State Department Briefing by Victoria Nuland, March 11, 2013

Washington, DC–(ENEWSPF)–March 11, 2013.

Index for Today’s Briefing
    • DPRK Declaration on Armistice
    • Treaty Relationship with Allies in the Region
    • UN Human Rights Council
    • Elections/Post Electoral Process
    • Status of Potential Dialogue/Geneva Agreement
    • Russian Position
    • Attack on Syrians in Iraq
    • Venezuelan Diplomats Declared Personae Non-gratae
    • Human Rights Activists Sentence
    • Pakistan-Iran Pipeline/Potential Sanctions
    • Energy Needs



1:02 p.m. EST

MS. NULAND: All right. Happy Monday, everyone. I have nothing at the top, so let’s go directly to what’s on your minds.

QUESTION: Could I start with something we talked about a little last week? And I know the White House has already commented on this notion of North Korea ending the armistice. But last week, we didn’t really have a precise understanding of what exactly they had done. Do you have any word from either them, your various interlocutors, or South Korea on what North Korea has done by pulling out of the armistice with South Korea?

MS. NULAND: Well, first of all, Brad, let me just advise that National Security Advisor Donilon is at the Asia Society in New York today, and I think just about now, he is giving a broad speech on Asia policy that I commend to all of you. It’ll also have quite a bit of comment on the DPRK and recent events. So I commend that to all of you.

With regard to the armistice, General Thurman from – our United Nations Command commander, has spoken to this at some length, so I would refer you to that. But as you know, for more than 60 years, this agreement has ensured peace and stability on the peninsula. So it’s concerning to us when any signatory to a mutual agreement makes a public statement declaring that they’re pulling out of it. But, as is clear from what General Thurman has said, it’s not absolutely evident what the impact of that would be since it’s the agreement that ended the war.

QUESTION: So at this point, that is in the realm of provocative rhetoric if not action. Because we don’t really know what it would do, and we don’t really know if they’ve actually done anything per se.

MS. NULAND: It’s certainly in the category of bellicose rhetoric and more of what we’ve been seeing over these last couple of weeks.


QUESTION: Does it obligate the United States to do anything different than our – sort of the way our treaty relationship has worked with the South over the last several years?

MS. NULAND: Well, you know that our treaty relationship with the Republic of Korea, our treaty relationship with Japan, are distinct entities from the armistice agreement, and we are fully committed to the defense obligations we have to both of those allies separate and apart from whatever the armistice agreement may stipulate with regard to the Koreas.

QUESTION: I’m just wondering what the overlap is between the armistice agreement and the treaty relationship.

MS. NULAND: The treaty relationship stands on its own as a defense relationship of long standing. With regard to any impact of what the North Koreans have done, I can take it and look at whether there’s any textual overlap. But it doesn’t change the fact that we are committed under our treaty obligations to the Republic of Korea and to Japan to defense and we stand by those.


QUESTION: Toria, right now you have a lot – as we say in Washington, a confluence of events. You do have a lot of very dangerous things going on right now – new president in North – relatively – leader in North Korea, definitely new president in South Korea, war games going on right now, bellicose rhetoric, threats by Kim Jong-un to attack the United States.

What’s the level of concern right here in the State Department, and is there any action that you’re taking to try to mitigate it?

MS. NULAND: Well, first of all, as I said at the outset, National Security Advisor Donilon is going to speak to the whole complex of DPRK issues in his speech, so I’m going to let him speak for the Administration more broadly today.

But let me just take issue with one thing that you said there, Jill, by characterizing our joint military exercises with the Republic of Korea as war games. Let me just remind that these are joint exercises that we have every single year. They are defense oriented. They’re designed to enhance the readiness and the ability to respond of U.S. and ROK forces to any provocations. We’re completely transparent about them. We notify about them. So to characterize them otherwise would be inaccurate.

QUESTION: Well, that was shorthand, but you’re correct. Still, what’s the level of concern?

MS. NULAND: Again, I’m going to let National Security Advisor Donilon speak to this. He’s going to have quite a long piece in his speech on Korea today and the DPRK.

QUESTION: I should have looked this up and I didn’t, but are there provisions in the armistice agreement under which one side can unilaterally withdraw from it?

