Foreign Press Center Briefing with Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel R. Russel

Topic:  U.S. Policy Priorities for the East Asian and Pacific Region in 2015

Washington Foreign Press Center, Washington, D.C.


ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL:  Thank you very much.  Hello, everybody.  Happy 2015.  I’m glad to be here.  2014 was a great year.  We had two visits to the Asia Pacific region by President Obama.  We had five visits to the region by Secretary of State Kerry and we had multiple visits by multiple members of the U.S. Cabinet, by other senior officials, covering trade, covering security, covering energy – a gamut of issues of interest and concern to both sides.

I’m also proud to say in the State Department, in my own office, that we’ve added to the leadership team in the end of 2014 two new, what I’d call flag officers, deputy assistant secretaries of state, former Ambassador to Thailand Kristie Kenney and former Ambassador to the Republic of Korea Sung Kim.  So I’m very, very proud of the extraordinary team that is running our Asia policy.

2015 is also going to be a big year and we believe a good year, certainly an important year in the Asia Pacific region.  It’s a year that’s replete with a lot of anniversaries.  Of course, it’s the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and of the formation of the United Nations.  It is the 50th anniversary of Singaporean independence, the 20th anniversary of normalization of U.S.-Vietnam relations, and 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and much more.  So there will be a wealth, I believe, of important visitors moving in both directions between Asia and the United States in 2015, and I’ll get back to that.

I’m convinced it will also be the year of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, TPP, and that has huge symbolic significance, strategic significance, but importantly and of course, tremendous significance in terms of trade and investment, prosperity for all 12 countries and for the Asia Pacific region and the global economy.

I want to give you a bit of an update on the travel, in part because this level of engagement by top-rank senior U.S. officials is occurring naturally.  It’s occurring because the United States and the Asia Pacific countries are doing so much together.  The fact of the matter is we have rebalanced to Asia.  The high pace of engagement is now the new normal in our relationship.  This is reflected also in the budget that the President rolled out at the beginning of this week, which has an 8 percent increase in foreign aid for the region managed by my bureau, East Asia and the Pacific.

The request expands funding for democracy programs.  It expands funding for maritime capacity building.  And against the backdrop of austerity, of course, it sustains elevated funding to increase the capacity of Asia’s regional institutions and its economic architecture.

Now, if I look jetlagged, it’s because I myself am just back a few days ago from a very productive trip to Southeast Asia, to the Philippines, to Malaysia, to Thailand, and to Cambodia, four important members of ASEAN.

In Manila I was joined by my colleague Dave Shear, the assistant secretary of defense for Asia, and the two of us participated in the U.S.-Philippine Bilateral Strategic Dialogue.  That’s a dialogue that really underscores the importance of all aspects of our alliance and partnership – security, prosperity, and the advance of good governance, the advance of democratic values and respect for human rights.  Of course, it’s doubly important this year because the Philippines will be hosting the APEC Leaders Meeting in November.

In Kuala Lumpur, which was my next stop, I led the U.S. team along with our new and illustrious Ambassador to ASEAN Nina Hachigian in consultations with Malaysia as the ASEAN chair for 2015.  I also did a lot of work on a bilateral basis with a variety of Malaysian ministers and counterparts.  I met with government representatives and I met separately with opposition members, including opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, with civil society members, with media and academics.

I think my visit underscored the importance that we place on our relationship with Malaysia, first and foremost now as the ASEAN chair but also as a TPP partner.  And we’re also very mindful of Malaysia’s role in assisting and leading the region, frankly, not only through the East Asia Summit but also its important global work on countering violent extremism and working to reject the faulty ISIL ideology.

In Bangkok, as you may have heard, I met with senior government officials, the leaders of the two major political parties, former Prime Ministers Yingluck and Abhisit.  I met with civil society leaders.  I met with students.  I met with the media.  I spoke publicly at a university.  And throughout I stressed really two things:  first, America’s deep and abiding friendship with the Thai people and the Thai nation, more than 182 years and counting; but also I stressed our view, speaking as a friend, of the need for an inclusive political process that gives voice to all segments of society and that assists in the return to full civilian-led democracy and in the development of strong institutions.

