Sung Kim, Acting Assistant Secretary Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs
MR ICE: Thank you, Operator, and good morning, everyone, or good afternoon, depending on where you are. I really appreciate you joining us today. We have with us U.S. Special Representative for the DPRK, Ambassador Sung Kim, who is on the line with us.
We’re very glad to have Special Representative Kim with us today, who’s going to tell you more about U.S. efforts to engage the DPRK in diplomacy, their most recent ballistic missile launches, and he’ll probably talk a little bit about his recent travel to Seoul.
Ambassador Kim is going to open with some remarks and then we’ll take a few of your questions.
I would like to take this opportunity to remind everyone that the contents of our briefing today is U.S. policy toward the DPRK. We ask you all to hew to that topic. I’ll also mention that while we are on the record with this conversation with Ambassador Kim, the contents of this briefing are embargoed until the end of the call.
Okay. And with that, very happy to turn it over to Special Representative Kim. Sir, over to you.
AMBASSADOR KIM: Great. Thank you very much, JT. Good morning, everyone.
On June 5, the DPRK launched eight ballistic missiles from various parts of the country, which would be the largest number of ballistic missiles ever launched in a single day by the DPRK.
North Korea has now launched 31 ballistic missiles in 2022, the most ballistic missiles it has ever launched in a single year, surpassing its previous record of 25 in 2019. And it’s only June.
In addition to launching an unprecedented number of ballistic missiles, the DPRK’s senior officials have used rhetoric that could suggest the use of tactical nuclear weapons. We also assess that the DPRK is preparing to conduct a seventh nuclear test.
We’re also preparing for a UN General Assembly debate on the DPRK on Wednesday, June 8th. The debate is being held because two members vetoed a resolution the United States introduced in response to the DPRK’s series of ballistic missile launches this year, including ICBMs launched on March 24 and May 25. The veto blocked the will of the rest of council members and prevented the council from carrying out its responsibilities.
Since the announcement of our DPRK policy review last spring, the United States has always been very clear – we seek dialogue with Pyongyang without preconditions. We continue to remain committed to diplomacy, even as the DPRK launches an unprecedented number of ballistic missiles. We have also been clear that we will seek to cooperate on humanitarian issues, regardless of the status of WMD-related discussions.
To demonstrate our sincerity, senior U.S. officials, including our President and the Secretary of State, have repeatedly and publicly affirmed that we seek diplomacy with the DPRK without preconditions.
We have also reached out to pass this message through private channels as well. This includes high-level personal messages from senior U.S. officials to senior DPRK officials.
Over the past year, we have sent such messages in multiple ways – through third parties, directly, in writing – and have also included specific proposals, including regarding humanitarian cooperation and COVID-19-related assistance. We have also emphasized our willingness to have conversations about practical steps both sides could take to address the security situation in the region.
To reinforce all these messages, Washington has also encouraged our allies, partners, and others, including the PRC, to convey our openness to diplomacy with the DPRK and to press Pyongyang to connect with the United States.
However, to date, the DPRK has not responded and continues to show no indication it is interested in engaging. Instead, we have seen a marked increase in the scope and scale of their ballistic missile tests, brazenly flaunting – flouting the international rules-based order and unnecessarily increasing regional tension. They have launched an unprecedented number of ballistic missiles, even in the midst of what appears to be a severe COVID-19 outbreak.
Even so, we continue to reach out to the DPRK and are committed to pursuing a diplomatic approach. The United States harbors no hostile intent towards the DPRK. We are prepared to meet without preconditions, and we call on the DPRK to engage in serious and sustained diplomacy.
With that, happy to take questions.
MR ICE: Thank you, Ambassador Kim. With that, I think we’ll turn to our first question. Let’s go to the line of Matt Lee. Morning, Matt.
QUESTION: Ambassador, one, just a quick logistical – sorry, can you hear me?
MR ICE: Yeah. We can hear you, Matt.
QUESTION: Okay. Sorry. One quick logistical question, which is are you back? Are you back in Washington now or are you still on the road?
AMBASSADOR KIM: I’m actually in Jakarta right now.
QUESTION: You’re – (laughter) – in Jakarta. Okay. And can I ask why? And then my substantive question on North Korea has to do with whether – these outreaches, these – that you guys have made over the course of the last year or so, has there been anything recent that you can speak to that has – that you think is significant that the North Koreans have ignored? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR KIM: Thanks very much, Matt. Why Jakarta is that I am continuing to serve concurrently as the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, so after I traveled to Washington a couple of weeks ago, stopped in Seoul for discussions with my Korean and Japanese counterparts past couple of days, and now I’m back in Indonesia.