MS. NULAND: I will get you a little bit more from our lawyers, but my understanding from the briefings that we have had are that this is a mutual armistice and that one side can’t withdraw without the concurrence of the other in legal terms. But what the impact of that is on the ground is not completely evident. Again, this is clearly in the category of bellicose rhetoric, threatening behavior, and it’s not appropriate, and it’s not going to be helpful in terms of taking the DPRK in a more positive direction with the international community.

QUESTION: And have you reached out to the North Koreans via the New York channel or otherwise to convey your dismay at their latest statements?

MS. NULAND: We’ve certainly been plenty clear publicly and – as will National Security Advisor Donilon be today. You know that we have a channel to talk to the DPRK if we need to, if we think it can be helpful. I’m not going to get into further details than that.


QUESTION: Toria, can you confirm that South Korean and U.S. authorities have found dozens of accounts presumed to belong to —

MS. NULAND: Have found what?

QUESTION: — have found dozens of accounts presumed to belong to Kim Jong-un in Shanghai?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have anything for you on that. If we have anything to share on that, I’ll let you know.


QUESTION: Ambassador Robert King is in Geneva for the United Nations Human Rights Council and to discuss a resolution against North Korea’s human rights records. I understand the United States support a – the mechanism of an inquiry commission. But given DPRK’s repeated denial to outside intervention – investigation, how does the United States defends the new approach of a tougher censure against DPRK’s human rights record?

MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, we’ve long said that the human rights record of the DPRK is absolutely abysmal. So it’s not surprising that we and those who share our concerns about human rights in the DPRK would be working together in Geneva to try to get a new resolution about this and try to give more support to the UN envoy for his ability to get in and document the concerns that we all have.

So we’ve been very clear about this. We have sent Ambassador King to make a strong presentation on our behalf about our concerns.

QUESTION: Has the council envoy ever gone to North Korea —

MS. NULAND: Has never been allowed in to my knowledge.

QUESTION: — in the history of —

MS. NULAND: To my knowledge, has never been allowed in, which speaks to the kind of regime we’re dealing with.


QUESTION: Back to the bank account question, you don’t know the answer, or you can’t share the information?

MS. NULAND: I don’t have anything for you one way or the other. Thanks.

Moving on. Yeah, Dana.

QUESTION: The Kenyan elections?


QUESTION: This weekend, Secretary Kerry put out a statement congratulating the Kenyan people on a peaceful election, but notably the statement did not mention the President-elect, Uhuru Kenyatta, by name, who is currently – he’s currently under indictment from the ICC for war crimes. Was that omission on purpose?

MS. NULAND: Well, obviously, just to reiterate what Secretary Kerry said in his statement, the United States does congratulate the people of Kenya who voted peacefully on March 4th, and we congratulate those who were elected. I think you’ve seen that there has been a challenge put forward by Mr. Odinga to the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, which is the legal and appropriate way to deal with concerns about the ultimate results. So that process obviously needs to move forward, and we’ll go from there.

QUESTION: But was the omission of President-elect Kenyatta’s name, was that omission on purpose?

MS. NULAND: I wouldn’t read too much into the statement. But clearly, the post-electoral process continues, including through the courts, and that’s appropriate. I want to also make the point that we were gratified to see that even in the face of some concerns, the streets in Kenya have been largely peaceful, which is something that we had sought and encouraged as well.



MS. NULAND: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: It has been now over a month that the coalition – Syrian Coalition president Moaz al-Khatib stated his willingness to talk with the regime. What’s your assessment? Do you see any kind of sign that the Assad regime is closing – getting closer to talk to the opposition?

MS. NULAND: Well, you’re right that SOC president al-Khatib has for several weeks asserted that he is prepared to talk to appropriate interlocutors from the regime. We haven’t really seen the right kind of response to that from Assad regime forces. Instead, what we’ve seen is continued aerial bombardment. As the Secretary made clear when we were on the road around Aleppo, the violence that we’ve seen in Raqqa City, now in Homs, there was an absolutely gruesome report over the weekend of some 20 bodies found in the river Quweiq, which runs through Aleppo, which is – opposition sources claim that these are bodies that were of civilians that were killed by the Syrian regime by aerial bombardment in Aleppo a couple of weeks ago.

