Mark C. Toner
Department Press Briefing
March 13, 2017
Index for Today's Briefing
DEPARTMENT ISRAEL/PALESTINIANS SYRIA IRAQ SYRIA CHINA/REGION NORTH KOREA DEPARTMENT DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO DEPARTMENT SAUDI ARABIA
2:11 p.m. EDT
MR TONER: Hey, everybody. Happy Monday. I hope everyone had a good weekend.
I have just a few things at the top, and then I’ll get to your questions. First of all, just a few readouts, actually, from the Secretary’s meetings beginning last Friday and also this morning. Secretary Tillerson met on Friday morning with the ambassadors of the member-states of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to hear views from Southeast Asia ahead of his first trip to the region. The Secretary and ambassadors discussed the continuation of the U.S.-ASEAN strategic partnership in this 40th anniversary year of U.S.-ASEAN relations. The Secretary also emphasized the important role the U.S. relationship with ASEAN plays in a peaceful and prosperous Asia Pacific region.
Earlier today, the Secretary met with the foreign minister of the Republic of Tunisia, Khemaies Jhinauoi. And forgive me if I mispronounced his first name. The Secretary noted the important security partnership between the United States and Tunisia and highlighted Tunisia’s progress on security and democratic reforms. They also discussed the importance of finding a resolution to the conflict in Libya and as – in Libya in order to bring stability to the region.
Also, Secretary Tillerson met today with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias and reaffirmed the significance of the U.S.-Greek bilateral relationship. The Secretary and foreign minister also discussed the importance of building and sustaining security and stability across the region.
And lastly, Secretary Tillerson met with Saudi Foreign Minister al-Jubeir today to discuss a number of critical bilateral, multilateral – or rather, regional issues, including, of course, the ongoing conflict in Yemen as well as broader counterterrorism efforts. The Secretary and foreign minister also discussed strengthening economic and commercial ties as well as U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 socio-economic reform program.
I’ll stop there and go over to you. Josh.
QUESTION: Thanks, Mark.
MR TONER: Yep.
QUESTION: Jason Greenblatt from the White House is in the Middle East this week meeting with Israelis and Palestinians. Does the State Department have any representation in that delegation or involvement in the diplomacy that he’s doing over there right now?
MR TONER: Well, you are correct; he is headed to Israel and to the West Bank this – for the coming week. He’ll be meeting there with Israelis and Palestinians. He’ll have meetings with senior officials. He’ll be there to do a lot of listening, discussing the views of the leadership in the region, getting their perspectives on the current situation and how progress towards eventual peace can be made. He’ll meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu, he’ll meet with President Abbas. He’ll also meet with other Israeli and Palestinian officials, including security officials on both sides.
And this – I’d characterize it as the first of what will become many visits to the region. I can say that he’s been working closely with – obviously, within the NSC, but also with the State Department on this trip, and we’re of course supporting him on this trip and as well as a senior representative from the NSC who’s traveling with him. I can’t – I don’t know that we’ll have anybody from the State Department joining him on this trip. I’ll try to confirm that. But of course, our embassy will be supporting him on the ground, as well as our consulate.
QUESTION: Is the U.S. and Israel getting closer to the – any kind of an agreement on settlements that the President and Netanyahu had spoken about? I mean, is that a primary goal of this trip, to sort of wrap that issue up?
MR TONER: No. I mean, look – I think as I said, he’s really there to, as I say, get perspective, listen to both sides and how they come at looking forward to a peace process or how they perceive getting to a peace process that’s back on track. I think it’s part of him trying to, as I said, just get a good perspective on possible ways forward. I think settlements will obviously be a topic of discussion, but I wouldn’t predict there will be any kind of a resolution of that issue. I think, as we said earlier just a few weeks ago, with respect to settlements, we see them as a challenge that needs to be addressed at some point. But I think what’s mostly important for this trip is it’s an orientation trip for him to get – hear perspectives on the ground of how we can create a climate that leads to eventual peace negotiations.
QUESTION: Mark, could I stay on that just for a little bit?
MR TONER: Yeah, Said. Yeah, go ahead. Please.
QUESTION: Now, let me ask you the same question again: Has there been any coordination between Mr. Jason Greenblatt and the State Department before the – before their conversation?
MR TONER: Yes. Yes, and if I wasn’t definitive enough about that, yes, there was.