I felt that I got a serious hearing from my Thai Government interlocutors.  I seem to have prompted a pretty lively debate in Thai society.  The bottom line is the United States remains steadfast in our friendship and our support for the Thai nation, for the Thai people, and for Thai democracy.

From there I went on to Cambodia, to Phnom Penh, where I met with some senior Cambodian Government officials, including the acting foreign minister at the time, Ouch Borith.  I met with opposition leaders; I met with – including Sam Rainsy .I met with civil society leaders.  I spoke publicly at a think tank.  And arguably, for me the highlight was a session with members of the initiative launched by President Obama, the Young Southeast Asia Leadership initiative.  Some really inspiring and terrific young people who are actively engaged in community projects throughout the 10 ASEAN countries.  It was inspirational also to see what they’re doing in a country like Cambodia in particular, where something on the order of 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30.  That’s an incredible opportunity.

In all these meetings we talked about the progress that Cambodia is making in the wake of the elections in 2013 and a political agreement between the ruling party and the opposition.  We discussed the importance of sustaining meaningful political and economic governance reforms and anti-corruption reforms as well.  This is a huge problem in Cambodia.  We also discussed, and I stressed, the need for opposition leaders, the government, and civil society leaders to work together.

There’s a lot more going on by the U.S. Government in Southeast Asia.  My friends and colleagues, the counselor to Secretary Kerry, Ambassador Tom Shannon and the special advisor to Secretary Kerry, Ambassador David Thorne, along with my principal deputy, Ambassador Scot Marciel, were all in Laos earlier this week for what’s called the Extraordinary Meeting of the Friends of the Lower Mekong Initiative – Lower Mekong.  From there, Ambassadors Shannon and Thorne went on to Vietnam and Ambassador Marciel went on to Burma, to Myanmar.  This is the meeting – and I believe that Ambassadors Shannon and Thorne have done a telephone – a press interview, so I won’t get into the details of what they did, other than to say that the Mekong is a hugely important river.  Secretary Kerry recently published an op-ed on the Mekong in Foreign Policy magazine, which I commend to all of you if you haven’t seen it.  This river is central to food security, to water security, to the economy, and to the health of millions of people in the five affected countries.  So our contribution, our ability to support this effort through a program like the – what’s called the XFLM is near and dear to our hearts.

Another important colleague and important visit was Under Secretary Wendy Sherman’s recent travel to Northeast Asia.  Her trip again underscores the way in which the United States and our key partners and allies are working to enhance security and prosperity globally.  She was in Beijing, in Seoul, and in Tokyo.  In all these stops she briefed and discussed the work underway on trying to conclude the negotiations with Iran, something that each of the three countries have a big stake in.  She also in Japan discussed and thanked the Japanese for their important contributions on global health and for contributions to assist innocent victims of conflict in the Middle East.

Okay.  Now I think – drum roll – the big announcement, of course, today was the upcoming travel by our brand new Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken.  I had the honor and the pleasure of working closely with Tony when he was Vice President Biden’s National Security Advisor.  He became my boss when he moved over to become the Deputy National Security Advisor and I was the President’s Special Assistant for Asia.  We’re delighted at the State Department, and particularly in the East Asian and Pacific Bureau that he has moved over to State, but we’re even more delighted and proud that the Deputy Secretary has elected to make his first official overseas trip to the Asia Pacific region.  It’s – there’s real significance to that.

As the State Department announced earlier today, he will travel first to Seoul, then to Beijing, then to Tokyo, for consultations on – strategic consultations on a range of issues.  I will, as it happens, be in Beijing when he arrives holding talks on East Asia with my counterparts, and that will enable me to join him for his meetings in China.  I can personally attest to the depth of Tony Blinken’s knowledge, experience and interest in the region and in its issues.  So this is an extremely important visit in our view.

And then lastly, the big news for any of you who don’t already know – the East Asian and Pacific Bureau now has a Twitter account.  The handle is @USAsiaPacific.  Follow us on Twitter and you’ll get all the insights on our strategy.