In terms of outreaches, we have continued to make outreaches through different channels. I would say most recent one would be our offer to discuss possible cooperation on humanitarian issues, including COVID cooperation.
MR ICE: Very good. Let’s go to the line of Kylie Atwood. Morning, Kylie.
QUESTION: Hello. Thank you for doing this, Ambassador. Just to follow up on Matt’s question there, can you be a little bit more specific about when that COVID cooperation outreach was? Was it in the last month or two? Can you just give us a rough timeframe for when that happened?
And then my second question is the Biden administration continues to say that you guys are prepared to meet North Korea without preconditions; you guys are committed to a diplomatic approach. How – does that commitment have an end date by which you will have to seek a different approach, given just how many missile tests we’ve seen and, of course, concerns about them continuing to build and test their nuclear capabilities? Thanks.
AMBASSADOR KIM: Thanks, Kylie. In terms of the timing of our outreach regarding possible cooperation on COVID, that was conveyed almost as soon as they made public their COVID outbreak. So I would say – guess it’s definitely within the past month or so, because we want to make clear that we continue to separate humanitarian issues from other developmental concerns, and we would like to offer cooperation in helping them deal with the COVID situation.
On the timeline for a commitment to a diplomatic approach, there is no end date for that. I think we will continue to remain committed to pursuing, via the diplomatic path, to pursue the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and to address issues of concern to both sides.
I should mention that, I mean, even as we remain committed to diplomacy, I mean, we are continuing to do other things to make sure that we are protecting ourselves as well as our allies. That, of course, includes maintaining strong deterrent capability, together with the Republic of Korea and Japan; also includes working on sanctions to make sure that countries are actually enforcing UN Security Council resolution sanctions in place, as well as unilateral sanctions that are out there.
So it’s all to say a multipronged approach, but we don’t have an artificial timeline on when our commitment to diplomacy would end.
MR ICE: Let’s go to the line now of Jacob Fromer.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks. Can you hear me okay?
MR ICE: We can hear you, Jacob.
AMBASSADOR KIM: Yes.
QUESTION: Thanks. I have two quick questions. First, the U.S. Government often cites North Korea as an area where the U.S. and China can work together, despite a lot of tensions in other areas, and so I just wanted to ask if that’s still the case. Do you still see China as a reliable partner on this issue?
And then my second question is that there’s been some reporting that the COVID outbreak in the North Korean capital came after a big military parade that they had this spring, and I’m just wondering, are you seeing any signs that Kim Jong-un has lost any amount of political support within the country because of that? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR KIM: Thanks, Jacob. We continue to believe that China has an important role to play and that they continue to share our ultimate objective of the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. We also believe that it’s in China’s interest to make sure that North Korea refrains from actions that are destabilizing on the peninsula and beyond.
I guess if you look at what happened in the UN Security Council with China and Russia vetoing the latest resolution – an indication that we are not receiving the kind of cooperation that we would like to have from China – but at the same time, we do believe, as you noted in the question, that this is an area for cooperation between the U.S. and China. There are shared interests and goals here. It’s hard for me to imagine that Beijing would actually want North Korea to continue to provoke, violate multiple Security Council resolutions, and destabilize the region. So we hope that China will be more forthcoming in working with us to deal with the situation on the peninsula.
On COVID, I mean, as they announced publicly, the COVID situation appears to be quite serious. I mean, we don’t have any information on whether that has led to any political problems for the leadership there, but we do believe that the situation is serious, and that’s why we have offered to cooperate with them in helping them deal with the situation.
MR ICE: Let’s now go to the line of Ryohei Takagi at Kyodo News.
QUESTION: Can you hear me?
MR ICE: Yes, we can hear you, Ryohei.
QUESTION: I have two quick questions. Thank you so much for taking my question, Ambassador Kim. One is the possible nuclear test, and another one is UN Security Council resolution sanctions.
On possible nuclear test, as you said, you assess the DPRK is preparing for another nuclear test soon. And State Department Spokesperson Ned Price also said yesterday DPRK could seek another nuclear test in the coming days. So is there any specific indication that North Korea’s nuclear test is imminent?