QUESTION: Okay, okay. And --
MR TONER: Yeah. I just don’t know – my question – my answer to Josh – I just wasn’t sure that there was anybody actually traveling with him from the State Department on this trip.
QUESTION: Now, I know last week you told us that Mr. Ratney will be assuming the file or whatever – the peace file – replacing Mr. Lowenstein.
MR TONER: No, I want to be very clear on that. He’ll – so he’ll be – he’ll have that portfolio within the front office of the --
QUESTION: Right, in addition – right --
MR TONER: I mean, I’m getting into – but he won’t be the – yeah.
QUESTION: In addition to the Syria issue, right?
MR TONER: Correct, yeah.
QUESTION: Okay. So has there been coordination between Mr. Greenblatt and Mr. Ratney?
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: Okay. All right. And let me ask you a couple more on the phone call between the President and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Was – did the President or the White House brief Secretary Tillerson on the call before or after?
MR TONER: I can only assume that he did. I’m not aware – I mean, I can’t confirm that, but that’s the normal --
QUESTION: You don’t know for sure whether he has spoken --
MR TONER: It’s a normal procedure for us to get --
QUESTION: It’s a normal procedure. Okay.
MR TONER: Also be consulted before a call and get briefed after the call --
MR TONER: -- if not beyond the call.
QUESTION: Okay, now, let me – can I stay on the topic just for one more?
MR TONER: Sure thing.
QUESTION: A couple more. The Israeli authorities arrested a Palestinian novelist, a woman. She wrote a novel called The Jackal’s Trap, and they arrested her because apparently talk – she talks about the process of recruiting informants and so on and all these things. Are you aware of this issue?
MR TONER: I’m aware. I’ve seen the reports. I’m not in a position, obviously, to weigh in on every security incident or every security action that’s taken by Israeli authorities on the ground. I’m also not familiar with the novel. I’ve – like you, I’ve seen the title. Broadly speaking, we of course support freedom of speech, but I can’t speak to it beyond – I would just have to refer you to Israeli authorities.
QUESTION: All right. But it would be disturbing if you find out that she was arrested because of this novel, which is fiction, right?
MR TONER: Again, I think --
QUESTION: Writing literature and fiction should not be --
MR TONER: I mean, in all honesty, Said, I’d have to look at the novel and what it – and hear what the Israeli authorities’ concerns about it were. There are some times when even novels can reveal information or can incite in some ways, but as I said, generally speaking, not having read the novel, not having read any review of the novel, I’d just generally say we support freedom of expression.
QUESTION: Can we stay on the – I have just one more on – can you confirm that there was an – some kind of orientation briefing about the other players in this Middle East process? Because the – in the – all other – before this administration, there is always the European Union plays a role in the peace process and the things.
MR TONER: You’re talking about the peace process?
QUESTION: Yes. So is there – about settlements, about – because the EU money goes in into (inaudible), and – which gets destroyed, so Brussels is always unhappy about the Israeli actions.
MR TONER: I mean, generally speaking – and I’d refer you to the White House and – for the specific conversations that they may have had with members of the EU or with other states that are actively working towards Middle East peace, but generally speaking, we have those kinds of conversations all the time with the key players, mostly just to get a sense of, again, who’s doing what, who’s speaking to whom, and what are the prospects and how do we get back – I think the overall – just to get back to Josh’s question – and we’ve talked about this before, but what are the steps, constructive steps that both sides can take to put us back on a footing towards some kind of negotiated settlement I think is what we’re looking at now.
So we’re not there yet. I don’t expect any big announcements out of this trip. I think, again, it’s just an orientation trip for him to hear perspectives on the ground.
MR TONER: Please, Barbara.
QUESTION: Yeah, I have two questions, one on Syria and one in Iraq.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: Is there any discussion or preparation in this building for the day after in Raqqa in terms of U.S. civilian assistance after the fight for Raqqa is by and large completed?
MR TONER: With respect to Raqqa? I’m sorry.
QUESTION: U.S. civilian assistance.
MR TONER: I’m sorry. I apologize. There’s always day-after planning going on, especially with respect to when we – and we’ve talked about this a lot, is when we liberate, or when these forces liberate territory that is held by ISIS, one of the key factors is how quickly you can get in to restore basic infrastructure, restore electricity, basic services, and reestablish some kind of local governance. That’s the case in parts of Syria as well as certainly in Iraq, so that’s always something that we’re factoring in when we look at sort of next steps. But at this point we’re not there yet. Obviously, with Raqqa, I mean, we’re just – we’re still in a – taking steps to close the city and cut off any escape route for ISIS there.