Let me stop there.  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Perfect way to ease into the questions.  I just would like to remind people we are doing a transcript, so please wait for the microphone.  I ask that you state your name and outlet before you pose your question.  We have a lot of people with a lot of questions and not a lot of time, so please, I ask that you keep to single-part questions.  I’m going to start in the front here and then move to the back.  New York, if you have a question, please approach the podium and we’ll call in due order.

So who do we have in the front?  I’m going to start over here on the left and we’ll make our way.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.  Thank you so much for doing this.  I want to ask about DPRK first.

MODERATOR:  Name and outlet?

QUESTION:  Oh, sorry.  My name is Atsushi Okudera from Asahi Shimbun.  On DPRK:  As you know, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was sending a couple of message to the region.  And the United States – and the U.S. Administration is – actually it’s open for dialogue, lots of people say.  But in terms of negotiation, it’s, I think it’s kind of different.  The United States position is that the DPRK needs some concrete steps to denuclearize.  But in terms of dialogue, do you think you need some precondition from DPRK to start dialogue?  Or you don’t need any precondition before starting the dialogue?

And one more thing on DPRK:  King Jong – North Korean leader Kim Jong-un announced that some – one proposal – they can suspend nuclear tests if the United States and the ROK stop their military exercise.  But I know the U.S. position is very clear; this is rejected.  But in terms of nuclear tests, (inaudible) of a nuclear test, do you think it’s enough condition to restart Six-Party Talks?  If it’s not enough, what do you – what kind of condition the U.S. Administration need to start?  Thanks so much.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL:  Okay.  Well, thanks.  We monitor – I monitor the North Korean statements always, and I take them seriously.  I think I can say without fear of contradiction that North Korea has not run out of hyperbole or adjectives or adverbs to use in criticizing the United States.  The fact of the matter is we don’t have a hostile policy, we have a denuclearization policy.  And that’s a policy and a policy goal that is shared by the Republic of Korea, by Japan, by China, by Russia, and one to which the North Koreans themselves signed up in 2005.  So as you rightly said, the U.S. has been consistent in making clear that we are open to dialogue.  We have no problem talking to the North Koreans.  We talk to the North Koreans.  What we want, however, are negotiations, to implement the agreements reached, to fulfil the mandate of the UN Security Council resolutions, to denuclearize the north – the Korean Peninsula.  And to that end, we are always alert to and seeking indicators of seriousness of purpose on North Korea’s part, that’s it prepared to negotiate, that it’s prepared to come to the negotiating table ready to take the concrete steps, take the irreversible steps that will be necessary to freeze, rollback, and eliminate, ultimately, the nuclear program and the missile program that are outlawed under the UN Security Council resolutions.

Now, it’s true that two or so months ago North Korea made an implicit threat to conduct a nuclear test if the United States didn’t agree to pull down or stand down on our regular defensive exercises with the Republic of Korea.  Now, this was couched as – in terms of kind of a sort of moratorium and so on.  But the reason it was a nonstarter is because North Korea doesn’t have the right to bargain, to trade, or to ask for a payoff in return for abiding by international law.  That’s not how it works.

Now, the issue is this:  Will North Korea agree to negotiate denuclearization in the Six Party context?  And how – particularly given North Korea’s record, how will we know that there is sufficient prospect of making progress towards denuclearization to warrant restarting that entire effort?  That’s the benchmark against which we evaluate North Korea’s signals and North Korea’s statements.  We’re not seeing it yet, but we’re not stopping our careful monitoring of their messaging.

QUESTION:  Thank you, Mr. Assistant Secretary.  I’m Ching-Yi Chang with Shanghai Media Group.  You just mentioned that fighting ISIL is one of topics during your trip to Southeast Asia.  But we also know that it’s sad to hear that the two Japanese were killed by ISIL.  And so especially I would like to know, what’s the progress right now in terms of cooperation among Japan – among the U.S. and other East Asian countries in terms of fighting ISIL?  And also, we know there is a constraint in Japan’s constitution, but would the U.S. support Japan’s further military involvement in the Middle East to degrade and also ultimately destroy ISIL?  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL:  Thanks.  Well, first of all, the United States categorically condemns the brutal and unjustified murder of Japanese civilians by ISIL.  And we send our heartfelt condolences and sympathies to the families and to the Japanese people.  We also commend the Japanese Government and Prime Minister Abe for a resolute stand against hostage takers, against terrorists, against an effort to collect ransom in exchange for human life.  We believe that the Japanese Government showed determination, firmness, and courage that in the long run will protect Japanese citizens and the citizens of other countries as well.  Moreover, I think it’s clear that the United States stands shoulder to shoulder with our ally Japan in a difficult moment, and we value deeply the generosity and the significant contributions that the Japanese Government and people are making in providing assistance and relief to the hundreds of thousands of people that are dislocated and are jeopardized by the turmoil now in that region.

