretary would be looking at new approaches. You also mentioned yesterday that the U.S. was still looking for a signal from the North that it’s capable and ready for these kind of negotiations.

So I’m wondering, I mean, if that seems to be the primary stumbling block for past negotiations, a sense that (inaudible) in its intent, so would the U.S. be willing to enter into negotiations with North Korea that did not have – I mean, didn’t require them to sort of promise to be on the road to denuclearization? Is that one idea that’s being discussed as part of these new approaches?

MR TONER: So thanks, Nick, for the question. So just revisiting that whole issue and, in fact, the double freeze idea that was put forward by the Chinese foreign minister a couple days ago – I think yesterday, in fact – I just want to revisit that quickly, and then I’ll get to your broader question. And there’s no equivalence between North Korea’s illegal missile and nuclear activities and what is our lawful, longstanding joint security exercises with our allies in the region. So that’s one of the reasons we’re somewhat dismissive of the proposal. The [inaudible] – the international community, rather, remains united in condemning North Korea’s continued destabilizing behavior, and I think North Korea’s actions demand that we look at new ways to resolve the problem. And that’s going to be part of his trip. I don’t necessarily have anything to preview, but you mentioned that we are looking for – and that is a fact. We don’t want to hold talks for talk’s sake; this is an ongoing issue with North Korea. We are ready to have serious discussions about denuclearization if they take steps to show themselves to be ready for such talks, and they know what steps they can take to send that signal. And I’ll leave it there.

But we’re not going to – we’re not going to talk about other issues. All of that can be something that we look at further on down the line, but first we need to address the international community’s – and this is not just the U.S., it’s not just South Korea, it’s not just Japan, it’s not just China, it’s the international community’s concerns about its illegal nuclear program.

Next question.

QUESTION: Could I ask, though, just that --

MR TONER: Of course.

QUESTION: I mean, you say they know what steps they need to take. I mean, so what does that mean? And then, also, I mean, it seems like you’re saying two contradictory things, because on the one hand you’re saying we’re going to look for new approaches, but then we’re still going to require this thing which has been the chief stumbling block to the negotiations in the past.

MR TONER: No, all I’m saying, Nick, in terms of the, as I said, this double-freeze concept that was put out or laid out – or proposal, I guess – yesterday, it’s just that, as I said, there’s no equivalence. We’re not going to stop what are legal, transparent, longstanding military exercises that are defensive in nature in order to convince North Korea to stop what it’s doing, which is in contravention of international legal norms and numerous UN Security Council resolutions.

So I don’t want to draw any equivalence between the two, but that said, I also want to be clear that we would be willing to talk to North Korea – and I mean this in a broad sense – if it shows itself serious and willing to talk about its nuclear program. So – and as we – we’re not there yet; we’re certainly far from that given some of the actions it’s taken over the past six months or so. In fact, we’re moving farther away from that given the continuing tests it is carrying out. So we need to look at – in the absence of any kind of positive signals that we’re seeing from North Korea, we need to look at ways we continue to apply pressure on the regime in Pyongyang to convince them to end their nuclear program.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Next, we’ll go to Elise Labott with CNN. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. Can you hear me okay?

MR TONER: Sure can.

QUESTION: Oh. I just want to follow up on a couple of the North Korea (inaudible). Forgive me, I dropped on – I jumped on a little bit late. Did you address that – this UN report that North Korea tried to sell nuclear – nuclear weapons material in the past year? And I’m wondering, if you didn’t, whether – what the U.S. says about that and how much more of a concern is it that – about North Korea proliferation? Not just about the nuclear threat itself, but that it’s proliferating its nuclear technology. And then I have another question about the exercises.

MR TONER: Okay. I mean, we’re very concerned. We, frankly, welcomed the findings of – it was the UN Panel of Experts report on this. We call on all states to fully implement DPRK or North Korean sanctions in their entirety, and that includes UN Security Council Resolutions 2321 and 2270, which explicitly obligate UN member-states to prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale, or transfer of items to and from North Korea that can directly contribute to its proscribed programs. So we’re concerned, I think, about both aspects of this, as you rightly raised in your question, which is --

QUESTION: Well, doesn’t it – aren’t you – I mean, what does it signify in terms of the fact that they’re producing this enriched lithium, this lithium-6? Because some nuclear experts cite it as evidence that North Korea may be advancing on miniaturization, which is one of the main concerns that, in addition to having the nuclear technology, that it’s also advancing its miniaturization and ballistic missile capability.