QUESTION: But there’s a plan in the works or being developed for civilian assistance, U.S. civilian assistance afterwards?
MR TONER: I think we’re always looking at how we can provide follow-up assistance to these. I can’t speak in specifics with respect to Raqqa, but certainly with Mosul and other places in Iraq, that’s been a key component. I think with respect to northern Syria, we’ve talked about the need, again, to also – these liberating forces that go in afterwards, we’ve always stressed that we want to see local governance restored so that civilians can return home. But again, a component of that is humanitarian assistance; a component of that is re-establishing a climate or conditions that will allow people who have been displaced by the fighting to return.
QUESTION: And just in terms of Iraq, which you mentioned the day-after planning there --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- along the same lines for Mosul, has – have those plans or that discussion been affected in any way by the budget cut calculations?
MR TONER: I’m sorry, with respect to Iraq?
QUESTION: Yes, you know the --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- the cuts to the State Department budget and foreign assistance. Has that affected the plans in Mosul for American assistance?
MR TONER: Not at all. Not at all. And a lot of that is because a lot of that money has already been set aside and already been, frankly, put into the pipeline for assistance. I mean, we’re looking at – it’s important when you’re looking about the – looking at the budget process, we’re looking a year ahead in terms of fiscal years, but right now the money has already been appropriated and sent to the Iraqi Government with respect to assistance, post-conflict assistance to Mosul.
QUESTION: Mark, you did not --
QUESTION: So Iraq --
MR TONER: You want to stay on Iraq?
QUESTION: Did you condemn the bombing in Damascus? I mean --
MR TONER: I’m sorry, did we condemn it?
QUESTION: There was a bombing in Damascus.
MR TONER: I’m aware of – I’m aware that there was a --
QUESTION: Okay. It was, like, 50 people were killed; they’re all pilgrims, Iraqi pilgrims.
MR TONER: I’m aware, yeah.
QUESTION: A hundred and twenty. Did you condemn that attack?
MR TONER: I’m not aware that we issued – from the State Department, we did not issue condolences but certainly --
QUESTION: Would there be any reason why you wouldn’t consider it a terror attack?
MR TONER: Certainly we express our condolences to the victims of any violent attack.
QUESTION: But you consider that to be a terrorist act? I mean, it was claimed by al-Nusrah.
MR TONER: Again, Said, I said we condemn and express our condolences, but I’m not aware we issued a statement.
QUESTION: Yes, on Iraq.
MR TONER: Let’s stay on Iraq. Let’s finish up with Iraq, guys.
QUESTION: Special Envoy McGurk was in Erbil today and he saw President Barzani. Could you give us a readout on that meeting?
MR TONER: Okay, let me take a step back because he did arrive in Baghdad on Saturday and then I’ll walk up to today. I don’t have much of a readout to provide, though, on the meeting because I think it just took place a few hours ago. But he did arrive in Baghdad on Saturday for consultations with a host of senior Iraqi leaders – that did include Prime Minister Abadi, Foreign Minister Jaafari, Defense Minister Hayali, and Parliament Speaker Jabouri – on the Mosul operation in general, but also our longer-term efforts to support Iraq’s reconstruction and stabilization post-ISIS. He was joined in his meetings by our ambassador to Iraq, Doug Silliman, as well as Lieutenant General Townsend, who is obviously leading coalition efforts on the – from Baghdad in our effort to fight against ISIS.
He also met with some members of UNDP in Iraq, and then he actually gave a press conference while he was in Baghdad and I would – I think we’ve got the transcript of that posted on our website.
He has been in Erbil today. He’s had meetings with senior leadership from the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, and that of course includes President Barzani; discussed again aspects of the Mosul campaign. He of course thanked Iraqi Kurdistan Region President Barzani for the tremendous sacrifice that Kurdish forces have made in not just liberating Mosul but other parts of Iraq that have been held by ISIS. He also commended the Iraqi Security Forces for their achievements on the battlefield. So, again, these were just, I think, efforts to – as we’ve been doing all along, just efforts to make sure that we’re very coordinated as we move through what has been a really difficult, but we believe will ultimately be a successful, campaign to liberate Mosul.
QUESTION: And do you know if in these discussions that McGurk had in Baghdad and Erbil whether there’s any more concrete notions about Mosul after the ISIS defeat, plans for Mosul?