Now in terms of cooperation, the issue of how we most effectively can work together to mitigate against ISIL and violent extremism is an agenda item for Deputy Secretary Blinken on his trip and every stop.  It was the topic of a major diplomatic consultation in the Department of State yesterday, led by General Allen.  It’s high on the agenda of Secretary Kerry in all of his meetings and his recent conversation with Foreign Minister Kishida and with others.

This is a priority for the United States not only with Japan, but with all Asian nations because ISIL is not a Middle East problem.  ISIL is everyone’s problem.  And the threat of recruitment, the threat of the sinister ideology, the threat from returning foreign fighters, is a threat not only for the United States, not only for countries in the Middle East, but for countries throughout Southeast Asia – as well including some of the countries that I recently visited like Malaysia, which has a majority Muslim population; countries that others are visiting like Indonesia, Brunei, but also countries like Thailand and the Philippines, which have significant minority Muslim populations.  And we are all together in the effort to push back against this significant threat.

Now as for the question of what Japan may or may not do by way of using military capabilities overseas in connection with the counterterrorism actions, obviously, it’s for the Government of Japan to signal its plans, not for me.  Every country has the right to protect its own citizens.  The record of Japanese foreign policy over the last six or seven decades is such as to give confidence, certainly, to the United States that Japan, among all nations, uses its self-defense capabilities with great limitations and restraint.  But the work that Japan is doing to mitigate the hardships faced by those directly affected by ISIL and related turmoil from Iraq and Syria is the aspect that I’d like to underscore and express appreciation for.

MODERATOR:  We can go to the right corner (inaudible).

QUESTION:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  John Zang with CTI-TV of Taiwan.  First off, Mr. Secretary, as you probably know, Taiwan has just had a tragic plane crash accident.  Is the United States offering any assistance in terms of rescue, in terms of accident – the investigation, and in terms of the promotion of air flight safety?  That’s my first question.

Secondly, looking into 2015, what is your take of the current status of U.S.-Taiwan relations?  What are your best hopes for the year in terms of promoting U.S.-Taiwan relations?  Thank you very much.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL:  Thanks.  Well, first of all, I offer my condolences to the families who lost loved ones aboard the TransAsia flight.  As someone who takes a lot of flights within the Asia Pacific region, I’m monitoring that situation pretty closely.  It’s of concern.  I don’t know the answer to the question, “Has the United States been asked to provide assistance to the Taiwan authorities?”  We, of course, stand ready to help in any way, as we have in the past.  Moreover, the U.S. and Taiwan discuss issues relating to air safety on an ongoing basis, and this is an issue of common concern for both of us.  Issues pertaining to the health, safety, the welfare, the dignity of the people of Taiwan are important to us and are fully consistent with our robust unofficial relations, which of course are, as always, governed by our “one-China” policy by the three communiques, et cetera.

2015 is an important political year, of course, in Taiwan.  The relationship that has been developed, certainly since I have been back in Washington – so over the last six years, which corresponds to the presidency of Barack Obama – has been very productive.  One of the things that has made that relationship productive has been the progress in cross-straits relations – something that we support, something that we have welcomed, and where possible something that we have facilitated.

That said, just as there is bipartisan support in the United States for our China – “one-China” policy and for our very strong unofficial relations with Taiwan – important people-to-people connections, economic and trade, commercial connections, important cultural connections – just as there is very strong support in the United States on both sides of the aisle, so to speak, in Congress for our continued efforts to help ensure that Taiwan can preserve its autonomy and manage its defense, Taiwan can find appropriate international space in which to make regional and global contributions.