So obviously, as al-Khatib himself said when we all met in Rome, it’s difficult to negotiate with a guy who’s continuing to bomb civilians and taking active measures to find civilians in areas in dispute to target. I mean, it just speaks to the lack of sincerity of the regime.

QUESTION: You also talk about the Russian position on Friday, and you said that Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s statement is actually not – is not – contradicting to Geneva Convention. On the same day, former State official Fred Hof stated – wrote, actually – that Russia backtrack, and today argues that the transfer of full executive power applies with Syrian cabinet, not to the Syrian president, which is the – I believe it was the Geneva Convention.

So would you be still able to say that the Russians have not backtracked on the Geneva Convention?

MS. NULAND: Ilhan, I think you’re asking me to parse Fred Hof’s parsing of Lavrov’s statement. I’m not sure that that’s going to be a productive course of action here.

You know where we’ve been with the Russians that we all join together in supporting Geneva as a roadmap for how a peaceful political transition could go forward, to create a transitional government by mutual consent with full executive powers. It’s no secret that the ink was barely dry on that when we had a difference of interpretation what mutual consent would mean.

From our perspective, there’s no way that mutual consent would ever be given to Assad or regime members with blood on their hands. The Russians continue to have their own interpretation. In our conversations with them, we have encouraged them to use their influence with the Assad regime to get it to embrace Geneva and begin working on how it could be implemented. From our perspective, that obviously has to be done without Assad.

QUESTION: Can you explain these bodies that you mentioned? They were found in the river, but they were – and it was a result of bombardments? Were they on a boat or something at the time?

MS. NULAND: No, no, no. Remember that we talked about when the Secretary was on the road the horrific four or five or six days of aerial bombardment on the city of Aleppo, including what looked like conscious targeting of civilians who were lining up for bread, who were lining up for energy resources, et cetera. So what we’ve had in the last couple of days are dead bodies floating down the river from Aleppo into other villages and towns who seem to be the victims from that period.



QUESTION: Change of subject?

MS. NULAND: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Just to follow up on —

MS. NULAND: Still on Syria?

QUESTION: Just to make a point, basically —

MS. NULAND: Are you making a point or are you asking a question now?

QUESTION: And I’m going to follow up with the question.

MS. NULAND: You are, at some point after a paragraph of point.

QUESTION: Basically, there is no political transition track or political discussion – transition discussion is going on right now. Is this the basic premise of what’s going on?

MS. NULAND: We remain committed to trying to support both the Syrian Opposition Coalition and others inside Syria who believe in using Geneva and trying now to implement it. We think that’s the best way to end the violence. You know that the bulk of the conversation that the Secretary had with Foreign Minister Lavrov when we saw him in Berlin was, as I said, based on trying to get back to the implementation of Geneva, asking the Russians what they could do to use their influence. But it is no secret that we still don’t see eye to eye on all aspects of Syria, including the fact that the Russians continue to supply arms and other things to the Syrian regime.


QUESTION: A German magazine has reported yesterday that the U.S. is training Syrian opposition in Jordan.

MS. NULAND: I think you’ve asked that question before. I don’t have anything for you on that.


QUESTION: Are the three Bs discussing any —

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Sorry, are you –

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: — it was Der Spiegel. It’s a reputable magazine. Are you rejecting the report or are you —

MS. NULAND: I have nothing for you on it, Brad.

QUESTION: So that’s neither – so you’re not rejecting it; it could be happening?

MS. NULAND: You may parse that however you want. I have nothing for you on it.


QUESTION: Are the three Bs discussing any particular ideas or just keeping in touch?

MS. NULAND: Well, again, we have not had a three Bs meeting for some time. I think the last one was in early January. In terms of that process, we remain open to it. The next step will be for Mr. Brahimi to call a meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Bogdanov and Deputy Secretary Burns when he thinks that will be productive. As I said, we’re still trying to work through whether the Russian position on Geneva will enable us to get a group to the table around it.

Please, Annie.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS. NULAND: Still Syria? No?

QUESTION: Still on Syria. One more.


QUESTION: Al-Qaida’s taken credit for the attack on Syrian troops in Iraq. Do you have a comment on that? What’s your view of that type of attack?