MR TONER: In terms of what? In terms of just assistance or --
QUESTION: Well, assistance as well as the political change that President Barzani among others has said needs to occur to accommodate the wishes of the people --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- and their perspectives so that we don’t have another ISIS to fight again.
MR TONER: I mean, look, I think – we’ve talked about this before and in essence it’s what I was alluding to when I was talking – answering Barbara’s question. But it’s the fact that you can liberate a city, but unless you come in with leadership, local governance, and deal with some of the – obviously, the real issues of reestablishing infrastructure, electricity, that kind of thing, basic services, but also dealing with some of the political tensions and dynamics and addressing them with reforms, I think you’re not – then you’re not going to win the overall battle.
Part of what we need to do, and this is certainly going to be an issue that’s tackled when we have the ministerial here in a few weeks, or in a couple of weeks – the de-ISIS ministerial here – is going to be how do we look at not just defeating ISIS on the battlefield but making sure that they’re eliminated from the social fabric, that they don’t somehow – we don’t simply defeat them tactically and not defeat them online, in other spaces so that they can no longer recruit, there’s no longer people who would be swayed by their cause. And part of that is going to be how do you enact the kind of political reforms. And Iraq is already taking steps to do so. The government, we believe, has taken steps to do so but there’s more work to be done, and how do you implement the kind of political reforms that will make Iraq stable, that will make it more prosperous, and a better place for the people.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Same topic.
QUESTION: Iraq. Iraq.
MR TONER: Yeah, let’s stay there. Please.
QUESTION: Our correspondent in Iraq interviewed people who got out of Mosul, who escaped, and along with ISIL’s atrocities, they described situations where ISIL would go into people’s homes, not allow them to leave, and then airstrikes would hit the houses and – with the civilians still inside. And in November, in response to my question, you said, “We take every effort and take every precaution to avoid civilian casualties, to the point where we will choose sometimes not to take strikes against known enemy targets because they put civilians at risk.” Was it different in Mosul? Have the rules of engagement changed in any way?
QUESTION: I wouldn’t say that. With respect to – we’ve always said that and that’s – it’s absolutely clear, is that when we’re sharing information or – with the Iraqi military or whether we’re carrying out airstrikes, we do so in an effort or we try to be as precise as possible. We try to have the best intelligence and information available that we can to avoid any civilian casualties. And again, we stand – I stand by those comments that we will sometimes, if we have information that indicates that there’s civilians nearby or civilians in a place, then we will refrain from acting. Let me finish.
With respect to these specific charges, I think that’s all something that – these are the kind of allegations, if credible, that would need to be investigated, looked into, and if something – if changes need to be made in terms of targeting, then that’s something that Department of Defense would look at.
QUESTION: It appears that the airstrikes were hitting places were civilian casualties were likely.
MR TONER: I just – I’m not aware. Sure, I’m --
QUESTION: Are you saying that the rules of engagement have not changed in any way? Is the --
MR TONER: They have not changed.
QUESTION: Just one more on Iraq.
MR TONER: Let’s stay – are we done with Iraq?
QUESTION: I have a question on Iraq.
MR TONER: Okay, one more Iraq, and then I’ll go to China.
QUESTION: So just on McGurk’s visit to Erbil, local media have reported that they discussed the mounting tensions between the PKK-affiliated forces and the KRG-affiliated forces in Sinjar, and there we’ve seen some skirmishes between those forces. They’re all anti-ISIS forces. Your view, what is – does this complicate your mission against the Islamic State, that rival Kurdish forces fight against each other?
MR TONER: So there have been discussions between the Government of Iraq and the KRG with respect to western Nineveh, which is the area west of Sinjar – area around Sinjar to the west. And those discussions have focused generally on how to build stability in that particular region along the border with Syria that’s been liberated from ISIS. We’ve talked a lot about some of the complex battlespaces. We understand some of the tensions on the ground with respect to, for example, the PKK, that we believe has no place on the battlefield and we consider to be a foreign terrorist organization.
So there’s these ongoing efforts to address some of these tensions, better coordinate in the aftermath of when we liberate these areas or when the Iraqi Government and Iraqi Security Forces liberate these areas. I can say we’re very much aware of it and we’re in discussions on how to best deal with that.
QUESTION: Has the U.S. military or the United States Department of State done anything to calm those tensions down between the two forces --
MR TONER: Well, I --
QUESTION: -- or to address the problem?