It is certainly my experience that there is bipartisan support in Taiwan as well for a continuation of this good cooperative relationship.  We don’t take a position on electoral issues outside of our own borders, and we maintain lines of communication both to ruling parties and to opposition parties.  So we will stay in touch, we will maintain our strong unofficial ties, and we will wait for the people of Taiwan to make a decision about their own leaders.

MODERATOR:  We can take one more question in front, and then we’ll (inaudible).

QUESTION:  Thank you.  My name is Nike Ching with the Voice of America, Chinese Service.  Assistant Secretary Russel, you just mentioned Deputy Secretary Blinken’s travel to Korea, China, and Japan next week.  I will make sure I follow the Twitter talk with him on Friday morning, 10:30 a.m.  (Laughter.)  Given the fact that the past Monday on the 2nd a couple of senior officials were just in Beijing for the bilateral security dialogue, the frequency of senior officials’ travel to China, is that – just a quick housekeeping question:  Is that an ongoing consultation under the S&ED Dialogue or is it more like ad hoc consultation?

And the next question is regarding a more sensitive issue in U.S.-China relations, where tomorrow morning the National Prayer Breakfast, President will attend and the Tibetan spiritual leader will also attend.  And this was reportedly the first time both attend a public event.  What is your take on that?  And then given the fact that a U.S. diplomat was summoned by Chinese official last year after the private meeting between President Obama and Dalai Lama, do you expect any repercussion?  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL:  Great, thanks.  I’m very, very satisfied at the active pace of interaction between U.S. Government officials and Chinese Government officials both in Beijing and in Washington, because this is a big relationship with a lot of moving parts, and the quality and the extent of our coordination and our dialogue has direct benefits for both countries, for the region, and for the world.

Now, to be clear, most of our officials who are traveling, Deputy Secretary Blinken included, are not only going to China.  They go to a range of countries in Asia.  I’m happy about that, too.  It’s what we call a high-class problem: too many senior officials wanting to be engaged in our strategic relationships in the Asia Pacific.  What’s not to like about that?

The meetings that occur on an ongoing basis fall into a variety of categories.  Some of them are directly related to Strategic & Economic Dialogue agenda items or working groups.  Some of them are not.  You only referenced the government-to-government piece of our engagement.  There’s a very active private sector.  There’s a very active academic, think-tank and cultural level of engagement as well.  One of the reasons that typically we hold the U.S.-China High-Level Dialogue, consultations on people-to-people exchanges at the same time that we hold the S&ED.  So there’s a tremendous amount of work and it’s good work, it’s necessary work underway.  That’s a healthy sign.  It is not limited by any means to China.  There is, as I outlined at the beginning, a very heavy focus on Southeast Asia.  There is an intense level of engagement with our Northeast Asian allies, and our relations with Australia and New Zealand and the Pacific Islands are also a vitally important component of both our regional and our global strategy.

Now, with respect to tomorrow’s prayer breakfast, I have read that the organizers – and I hasten to add that the prayer breakfast is not organized by the U.S. Government, it’s not a governmental event – have invited His Holiness the Dalai Lama to attend.  I don’t know if he will; but as a preeminent religious leader, it would certainly be fully appropriate were he to go.

President Obama, although I defer to the White House on his schedule, routinely attends the prayer breakfast.  He too is a religious man, and this is an event that he clearly cherishes.  I’m unaware of any prospect of the President and any particular religious leader having an encounter on the margins of the prayer breakfast.  I don’t know.

And as for U.S. diplomats being summoned to the foreign minister – to the foreign ministry by China to receive the views of the Chinese Government on Tibet, that’s not an unusual occurrence.  Anything is possible.

MODERATOR:  I’m going to go to the middle, right here in the black (inaudible.)

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Gregory Ho from Radio Free Asia.  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  My question is about – well, is Hong Kong no more important since you don’t mention Hong Kong in your previous speech?  But you said a lot in your previous hearing on Capitol Hill, since you know the member of Congress is pretty interested in the development of Hong Kong’s political reform and they are thinking about rejuvenating the Hong Kong so-called Policy Act.  And Chairman Chris Smith has expressed his intention to visit Hong Kong to see the things that – the real Hong Kong, but he has been barred from getting the visa.  Would you help Chairman Chris Smith to secure an entry visa?  But since we have a precedence that a British parliamentarian has been barred on the last minute, that he will grant the visa to Hong Kong.

