Press Gaggle by Senior Administration Official on Director Clapper's Trip to North Korea
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Beijing, China
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Director Clapper just arrived back at McChord Joint Base in Washington state with Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller. He went with the sole purpose of bringing home the two remaining Americans who were in custody in North Korea. That was the only purpose of his trip. It was not to pursue any other diplomatic opening. But as you know, we recently were able to recover the other American who had been held in North Korea and we became aware of the opportunity to recover the final two Americans in custody with Director Clapper’s trip.
So the President approved that mission last week and we prepared for several days. And then Director Clapper flew out and was on the ground long enough to retrieve the two Americans and fly them home. But happy to take any Questions you guys have.
Q. Did the Director meet with Kim Jong Un or other North Korean leaders while he was there?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He did not meet with Kim Jong Un but he met with a number of North Korean security officials. And, again, I think we’ll have a more complete picture when we’re able to have further debriefs with Director Clapper but he did not meet with Kim Jong Un.
Q. Is it your interpretation that there’s a linkage to the timing of the President’s trip?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We can’t say for certain what drove the timing. We’ve obviously been making clear to the North Koreans, publicly and privately, that we’d like to resolve the cases of the remaining Americans. And so this is something that came together over the last several weeks. And so we can’t gauge exactly why they chose to do this now but it’s a positive step clearly that they released these Americans, allowed them to return home to their families.
The President is very thankful that the families have been reunited now. At the same time, our concerns with North Korea remain exactly the same with respect to the need for denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula so while this addresses an important irritant in our relationship, it certainly doesn’t address the underlying concerns we have about their nuclear program.
Q. Do you know how long he was on the ground for?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’d have to get you the exact time but it was roughly –- it was in the neighborhood of a day but we can get you the exact time.
Q. Did the North Koreans specify, like, we want Clapper as opposed to one of our Cabinet officials to come?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They wanted a senior American official to come and Director Clapper we felt was the right person, given his background on the Korean Peninsula, where he has focused on throughout his career. And the fact that he’s a security official –- we felt that that was appropriate, given that this wasn’t going to be a diplomatic effort. This wasn’t going to be an opportunity to pursue discussions on nuclear issues but rather a very specific mission related to bringing home these Americans. So sending a senior intelligence official we felt was the right fit.
Q. You say you went over with the sole purpose of bringing back these two Americans, but do you know if other topics came up -–
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We certainly expect -- that the North Koreans to bring up other topics so it’s certainly likely that other topics came up. Again, Director Clapper’s posture was simply to reiterate our strong position that North Korea needs to meet its commitments, denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. So, again, I think we’ll learn more as we -–
Q. Did you press that upon them?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, we’ll learn more as we debrief with him but his posture was certainly simply to underscore the importance of North Korea living up to its commitments to denuclearize the Peninsula. I’d also add that we, in advance of Director Clapper’s trip, briefed Japan and South Korea about the purpose of the trip. We’ve been – also, we’ve been in touch with China and a range of other partners. We briefed relevant members of Congress before the trip as well. We wanted to make clear to our partners and to members of Congress what the purpose of his trip was.
And what this is, is a very uniQ. ue opportunity to bring home two Americans, including one –- Kenneth Bae -– who has been in North Korea for a number of years. And this is certainly a good and happy day for those families and for President Obama and everybody who has worked for the release of these Americans.
Q. Is there a definitive signal that allowed this to go? Or was there a series of things that –- what triggered you guys knowing that this was something that could actually happen?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it was having some degree of assurance that the trip would succeed in bringing home the Americans. And so we got very positive signals from North Korea that such a visit would result in these two Americans being released. And, again, the President’s view is if we have an opportunity to bring two Americans home, reunite with them their families, remove the final Americans who are in detention in North Korea, that that’s an opportunity we should take.
Q. Is there anything more on this note from the President signifying he was kind of the emissary? Was that a handwritten note? Did it have any kind of message to -–
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It was a brief letter that simply stated that Director Clapper was traveling as the President’s personal envoy with the expressed purpose of bringing these two Americans home. It did not go into detail about other subjects. It was simply –
Q. It was to Kim Jong Un?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. It was simply to identify Director Clapper as the President’s envoy and express the purpose of his visit being to bring our two Americans home. It was short and to the particular point and, again, did not enter into detailed discussion about other matters of policy.
Q. Was there any other discussion prior to Clapper going about other officials? Because I remember in the past the U.S. has offered up people and there have been refrains of something like that’s not good enough.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, I mean, there had been some consideration of other officials or people outside of government. Clearly, what became apparent was this would be -– well, for instance, you remember in the past people like Bill Clinton have gone, but it became apparent that we would have the best chance of success at bringing the two Americans home if we sent a government official, a U.S. government official rather than going through a Track Two or external figures.
So that led us to look at –- go from within the U.S. government, and Director Clapper we felt was the best fit as a senior official, as someone who could clearly represent the President but someone who came from a security background and not someone who would be in the more diplomatic realm because we did not want to indicate that this was a broader discussion. We wanted to keep it focused on the issue of the detained Americans.
Q. The U.S. proposed his name as, how about Clapper –- I mean, they didn’t specifically say, like, this is the official -–
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, it was a U.S. decision to send Director Clapper.
Q. You said the President was informed and approved of the plan and then it took several days to –-
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, several days to plan the logistics. This is something that we’ve been aware of and working towards for a number of weeks. But it was kind of last week that I think it really came together. The President moved it forward and then there were several days of logistical preparations.
Q. Anything that you’ve learned about their condition or how they were treated that you could share with us?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s very preliminary. They appear to be in relatively good condition, given what they’ve been through. But they’ve just returned home, they’ve just been reunited with their families, and so I don’t have extensive information about what they’ve said about their condition and treatment.