MR TONER: Sure. I mean, I think we’re always looking about – we’re always talking to – and of course, Brett McGurk was just obviously in the region in the last couple of days, but we’re always in discussions with Turkey, with Iraq, and with all the players in Iraq, including Kurdish forces, about how to de-escalate tensions between these – some of these different groups with the recognition that, again, we don’t want this to escalate in any way, need to keep the focus on what everyone’s main goal should be, which is defeating ISIS.
You had China --
QUESTION: Can we stay in the region, Mark, in Syria?
MR TONER: Sure. We’ll get to you.
QUESTION: The opposition – the Syrian opposition has said that they will not attend Astana meeting tomorrow since the ceasefire was not implemented. Do you have any comment on that?
MR TONER: Well, we respect that decision. That’s their decision to make not to attend the talks. I think we’d still call on the regime and Russia and Iran to make a good-faith effort to look at ways to de-escalate the violence and, frankly, to adhere to numerous ceasefire agreements that have been put into place over the past few months. I mean, I think there was at least some hope that these talks in Astana, when they started, would potentially lead to a durable ceasefire or cessation of hostilities on the ground in Syria, one that could allow us to really concretely get the Geneva talks up and running, and that remains an obstacle. It’s the same obstacle that we faced over the past couple of years is how do we get a durable ceasefire in place. That’s the kind of the next – the key to getting to the next level in terms of a political process and a peaceful transition. We’d like to see that – we’d like to see some effort in that regard, some constructive effort in that regard come out of Astana.
QUESTION: And will this absence affect the next round of Geneva talks, do you think?
MR TONER: No, I think Geneva talks are still scheduled – I think March 24th  is the next date for them – sorry, I’m looking through here, I have the dates written in here somewhere – I think they’re still scheduled to begin. They’ve obviously already taken place without a durable ceasefire in place, the last round, of course. We just think it’s more – to have a durable, nationwide ceasefire in place would create the kind of atmosphere, the kind of environment where we believe this political process can move forward.
QUESTION: And my last one.
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: Any State Department official will attend Astana?
MR TONER: Yeah. As with previous talks, I think our U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan George Krol will be in attendance.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Mark --
QUESTION: Can we switch to China?
MR TONER: Let’s finish. You had – Michele, you wanted to move to China.
QUESTION: China – yeah, is that okay?
MR TONER: We’re not off of --
QUESTION: Is that okay? Should I --
QUESTION: Yes, yes.
MR TONER: Yeah, let’s --
QUESTION: Okay, great. So now that there’s word that – or confirmation, I should say, that the U.S. intends to station attack drones in South Korea in addition to THAAD, what effect do you think that will have on the Secretary’s talks while he’s in China? And I mean, what kind of a reaction are you expecting from the Chinese on this?
MR TONER: Well, look, with respect to the Secretary’s trip – I mean, obviously, he’s going to have an opportunity at every stop to talk about next steps or what we do now, with respect to North Korea. I mean, it’s obviously the looming challenge over our relations and, frankly, the security of the Korean Peninsula, but also increasingly the security of our allies in the region and the security of the United States, given the scale of their testing and the – frankly, the pace of their testing as well.
You mentioned drones specifically. I know that the U.S. Army has directed United States forces create and prepare for a permanent station – stationing, rather, of a Gray Eagle unmanned aerial system company at Kunsan Air Base in South Korea. This is, I think, an ongoing effort to defend the Republic of Korea and U.S. interests in order to maintain regional security, stability, and economic prosperity for the region. In addition to THAAD, these are largely – or not largely, these are defensive measures that are a response to what we – and by “we” I mean South Korea, the United States and, certainly, Japan – view as a real and credible threat to our security.
Now, I understand and, obviously, the Secretary understands that China feels differently certainly with respect to THAAD. I think part of, obviously, the discussions he’s going to have when he’s in Beijing are hopefully going to be geared towards easing some of those concerns, but also in making very clear that we’re taking these actions in an effort to deal with an increasingly – an increasing threat – I’ll put it that way – and that we have to do more, we have to look at new ideas, new ways of dealing with North Korea. So we understand there’s – everybody agrees on the challenge, which is: How do you stop North Korea’s bad behavior? There’s many ways to look at the problem, many ways to address it. I think part of this trip will be about trying to hone in on some next steps.