So my question would be:  What’s your take in the Hong Kong issue?  Is Hong Kong no more important?  Second, would you help Chairman Chris Smith to secure his visa to Hong Kong?  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL:  Thanks.  Well, with your permission – (laughter) – I will work on visa issues with the individual concerned on request.  So Chairman Smith knows that I am at his disposal, as are my colleagues, to work with him on this or any visa issue.  But more generally, we expect the arrangements and the regulations pertaining to travel to Hong Kong by Americans, let alone by senior members of Congress or officials, to be honored.  We think that it is important for our elected officials to be able to see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears what the situation is and what the views and the aspirations are of the people in the Hong Kong SAR.

Secondly, as you know perfectly well, there’s no correlation in terms of importance between what I focus on in a particular meeting with the press and the importance that the United States places on the fundamental issue.  You’re in the news business, and we’re talking about what is news today.  But I’m very glad that you raised the question.  I testified on Hong Kong at the request of Congress.  I made very clear the views and the concerns of the U.S. Administration, and I underscored our hope and belief that the principle of universal suffrage should be applied in good faith in Hong Kong, that the selection of the next chief executive should be an inclusive one.

Hong Kong is important not only to the PRC but to the United States and to other neighbors as well because it is a huge financial capital, because it’s a thriving cultural center, because it’s so important in terms of trade and commerce, and because it has an estimable tradition of civic participation and rights – rights that are protected under the Basic Law.  We continue to hope that the authorities in Beijing will show flexibility, will show patience, will show inclusiveness, and will be responsive to the many voices of civil society in Hong Kong.  I think there would be great value to a visit to Hong Kong by members of Congress and would certainly support that in any way that I can.

MODERATOR:  We’re going to go here.

QUESTION:  Thank you, Assistant Secretary.  Xiaoyang Xia from Wen Hui Daily.  We heard a lot about the South China Sea issue during your recent trip to Asia.  The question is how you’re going to consult or communicate this question with China, and what’s – the second is what’s U.S. priority for the bilateral relation for year 2015?  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL:  I can assure you that every statement that I have made on the South China Sea issue in Washington or abroad has been heard loud and clear by the Chinese Government.  (Laughter.)  And don’t ask me how I know that.  They tell me.  (Laughter.)

One of the important attributes of the relationship that President Obama has established with his Chinese counterparts, particularly with President Xi Jinping, has been the ability to do two important things:  The ability to cooperate on issues of shared interest that truly matter to the people of both countries and to the region, and secondly, to address directly and candidly important differences or disagreements in a way that doesn’t undermine the prospects of cooperation, but doesn’t paper over differences either.  This balance was on display when President Obama visited Beijing in November, and it is evident in all of the Administration’s interactions – official interactions with the Chinese Government.

Although the issue for us is not the intrinsic merit of any maritime or territorial claim by China or by other claimants in the South China Sea, we do have and we have expressed concerns about some behavior that is unilaterally altering the status quo in a fraught and tense area.  We’ve made that known directly and constructively to the Chinese.  We also have concerns about the unintended effect of that behavior on China’s relationships with its neighbors.  As the President, the Secretary, and others have made clear, we benefit when China has good and stable relations with its neighbors, including important neighbors like Vietnam, like the Philippines, like Malaysia, et cetera.  And that’s something that we would like to encourage.

It’s for that reason that we have advocated for the exercise of self-restraint by claimants in – particularly in terms of large-scale reclamation activities to transform rocks and shoals into outposts that could easily be militarized.  That’s one reason why we have constructively advocated for self-restraint, for a freeze, for a moratorium on behavior that each of the claimants finds troubling.  It should be on a voluntary basis among them.  We’re not dictating what that looks like.  So we value our ability to engage with China on cooperative projects, just as we value our ability to be candid with them on areas that we see as carrying the potential for trouble.