And on UN Security Council resolution sanctions, Russia and China’s veto encouraged North Korea to do another provocative actions like a ballistic missile test because it didn’t have any outcome, and in addition it showed everybody the deep division of the UN Security Council. So just – could you help us understand why it was necessary for the United States to take a vote at the time? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR KIM: Great, and thank you, (inaudible). I don’t have any specific information about the exact timing of the possible nuclear test. We know that the North Koreans have done preparations for a nuclear test, and we will be obviously vigilant and we will be in close touch with our allies and partners to be able to respond very quickly, very swiftly should the North Koreans proceed with the nuclear test.
On UN Security Council resolutions, we and our partners felt very strongly that it was important for there to be a response in the UN context. Inasmuch as North Korea’s series of missile – ballistic missile tests are a clear violation of multiple Security Council resolutions, we thought it was important for us to speak. And as you saw in the vote, with the exception of China and Russia, everybody else in the council agreed with us.
I mean, it was very unfortunate that China and Russia chose to veto the resolution. And one of the concerns is, just as you suggested in your question, that when the DPRK sees that the council is unable to respond together, it might in fact encourage them to take further provocative actions and further violations of Security Council resolutions. So we will hear from China and Russia tomorrow. They have an opportunity to explain why they vetoed the resolution when the General Assembly meets tomorrow, and hopefully we’ll have some sense of why they chose to take that action.
MR ICE: Let’s next go to the line of Francesco Fontemaggi with AFP.
QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?
MR ICE: Yeah, we can hear you, Francesco.
QUESTION: Hi. Hi – Ambassador, thank you. I was wondering – you said that you would be ready with a swift response to any nuclear test that you guys seem to be bracing for. Can you just give us a sense of what form could that response take? Do you think there is any chance that the situation at the Security Council would change if there is a nuclear test, or what would you guys do? And also, would you still be as ready as you are now to dialogue and engagement with North Korea after a seventh nuclear test? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR KIM: Thanks very much, Francesco. So a very important aspect to us responding to a possible nuclear test is going to be our very close coordination and communication with our allies and partners, especially with the ROK and Japan. I don’t want to go into details of what specific measures we would undertake, but it will be in very close cooperation with our allies and partners. And I do expect that there would be a UN Security Council aspect to it inasmuch as the nuclear test is also a violation of multiple Security Council resolutions.
Other question is whether we would still be committed to dialogue should a nuclear test happen. Now, I don’t want to speculate on hypothetical situations, but I think the President and the Secretary and other senior officials have made clear that we are deeply committed to finding a diplomatic path forward. And so we will look for any opening to make meaningful progress on denuclearization and other issues of concern to us.
MR ICE: We have time for a few more questions. Let’s go to the line of Soyoung Kim at RFA.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for taking my question. As an extended question for a possible COVID assistance to North Korea, the proposals you said you reach out to North Korea through a private channel, does it include any vaccine, like a U.S. vaccine – providing U.S. vaccines such as, like, Moderna or Pfizer, which is believed that North Korea might prefer?
AMBASSADOR KIM: Thank you, Ms. Kim. So we have offered to discuss possible COVID-related cooperation with the DPRK. Because we haven’t had the discussion with them, we don’t have details of what we would be able to provide. But I do think at this point we’re openminded about what type of assistance or cooperation we can be offering.
And of course, in terms of vaccines, it doesn’t necessarily have to be from the United States bilaterally. It could be through COVAX, which has in fact done a very good job of distributing vaccines globally.
So I think we’re openminded about what type of cooperation we could offer, but so far the DPRK has shown no interest in engaging us on this particular aspect also.
MR ICE: And let’s now go to the line of Sho Watanabe at Nippon TV.
QUESTION: Thank you so much, but my question have already been asked by other reporters. Thank you.
MR ICE: Very good. Okay. Let’s go to the line of Kristina Anderson.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) this today. My question is about the potential impact on our outreach to North Korea – as you call it, the DPRK – and the – given the global food insecurity situation that’s developing and whether there might be an opening there as well. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR KIM: Thank you, Kristina. Can you repeat the first part of your question, when you started “the potential effect of,” then I didn’t hear you.