QUESTION: Okay, so – I mean, the U.S. has wanted China to do more --
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: -- in terms of pressure for a long time. So given the pace that you mentioned now, are you fully expecting just from this trip to see more commitment from China? And do you expect that the addition of this – like, I guess I’m getting at how big of a deal do you see THAAD in combination with the drone stationing and how China will react to that? Are you expecting to get more from China or do you think that the timing now with what the U.S. is doing in South Korea is going to slow that down despite North Korea’s pace?
MR TONER: Well, I think it’s a fair question. Again, these are very clearly defensive measures that we’re taking in response to an increasingly worrying, concerning threat from North Korea. China understands that threat. They’re not oblivious to what’s happening in North Korea with, again, the pace of the testing that’s been going on over the past six months. As I said, we differ in our view points on the way forward, but in no way are we going to back away from our, frankly, our treaty obligations to our ally, South Korea, in doing the utmost that we can do for not only the defense of our forces, but for the defense of the Korean people.
But what I think, more broadly speaking, we really do need to talk with and these talks have already – these discussions have already been going on with Secretary Tillerson and his counterpart about other ways, whether it’s – well, certainly it’s in the implementation of the existing sanctions regime, but what are next steps we can take to really put pressure on the regime to make them feel and pay a price for their behavior.
So I think all of these things are on the table; none of them are easy. If it were, then we’d have solved it long ago. But again, it’s trying to really convince a regime and a leader who doesn’t seem to care much about international pressure or international law or international norms. He’s acted in defiance of multiple UN Security Council resolutions, so how do we sway him and his regime back onto the right track and to pursue talks, credible talks, about the future of their nuclear program?
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Mark, what about – same issue.
QUESTION: One more on --
MR TONER: Sorry, you want to stay on Korea?
QUESTION: It’s actually on China.
QUESTION: A follow-up.
MR TONER: Okay, China, China.
QUESTION: We’ll stay – we’ll – go ahead, okay.
MR TONER: You don’t have to ask at the same time.
QUESTION: Yeah, in unison. So at the White House earlier today --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- Sean Spicer said – wouldn’t confirm a visit to Mar-a-Lago, but said it’s in the works, and said – and there – and the expectation is that Tillerson will lay the groundwork for a visit soon on his trip. I guess, do you have anything to say about those preparations? And then, would Secretary Tillerson join Trump in a bilateral meeting after his China consultations? Because I don’t think he’s been in a meeting with Trump and a foreign leader yet.
MR TONER: I don’t want to speak to meetings or visits that have yet to be formally announced, so – but of course, Sean was correct in his characterization that part of this trip will be – his trip to Beijing will be to, when there is this visit, is not only staging the visit and how it works and the logistics of it, but I think almost more importantly, what’s the agenda? What’s our – what are our core concerns with China, but also how can we get this relationship off on a good footing, a solid footing, a cooperative footing? Where are the areas that we can cooperate more closely with China with respect to, obviously, North Korea, but also economically and in other ways? China is a global player, and as much as we can cooperate and work with them on issues where we find common ground, it’s to the betterment of the region; but also making clear where we do have concerns about China, whether it’s a level playing field for business, American business or any business, but also with respect to human rights as well.
So, setting a positive agenda. Please, Carol.
QUESTION: About human rights in China, do you know if the Secretary has any expectation in Beijing, if he plans to discuss the situation involving the imprisonment and harassment of journalists there, and if he plans to discuss at all the role that a free and independent press can play in the country that the international community expects?
MR TONER: Sure. So I would say that these are all, obviously, concerns of his and concerns of the State Department, concerns of the U.S. Government. I’m just always wary of predicting exactly what will be on the agenda of any meeting, but I can guarantee that it is a concern, and I said as much just now in responding to Felicia that we recognize there are challenges there. Human rights is one of those challenges and --
QUESTION: And the press?
MR TONER: -- freedom of press – and freedom of press is an essential part of that.
QUESTION: Mark, is it --
QUESTION: And if --
MR TONER: It’s okay.
QUESTION: And if he flies there without a regular member of the State Department press corps traveling with him, do you feel that this might send a message that might be contrary to that?
MR TONER: Well, that’s not what we would intend to – a message we would intend to send. Look, I think the fact that, I think, some 20 members of the press are going to be meeting us, or even more, at various stops along the way, and we’re going to accommodate those individuals and crews and make sure they have access, and I also believe the Secretary is going to give a press availability when he’s in Tokyo, sends the right message, which is that we respect and want to work transparently with the media.