MS. NULAND: Well, let me first condemn the attack on the convoy. Any kind of attack like this, any kind of terrorism like this, is something that we should condemn. We’ve seen the press reports that al-Qaida has claimed responsibility for it. Obviously, I’m not in a position to confirm that one way or another, but I would simply remind about our ongoing concerns about al-Qaida and al-Qaida affiliates trying to take advantage of the violence and chaos in Syria for their own ends, which are not in keeping with the desires of the Syrian people to live in a just and democratic society.

QUESTION: I notice you used the word “terrorism.” This was Syrian troops, not civilians, correct?

MS. NULAND: Again, anytime you attack non-combatants in this way, and the techniques were obviously terrorist tactics, we’re going to call it what it is.

QUESTION: So that goes as well toward the rebels if they were attacking a convoy that just happened not to be in the midst of a hot zone?

MS. NULAND: Well, it obviously depends on the circumstances, whether they were trying to defend themselves against enemy fire, but we’ve been pretty clear about calling out attacks against folks who are not in the middle of a firefight all the way through this from both sides.

QUESTION: Yeah, it just seems that the rebels do this quite often. It’s a war going on, and this is military troops that were targeted. So is it the fact that al-Qaida did it that makes it terrorism, or is it the nature of the attack?

MS. NULAND: Our understanding of what happened was that we had some Syrian forces who had been taken into – who had run away from fighting into Iraq, had gotten medical treatment, were being returned across the border, and they were fired on and they were attacked with terrorist tactics. So it was not the same circumstance that the rebels have confronted when they are trying to defend the population from Syrian regime attack.

QUESTION: Well, we target people from Afghanistan who go across the border to Pakistan. That doesn’t put them out of range of – if they are military combatants, no?

MS. NULAND: Again, it depends on the circumstances.


QUESTION: Venezuela?

MS. NULAND: Yeah. We understand that the U.S. is declaring persona non grata, two employees here in Washington, in the embassy.

QUESTION: We are. In response to the Venezuelan Government’s actions against two of our personnel, we did inform the Venezuelan Government on March 9th that, in accordance with Article 9 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and Article 23 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, that we had declared two of their second secretaries persona non grata. They are Orlando Jose Montanez Olivares and Consular Officer Victor Camacaro Mata. One was at the Embassy here in Washington and one was at the consulate in New York. And they have now departed the country.

QUESTION: Isn’t it —


QUESTION: — personae non gratae, plural?

MS. NULAND: Correct. Thank you very much for correcting my Latin plurals there, Arshad, with your superior education. My mother will be extremely pleased that you got the Latin right. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I don’t know. My dad’s not a professor like yours.

So here’s my question.

MS. NULAND: Sorry, Anne.

QUESTION: Why is it that you would have decided to – a week ago or on, I believe, it was Wednesday night, a senior State Department official, I believe, was quoted as having said that you weren’t planning on retaliating for the time being. Why wait until Saturday to do so?

MS. NULAND: Sometimes it takes us a while to evaluate what has gone down with our personnel and to decide on a response, and this – in this case it did take us a couple of days to get to this decision, but this is the decision that we came to.

QUESTION: Was it at all related to former President Chavez’s funeral and a desire not to sort of give him a poke in the eye before that?

MS. NULAND: I wouldn’t look at it that way. I think it was a matter of working through who were appropriate people to ask to leave.


QUESTION: And one (inaudible) if I may.

MS. NULAND: Sorry.

QUESTION: The President, in his statement on Tuesday, the day that Chavez’s death was announced, stated clearly the United States interest in a more constructive relationship with Venezuela. One could regard the expulsion of your two military attaches as one of the sort of last acts of the ancien regime, right? I mean, that happened before the announcement of Chavez’s death. And I wonder – I know that it is usually the case that you guys will choose to respond in a retaliatory and commensurate manner. But I wonder why it seemed necessary, in this case, when the President has made clear you’re seeking a more constructive relationship, why this might not have been an occasion to turn the other cheek.

MS. NULAND: You’ll recall that the timing of the expulsions was within hours of the announcement of Chavez’s death. You’ll also recall that in the day or days that followed, there was some pretty heated rhetoric coming in our direction. I think I called it at one point a page from the old Chavista playbook that we were hoping was going to change. So clearly, when you have an incident that you consider unjust, and then you need to take reciprocal action and make your point clear.