QUESTION: Yes. I’m curious about the global food insecurity, the global food crisis that’s developing, and how that might impact relations with North Korea, whether we might have an opportunity there to try to outreach with additional resources there in a kind of food diplomacy. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR KIM: Yeah, no, thank you very much. When we offered to discuss possible humanitarian cooperation, we expected that food assistance might be a part of it. And we’re openminded, as I said, about what type of humanitarian assistance, cooperation we might be able to offer. But the main thing is for the DPRK to let us know that they are in fact interested in working with us in dealing with the humanitarian situation on the ground, including the COVID-19 outbreak and possible food shortage difficulties that they face.
MR ICE: All right. And let’s go to the line of Ethan Jewell.
QUESTION: Yeah, hi. So on Tuesday in Seoul, Wendy Sherman said that there will be a, quote, “swift and forceful response” if North Korea tests a nuclear weapon. Can you elaborate what that response may be? And second, just very quickly, I know you touched on the timing of the nuclear test, but a specific South Korean outlet citing an unnamed government official said on Tuesday that North Korea is likely to conduct a nuclear test on Friday. And I was wondering if this is an assessment that Washington shares. Thank you.
AMBASSADOR KIM: Thanks very much, Ethan. I don’t have much more beyond what the deputy secretary said in Seoul. I think, as she indicated, we will be swift and forceful in our response, and we will coordinate very closely with the ROK, Japan, and other – and our other partners in responding to a possible nuclear test. We will be responsive and appropriate to this possible provocation. I do think it will have different aspects to it. It will not be just a singular response. But we will work closely with our partners and allies, and we will try to be as swift as possible and make a very clear, clear response that a nuclear test is unacceptable to us and to the international community.
On timing, I don’t have anything more. They’ve obviously done the preparations in Punggye-ri and my understanding is that they could test any time, but whether that’s Friday or much later on, who knows? I mean, obviously, our hope is that they will refrain from a nuclear test, which would be terribly destabilizing to the entire region.
MR ICE: Okay, and coming toward the end here, let’s go to the line of Joel Gehrke.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. Wanted to ask a sort of – a question by analogy a little bit. It’s striking to hear the North Koreans just conducting these tests and referring so openly to tactical nuclear weapons, while in Ukraine, of course, we’re watching the Russians conduct a war of aggression very openly under the umbrella of a – of their tactical nuclear threats. I wonder: Do you think that North Korean behavior, this new moment of North Korean behavior, is informed at all or influenced at all by what they’re seeing in Europe?
And then following on to that, do you have anything to offer North Korea that would go beyond what the Trump administration was willing to offer when those talks fell apart on the one hand? And on the other hand, if you don’t, do you envision any security steps that the U.S. can take that counteract or offset the capabilities the North Koreans are now displaying? Thank you.
AMBASSADOR KIM: Thanks very much. Having worked on this issue for probably too long now, I’m always cautious about speculating on what’s influencing the DPRK leadership’s decision making. So I don’t know, honestly, whether some of their brazen activities and statements this spring are influenced by developments, external developments, including what’s happening in Ukraine. All I can say is that we have made very clear to them that we are open to finding a meaningful diplomatic path forward, and that we hope that they will refrain from provocative actions and return to the table to discuss with us.
In terms of what we can offer, I mean, I think what we’ve made clear to them is that we are willing to address issues of concern to them. Whether we find those issues to be legitimate or not, we are willing to sit down with them and give them an opportunity to explain their position and see if there’s a way for us to address their concerns. I’m not sure if it’s particularly productive to further compare what was on the table during the Trump administration to what we’re willing to do now, but I think the main point is that we’re willing to take a more comprehensive, more flexible, and more openminded approach to diplomacy if and when the DPRK shows interest in finding a diplomatic path forward.
And then at the same time, as I mentioned earlier, I mean, we are going to continue to work on making sure that our deterrent capabilities, together with our allies ROK and Japan, are what it needs to be to deal with all contingencies on the peninsula. And I’m quite confident that this NATO Alliance with both the ROK and Japan are very strong, and there is no ambiguity about our commitment to defending our allies. And I sense tremendous commitment on the part of both Seoul and Tokyo to work with us to make sure that we have what we need to defend ourselves and defend our allies.
MR ICE: And with that, ladies and gentlemen, unfortunately, we’re at the end of our time today. I do want to take this opportunity to thank you for joining us. We very much appreciate you having with us today. And then also a very special thank you to our briefer today, Special Representative Sung Kim. Thank you, Ambassador Kim, for joining us. With that —
AMBASSADOR KIM: Thanks, JT.
MR ICE: (Laughter.) Thanks, again. With that, our briefing is concluded and the embargo is lifted. Have a good rest of your day.