QUESTION: Same issue, follow-up.
MR TONER: Do you want to stay on China? Finish that out, and then we’ll get back – yeah. China too?
QUESTION: On North Korea.
MR TONER: Got it. Yes, please.
QUESTION: North Korea.
MR TONER: Oh, North Korea, sorry.
MR TONER: You pulled me away from China. Clever.
QUESTION: China and North Korea, whatever, they're all same issues.
MR TONER: I’ll get to you. I know, I know, they’re all --
QUESTION: There is reporting that North Korea will be conducting next – new six – the nuclear test soon. Do you have any information on that?
MR TONER: I don’t, and I wouldn’t be able to share that with you. I think, though – I mean, I wouldn’t get into intelligence, obviously, and our assessment – intelligence assessments, but I think you could be, frankly, a casual follower of the region and look at North Korea’s track record over the past six months and anticipate that they’re going to continue along that roadmap until either they can be convinced otherwise or otherwise persuaded to engage in a denuclearization.
QUESTION: But very soon – they say sooner or later they’re going to do another test, so your intelligence should have (inaudible) --
MR TONER: Well, exactly. I mean, look, we want them to come to the table in a serious effort to address concerns about their nuclear program. And until they do that --
QUESTION: Yeah. Another one. Will the United States reassign the North Korea as a terrorist country?
MR TONER: What’s that? I’m sorry, I apologize.
QUESTION: North Korea as a terrorist country, U.S. will put in the North Korea --
MR TONER: Again, that’s a designation – I don’t want to get into this because I’ve taken flak for this when I’ve talked about this process – that’s a very deliberate process to designate a state sponsor of terror, and I’d have to have lawyers actually walk through how that’s designated, but it’s a very specific evaluation or criteria that goes into that kind of designation. But I can say – without that determination, I can say that North Korea is a destabilizing player in the region and increasingly so.
QUESTION: Mark --
QUESTION: Mark --
QUESTION: Does the Secretary want China to do more to counter the North Korean threat?
MR TONER: Yes. I mean, we’re always cognizant of China’s influence over North Korea and we’re always encouraging it to play a more forceful role in that regard, whether it’s through a more thorough implementation of the sanctions regime that exists or through other ways. And so that’s a leverage that China brings to the table and that’s certainly something we want to see them take more advantage of.
QUESTION: Does – given China’s objections to THAAD being deployed to South Korea and now these armed drones, and with Japan announcing they’re going to sail a large warship in the South China Sea, how does Secretary Tillerson expect to get anything done with regard to North Korea on this trip?
MR TONER: Well, I think, again – I mean, there’s a few issues to unpack in that. One is – has to do with freedom of navigation. That’s a rule we hold sacrosanct, as do many countries around the world. But I think what the Chinese certainly can take away from that is that there’s real concern with respect to North Korea and its behavior. And this isn’t – we need to look at fresh ways of how to deal with this challenge because thus far, we’ve been unable to persuade them either through UN action, through sanctions, whatever. So I think we need to look at new possibilities. But any part of dealing with that threat is to take prudent action to the defense of our allies and that’s what’s behind THAAD, that’s what’s behind these drones.
QUESTION: And is it a challenging time right now to be a diplomat with the State Department’s budget getting cut, yet the military is planning a large buildup?
MR TONER: It’s always a challenging time to be a diplomat. (Laughter.) I mean, it is, but – no, Lucas, I mean, I think – first of all, I don’t want to get into too many specifics about the budget because we’re still in early days, but – I talked a little bit about this last week. I think there’s an opportunity here at the beginning of a new administration to reassess how we’re spending our taxpayer dollars here and whether they’re focused on the right priorities, how we can do a better job. I think any organization, any bureaucracy can probably look at ways to trim some fat or to reorganize, to operate more effectively. And that’s something that Secretary Tillerson’s very much involved in doing, but at the same time recognizing that he needs to make sure, and it’s partly his job to ensure, that this building gets the money – and our posts, more importantly, overseas get the money and resources they need.
QUESTION: Mark --
MR TONER: One or two more questions, guys. Yes, I’m sorry, please. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Can you just tell us a little bit about how the Secretary is preparing for this visit? Obviously, he’s been to the region before --
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: -- in his previous jobs, but can you talk about how he’s preparing for this visit? And then also, is anyone from the White House traveling with him to any of the countries?
