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Press Gaggle by Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes Aboard Air Force One En Route Seoul, Republic of Korea

Aboard Air Force One
En Route Seoul, Republic of Korea

11:25 A.M. KST

MR. CARNEY:  Good morning, everyone.  Thanks for joining us aboard Air Force One as we make our way from Tokyo to Seoul.  I have with me today Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes, who can take questions along with me on any subject under the sun. 

With that, I turn it over to you for questions.

Q    I wonder whether, Ben, you could characterize the late negotiations on the trade deal and give us a sense for how much progress you think you made.

MR. RHODES:  So as you saw in the joint statement that we issued, we believe that together the United States and Japan have identified a path forward to deal with our bilateral issues in the negotiation.  And we believe that that progress is sufficient, that it both creates that path bilaterally but will also give momentum to the regional negotiation, given how much the bilateral issues between the United States and Japan have been a focal point for moving the agreement forward. 

So we were very pleased with the progress that was made.  This was negotiated around the clock during our time in Japan.  It was a focus of the President’s engagements with Prime Minister Abe.  And again, we believe that we have worked through some very difficult issues and that because of that work there is a clear pathway to resolve our bilateral issues with Japan and to give momentum to the broader regional agreement.

Q    Looking ahead to the South Korea stop -- I know this is actually tomorrow or whatever day we're on now -- but can you just talk about the military briefing that he’s going to have and the remarks after, what the goal of that is?

MR. RHODES:  I think, first of all, obviously we come here at a time when there has been provocative language from North Korea, and it's important for us to show complete solidarity with our ally, the Republic of Korea, in standing up to those provocations.  It's also important to highlight the close cooperation and interoperability of our forces that work together, again, not just to be vigilant against the North Korean threat but also to cooperate on regional security.

We'll also be discussing trilateral defense cooperation that we're seeking to foster between the United States, Japan and the Republic of Korea, which was a subject at the President’s trilateral meeting in The Hague and his conversations with Prime Minister Abe.  So the President will be briefed, along with President Park, by the head of the Combined Forces Command.  And then, of course, in addition to discussing our vigilance on the Korean Peninsula, he will also be able to thank our servicemembers for all that they do. 

The only last thing I'd say is we have offered our assistance with respect to the ferry accident, and so, again, he'll have a chance to emphasize once more his condolences to the Korean people and also the fact that we continue to stand ready to provide whatever assistance we can through our naval assets and other assets we can bring to bear as the Korean government deals with a very difficult situation.

Q    On the trilateral relationship, how would you characterize Japan’s readiness to take efforts towards repairing relations with Seoul not just military but also diplomatic, like the Yasukuni Shrine visits?

MR. RHODES:  So what we've seen is good progress in this area since the trilateral meeting in The Hague -- the President was able to bring the leaders together.  Then following on those discussions, there have been working-level discussions at the trilateral level and there’s a sincere willingness on both sides to build out that cooperation.

Clearly there are very sensitive historical issues that continue to be acutely important to the people of the Republic of Korea.  At the same time, there have been, I think, some constructive statements in recent weeks by Prime Minister Abe about upholding the apologies that have been made with respect to comfort women and to pursue a dialogue with the South Koreans on that issue.  Our hope is that that dialogue could lead to further healing associated with these issues and that we also can recognize our shared interest in moving forward with trilateral cooperation in Northeast Asia.

And we've done that, of course, through things like military exercises; also when Secretary Hagel was here, he talked about these issues, moved some assets into the region that will be important to the defense of Northeast Asia.  So, again, we expect it to be a topic of conversation in the bilateral meeting with President Park.

Q    Can I ask a broader question just about this trip and particularly looking forward to other stops, such as Malaysia, which is that a lot of the rebalancing effort has focused on the economic and the security elements of this relationship that the U.S. has with the region.  Can you talk a little about what sort of -- when it comes to values, human rights, cultural connections, how do you see what the President is articulating, particularly as he goes to countries where there are issues around this?

MR. RHODES:  Well, I'd say a number of things.  First of all, there’s a people-to-people component.  And even in Japan yesterday you saw that highlighted.  Both the President and the Prime Minister went out of their way to lift up the education exchanges, the science and technological cooperation, which really does matter a lot to the people of the region and is something where there’s huge demand for cooperation. 

On issues related to respect for civil society and universal values that the United States stands for, that will obviously be a theme at each stop.  In Korea, I would expect that the President will be talking about those issues and drawing a stark comparison between the situation in North Korea and the situation in South Korea, and the latest revelations and the U.N. report of an outrageous pattern of human rights abuses in North Korea will certainly be a topic of conversation.  And I think the President will say that there’s no place in the world where one can see more clearly the difference between an open society that respects human rights and a closed society that violates them than Korea.

In Malaysia, I'd say a couple things.  First of all, the President will be launching this initiative focused on young Southeast Asian leaders.  And what this aims to do is bring together at this town hall meeting, but then beyond that town hall meeting, young people from all 10 ASEAN countries in a series of exchanges with the United States.  We've done this in Africa with the Young African Leaders Initiative, where we work with people on issues like civil society, entrepreneurship, forging networks, giving opportunities for educational exchanges.

So this increases people-to-people ties between the United States and the ASEAN countries and also allows us to focus on areas like civil society, entrepreneurship, public service where we believe young people will ultimately determine the future of this region given that there’s such a big youth bulge.

In Malaysia, the President will also be meeting with a number of leading civil society activists to underscore our support for civil society in Malaysia.  Of course, we've had some concerns at times over restrictions on civil society, so he'll have an opportunity to not just speak to that but also to hear from some of these individual leaders.

Susan Rice will also be meeting with a number of opposition figures, including Anwar, in Malaysia.

And then, of course, in the Philippines, they’ve made good progress particularly in an area of anticorruption, and there I think the President will be able to talk about the connection between sound democratic governance and anticorruption and economic growth, because cracking down on corruption not just accelerates and deepens democratic governance, but it also facilitates economic growth.  And we've seen that in countries like the Philippines. 

Q    And on North Korea, can I just ask quickly -- obviously the President met with the comfort women.  Prime Minister Abe pressed for a push in the U.N. on those human rights abuses in North Korea.  Do you see any concrete steps the U.S. is going to take going forward?

MR. RHODES:  I think it's something that we're in ongoing consultations with the Japanese about.  Yesterday’s discussion really wasn’t a policy one; it was more for a chance for the President to hear directly from families of these abductees, hear their stories.  And I think we're going to continue to support the Japanese in different ways as they seek to resolve these issues.

Of course, even as we have nuclear concerns on the Korean Peninsula, we have grave human rights concerns, and we'll be addressing that going forward with the Japanese.

Q    Thank you very much.

11:34 A.M. KST

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