MR TONER: Well, I don’t want to – I don’t want to get into intelligence matters. I think, broadly speaking, we are concerned at the scope and the pace of North Korea’s nuclear program. And as I said previously to Nick, we’re concerned that, if anything, the pace of that program seems to be picking up with continued testing of missiles and of nuclear technology or nuclear --

QUESTION: I just have one more on the exercises. I mean, I guess it’s a larger question, but I feel like we go through this every year with these kind of major exercises. You expect almost some kind of North Korean provocation because these are the largest annual exercises, and it’s like clockwork. As soon as you start them, there’s some kind of provocation, and then you get into this cycle with North Korea. And I’m just wondering, like – I understand your rightful ability to conduct these exercises, but don’t you think at some point there needs to be some kind of dialogue with North Korea in advance of these exercises or in congruence with these – in parallel with these exercises to at least attempt to allay their fears that it’s not a provocation on your part? Because it’s always followed by a provocation on their part.

MR TONER: Well, look, I mean, a couple points about that. You rightly say these are – this is a – somewhat an annual event in the sense that we carry out these exercises and there’s a reaction, which speaks to the fact that this is something that has been going on for the past roughly 40 years, so it shouldn’t be a surprise. And indeed, these are transparent. They’re carried out openly under the Combined Forces Campaign – or Command, rather. They’re planned months in advance. They involve participants from the United Nations sending states, members. They’re carried out in the spirit of the Korean – rather, ROK and U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty. And as I said, they’re done transparently.

So I understand your point, but the challenge here, frankly, is we should not be in a position where we are in some ways rewarding North Korea’s continued bad behavior, and that’s exactly what it is. When we’re carrying out military exercises with our ally, South Korea – the Republic of South Korea – it is, again, in response to the threat that they feel and we feel from North Korea’s continued provocative behavior in the region. So I think it’s important to put it in that framework. We always talk about the fact that, well, why don’t we just talk to them, but it’s – we can’t – we’re not in a position now where we can talk with them. We need to be in a position where we understand that they are willing to come to any kind of negotiation with a real intent to address the concerns about their nuclear program. And until that time, it’s frankly – it’s not something worth pursuing.

Again, it’s incumbent on us, on China, on Japan, and on South Korea and our other partners to look at ways that we can persuade them. Part of that includes pressure, of course. We need to look at, I think, a number of ways that we can put that pressure on the regime to answer the international community’s concerns.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And next we’ll go to Alicia Rose with NHK. Please, go ahead. And Ms. Rose, your line is open. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Sorry, I had my phone on mute. My question is about the hearing in South Korea. South Korea’s constitutional court is expected to deliver a decision later today on the impeachment trial of Korean President Park Geun-hye. How is the U.S. watching this trial? And also, how will the decision, either way, have an impact on U.S.-Korea relations? And then I have one follow-up.

MR TONER: Sure. Look, clearly, our relationship with South Korea is important. It’s a strong ally, regional partner. Secretary Tillerson is going to be there next week, looks forward to meeting his counterparts in Seoul.

I think with respect to the processes, the impeachment process ongoing in South Korea, we wouldn’t speak to that. We view that as a domestic issue and we certainly wouldn’t comment on it, except, as I said, to simply state that we’re very committed to our partnership with South Korea and look forward to strengthening it.

You had a follow-up?

QUESTION: Yes. Sorry. Just also, would there be any impact on the deployment of THAAD?

MR TONER: No, not at all. Sorry, I didn’t quite hear you. On the deployment of THAAD, you mentioned? That was your question?

QUESTION: Yes. Yeah.

MR TONER: Okay. Yeah. No, not at all.

Next question.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And next, we’ll go to Laurie Mylroie with Kurdistan 24. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, Mark. Two questions. Ambassador Haley said yesterday that a political settlement in Syria required that it no longer be a safe haven for terrorists – quote, “We’ve got to make sure we get Iran and their proxies out.” Is reducing in a significant way Iran’s influence in Damascus a new U.S. objective in regards to Syria?

MR TONER: Not at all. We’ve consistently raised our concerns about the destabilizing nature of Iran’s activities in the region, but certainly in Syria, and we continue to hold the Iranian Government accountable for its actions, using the tools at our disposal.

On Syria, frankly, the support the Assad regime has received and continues to receive from Iran has enabled it to avoid pursuing what we all agree is the only outcome possible there to resolve the conflict, and that is a peaceful political outcome. It’s avoided – it’s allowed them to avoid seeking a negotiated end to the conflict, and that’s an issue.

We’ve imposed targeted sanctions on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as well as its Ministry of Intelligence and Security for their support of the Assad regime. So as I said, we’re looking to counter those destabilizing actions, and we recognize – and we have recognized for some time – that Iran is playing a very destabilizing role in Syria. That should come as a surprise to no one.