In 2015, we approach a very rich agenda – on the diplomatic arena, on the trade and investment arena, on the development and cooperative arena – with a lot of momentum.  We want to be ambitious in planning for the Strategic and Economic Dialogue and planning for the entirety of 2015 because we think that the significant accomplishments of last November, including a landmark understanding on climate change, sets the stage for work leading up to the Paris conference in December.  We want to be ambitious because we think that the agreement to redouble efforts in negotiating a bilateral investment treaty in November sets the stage for significant milestones in increasing and improving our economic and trade relationship.  And the list goes on, but we recognize that high-level engagement and serious substantive dialogue across the board – not only on Asia but on Africa, on the Middle East, on Afghanistan, on counterterrorism, on global health, on the range of challenges that face us, can yield benefits of immense value to all concerned.  We see 2015 as an important year, and making headway both on areas of cooperation and making headway on areas of concern, not limited to maritime disputes, are major objectives for the U.S.

MODERATOR:  I think we have time only for one more question.  I would like to open the floor maybe to a new topic, so maybe if we’re going to move to a new topic I’m going to go into the back there.  And I’m sorry, we will try to get (inaudible) questions.

QUESTION:  Thank you for the opportunity.  My name is Sungwon Baik with Voice of America.  Today, North Korea actually ruled out resuming dialogue with the United States and vowed to respond to any U.S. aggression with nuclear strike and cyber warfare.  And what is your response to this and what’s your level of concern, especially on the North Korean provocation in the near future?

My second question is like more general aspect of North Korea.  Do you think that we can practically achieve a nuclear disarmament without a change of leadership in Pyongyang or a fundamental change from the Chinese side?  Thanks a lot.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL:  Well, I said somewhat flippantly at the outset that the statement by the NDC makes clear that North Korea has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of hyperbolic rhetoric and adjectives and adverbs.  But the fact of the matter is that I and my colleagues in government, of course, take threats by North Korea very seriously, and we are mindful of and alert to the risk that North Korea may conduct a provocation, whether it is along the pattern of past behavior, a nuclear test or a missile launch, or an asymmetric sneak attack such as was the case against the Cheonan, or a cyber sneak attack, as was the case against Sony.  We are not – we’re well aware of the potential for North Korean provocation.

That said, North Korea has opted in, has opted out.  North Korea has proposed dialogue; North Korea has rejected dialogue.  North Korea has embraced the Six-Party Talks; North Korea has walked out of the Six-Party Talks.  So it’s a little difficult to take any single pronouncement, particularly one that’s as larded with sort of over-the-top, fire-breathing rhetoric as this one is, as the last word.

What we have put on offer, along with the Republic of Korea and Japan and our other partners in the Six-Party process, is documented in the joint statement of 2005.  And it captures a willingness that is undiminished on our part to work towards normalization, to provide economic assistance, to negotiate a peace arrangement to replace the armistice, et cetera.  But all of those benefits are contingent on the very first sentence in that document which says that the goal is to complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

Now, we wouldn’t have negotiated that document nor would we be calling on North Korea to honor it if we weren’t prepared to pursue the possibility that the current North Korean leadership is able and willing to negotiate in good faith.  Now, admittedly, there is not a wealth of evidence that gives confidence that they will, but we haven’t abandoned that process and that prospect.

One of the things that keeps me going is the example of Burma, Myanmar.  There is a country that decided to make a change.  There is a case in which a military dictatorship reinvented itself, opened itself, and the result of that shift has been the pouring in of significant development and economic support.  President Obama has visited Burma twice.  Imagine that.  The president of Burma has visited the United States.  The country is working up towards elections.  Now, they – of course, Burma has many problems.  But the transformation in the economy, the transformation in the lives of the Burmese people, the opportunities that have opened up and the scope of international cooperation and support for Burma has not come at the cost of a revolution.  This is, as we see, a peaceful and iterative prospect.

So the point is that we will negotiate with the government that exists in North Korea if they will negotiate in good faith consistent with their commitments under the Six-Party Talks and the UN Security Council resolutions.  However, change in North Korea does not need to be regime change, as the example of Burma shows.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  I’m sorry, unfortunately we are out of time – and we’re going to have to close it.  We’ll try to take some takeaway questions, but thank you for coming and at this point the briefing is closed and we are off the record.  Thank you.