MR TONER: No, there will be no one from the White House with him on this trip. He will obviously be traveling with acting Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton. He will – I mean, he obviously – I mentioned at the top of the briefing he did meet with ASEAN leaders on Friday, again, to get their ideas, to hear from them what their thoughts – what he should be looking for and asking about in his trip. And he’s also already had meetings in Bonn and also here in Washington, D.C. with senior Chinese leadership as well as foreign ministers from Korea – Republic of South – of Korea and as well as Japanese foreign minister. So I think he’s already got a pretty good basis and he’s heard a lot of their viewpoints already, but I think, as I said, given concern over North Korea’s actions, I think he really wants to come – rather – really wants to try to drill down on that challenge for this trip. But let’s not also ignore the other 800-pound gorilla in the room here, which is our trade relations with the region. It’s hugely important. I mean, these are valuable trading partners, and that’s another thing that’s going to be discussed is how do we look at trade issues, how do we foster more productive bilateral trade relations with these countries, and that includes, obviously, China.
QUESTION: Mark (inaudible) way in the back?
QUESTION: Mark --
MR TONER: Yeah, Michelle. And then two more questions, guys. I’m sorry, I have to run. I apologize.
QUESTION: The United Nations has confirmed that it’s looking for two officials with the panel of experts, including American Michael Sharp. Wondering what you can tell me about the circumstances about that disappearance. Is this a kidnapping? And the other question is whether – there is this U.S. envoy on hostages – or hostage situations. Does that position still exist, and does this case rise to that?
MR TONER: Well, we are aware – you’re talking about, I think, in the Democratic Republic of Congo?
MR TONER: We’re aware of reports of a U.S. citizen who was reported missing in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I will not be very forthcoming because we’re still trying to get more specifics about the case; so I won’t be mentioning the individual’s name. I’m somewhat restrained in what I can talk about except to say that we obviously take the security and welfare of American citizens abroad very seriously. We’re watching this case very closely. We’re working with local authorities to try to find out more information. We’re also in touch with the UN as well.
With respect to your second question, it was about the hostage --
QUESTION: Right. You have – you had a whole office here working on those issues. Does it still exist?
MR TONER: That office – to my understanding, that office is still up and running and still involved in this – is involved in any situation where there’s a U.S. citizen or an American citizen who’s been kidnapped or held hostage overseas. Again, with respect to this particular incident, I don’t want to – we’re aware of reports that he’s missing, this individual’s missing. I don’t want to lean too far forward until we’ve really gotten a better factual basis to talk about it.
QUESTION: Mark, India –
QUESTION: Has Obama --
MR TONER: One more question, guys. I’m sorry to cut this off.
QUESTION: Has Obama’s appointee left the --
MR TONER: Felicia and then John, and then last one.
QUESTION: In reference to Michelle’s question, the Obama appointee who was the envoy, has he left?
MR TONER: I’ll have to take the question. I don’t know. I’ll have to find out.
QUESTION: I think he has left.
MR TONER: I think he has, too, but I don’t want to speak incorrectly.
Go ahead, John.
QUESTION: Mohammed bin Salman is --
MR TONER: I’ll have to take Felicia’s question.
QUESTION: Mohammed bin Salman’s meeting with some White House officials. Is --
MR TONER: I missed the first part of your question.
QUESTION: MBS, Mohammed bin Salman is meeting with White House officials.
MR TONER: Oh, yeah, of course.
QUESTION: Is he meeting with anybody from the State Department?
MR TONER: I’m not sure. I’ll take the question as well.
QUESTION: On the visit of – on the meeting with the Saudi foreign minister --
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: -- with Secretary Tillerson, it’s been widely reported in the region that Secretary Tillerson was instrumental in facilitating the visit of Adel al-Jubeir to Iraq a couple weeks ago. Could you comment on that? What – has he been instrumental in that regard? Has he been – he convinced the Iraqis to receive and the Saudis to go?
MR TONER: Well, you’re right, that was an important and constructive visit. I don’t really want to speak to any possible role that he may have played or we may have played in establishing that visit except to say that we’re close partners with Saudi Arabia, and obviously, close partners with the Government of Iraq, and whatever the Secretary – what we can do as a Department of State to foster stronger regional cooperation, we’re going to do so.
MR TONER: Thanks, guys.
QUESTION: One on Saudi Arabia.
MR TONER: That’s it.
Correction: The talks are March 23, 2017.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:54 p.m.)
DPB # 13
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