You had a follow-up?

QUESTION: Yeah. It had to do – you mentioned this counter-ISIS meeting that you’re going to hold later this month. Are you considering or might you consider KRG representation at these meetings?

MR TONER: Well, again, this is something that the Government of Iraq would be attending, and we’ve talked about this before: We are very appreciative and aware of the sacrifice and effectiveness of Kurdish forces in the fight against ISIS, but we also recognize that they operate under the command and control of the Iraqi Government. That’s been very clear in all of our dealings with the Iraqi Government and our support for forces in Iraq that are fighting ISIS that we operate under the mandate of Iraqi Government command and control to all of our assistance, and that continues.

That said, we – and our Special Envoy Brett McGurk has frequent conversations with Kurdish leadership on the ground, and we consult with them closely. So we believe they’ll be represented here by the Government of Iraq.

QUESTION: Any chance you might encourage the Government of Iraq to bring along some Kurdish officials?

MR TONER: Well, look, that’s something for the Government of Iraq to work out with Kurdish officials themselves.

I have time, I think, for one more question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. And our final question will come from Lalit Jha with PTI. Please, go ahead. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this. I have two questions. One on Compassion International, calling up all your answers from yesterday. Have you raised this with India and what’s the response from them? Do you think in the coming days this will become a major irritant in the relations between the two countries? Then I have another question.

MR TONER: Sorry. You were, I think, talking about the closure of Compassion International. Is that what you’re referring to?

QUESTION: Yes.

MR TONER: Yeah. Look, I mean, as I think I said yesterday, first of all, we have, as you know, a very strong bilateral relationship with India and with the Government of India. A relationship where we can talk about, obviously, all the issues we agree on as two strong democracies, but we can also, when needed, we can share our concerns. And I think this is an area where we have a concern, and we have shared those concerns with the Government of India and we remain concerned about the closure of Compassion International and its operations in India.

I think it speaks to our concerns more broadly about civil society and its ongoing vibrancy and health, and the fact that we will always advocate for freedom of expression and association around the world. As I said yesterday, over the past couple of years we’ve seen, frankly, a number of foreign-funded NGOs who have encountered significant challenges to continuing their operations, and it’s something we’re watching and it’s something we’re going to engage with the Indian Government on and try to find a way forward. And I think that, just to emphasize, we want all parties to be able to work cooperatively and certainly in a way that honors India’s laws and also, as I said, in a transparent process and find a way forward.

You had a follow-up, I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Yeah, why are – they are – at the same time, there are several scores of U.S. organizations working uninterrupted in India. So why the case of one particular NGO is, of course, of concern to you? Why not – on the other hand you see several dozens, scores of American NGOs who are continuing to work, do the good job in India.

MR TONER: Sure. I think that this is the latest and I said that in my previous answers. We’ve seen a number of foreign-funded NGOs over the past couple of years encounter similar problems, so it remains a concern. It’s something we’ve raised. Compassion International is obviously just the most recent case. But we’re going to continue to talk to the Indian Government about it.

Just time for one more question. I know AP was --

QUESTION: Yeah, I have just one more quick question.

MR TONER: No, no, no, I’m sorry, Lalit. I’ve got to – Lalit, I apologize. I got to go to AP and then I have to run. I apologize.

AP, please.

OPERATOR: Certainly. Matthew Pennington with AP. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Right. Thank you, Mark. You – following up on the concerns about Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, she’s been a very close partner of the United States on your North Korea policy. And the general consensus is that her successor is going to be more moderate and seek to engage the North Koreans rather than have a tough line. So are you concerned that South Korea’s policy toward North Korea will change to a sort of pro-engagement policy? And isn’t it possible that a new South Korean Government could withdraw permission for the deployment of THAAD?

MR TONER: With respect to our relationship with South Korea, as I said, it is undergoing an internal political process. We’re not going to speak to that. What we can speak to is our commitment to the relationship going forward and to how we strengthen that relationship with South Korea recognizing that, as we know in this own country, governments change, administrations change, new leadership comes into office, but what endures is the fundamental ties and bonds between two countries. And we believe those couldn’t be stronger with the Republic of South Korea.

With respect to THAAD, I’m not going to get ahead of the new government’s decisions and policy choices that it may make going forward. As I can say, Secretary Tillerson looks forward to visiting Seoul next week. He’s going to have a lot of these conversations on the ground and we think it’s going to be a productive time to engage with the Government of South Korea going forward.

Everyone, thanks so much for joining us on this call. I appreciate it. And we’ll have a transcript out later this afternoon. Again, thanks, everyone. Have a good afternoon. Bye.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:42 p.m.)

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http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2017/03/268329.htm

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