We’ve also said all the way through this, and we said it on Thursday-Friday, that we do hope for better relations with Venezuela. There is work that we would like to do together, particularly in the areas of counterterrorism, counternarcotics, economics and energy relations, but it’s going to take a change of tone from Caracas.

QUESTION: But why does this necessarily advance your goal of better relations?

MS. NULAND: Arshad, around the world, when our people are thrown out unjustly, we’re going to take reciprocal action. And we need to do that to protect our own people.

QUESTION: Was this a straight swap, so the same level of officials who were expelled from Caracas?

MS. NULAND: Well, I’ll leave it to you to look. These were two second secretaries. Our guys were defense attaches.

QUESTION: So I think they were actually the same. And in that case, one wonders why it took four days to figure out who to expel.

MS. NULAND: Again, it sometimes takes some time to work these things out.

QUESTION: Why shouldn’t this be seen as anything other than waiting until – I mean, it’s not a bad thing to not want to derail or otherwise add complications to a head of state’s funeral.

MS. NULAND: I think you’re parsing this too finely.

Annie, did you have more on Venezuela?

QUESTION: I think I’m right.

QUESTION: No. That covered it.

MS. NULAND: Did we cover it? Yeah.


QUESTION: Saudi Arabia.

MS. NULAND: Saudi Arabia, yeah.

QUESTION: So the activists Abdullah Al-Hamid and Mohammed Al-Qahtani, founding members of the banned Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, was sentenced to 10 years – one of them 10 years, the other one is 5 years – last Saturday, the day before Secretary Kerry actually made a visit. My first question is: Did Secretary raise this question while he was in Riyadh?

MS. NULAND: Well, again, I think you noted that these sentences came down after we had already left Saudi Arabia. As the Secretary made clear in his own comments in the press conference with Foreign Minister Saud, the issues of human rights and reform progress in Saudi were obviously discussed, as they always are when we are there. But we are concerned that these two very prominent Saudi human rights activists have been sentenced to prison. You know that we always make strong representations for human rights activists wherever we are around the world, and we have maintained, as I said, including at the Secretary’s level, an ongoing and robust dialogue with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on a wide range of political reform issues, including human rights for individuals.


QUESTION: Pakistan?

MS. NULAND: Yeah. Can you tell me who you are?

QUESTION: I’m (inaudible) with Pakistan Dawn newspaper. This morning, Monday morning, Pakistan and Iran performed the groundbreaking ceremony for the gas pipeline, and by Monday evening the stock market in Karachi had crashed amid fears that the United States may impose severe sanctions. Would you like to allay those fears?

MS. NULAND: I would not like to allay those fears. I would refer you back to comments that I made on Thursday and on Friday, I think, which repeated things that we’d said two weeks before, that we have serious concerns if this project actually goes forward that the Iran Sanctions Act would be triggered. We’ve been straight-up with the Pakistanis about these concerns. And as I said at some length last week, we are also working very closely bilaterally to support alternative projects to provide Pakistan with the energy that it needs.

All of that said, we’ve heard this pipeline announced about 10 or 15 times before in the past, so we have to see what actually happens.

QUESTION: Do you see the sanctions coming?

MS. NULAND: Say again?

QUESTION: Do you see the sanctions coming soon?

MS. NULAND: As I said, if this project actually goes forward, we have serious concerns that sanctions would be triggered.


QUESTION: In view of Pakistan’s growing energy needs and the fact that you’ve waived sanctions provision for some of the countries last year, EU and Japan, on import of Iranian oil, will there – can there be a consideration that you will waive sanctions provision for Pakistan in view of its energy needs, it has to meet energy needs?

MS. NULAND: Well, as we’ve talked about here before, what the legislation calls for is for our partner countries to be making a concerted effort to reduce their dependence on Iranian oil over time, so we are able to waive sanctions as we see reductions being made. In the case of the EU, they’re now at zero. In the case of Japan, they’ve been making a steady decline, as have other countries that we have waived sanctions on. This pipeline project – if, as I said – if it actually goes forward – we’ve seen that promise many times – would take Pakistan in the wrong direction right at a time that we’re trying to work with Pakistan on better, more reliable ways to meet its energy needs.

QUESTION: But the alternative, which is from Turkmenistan, it requires long-term stability and peace in Afghanistan, so that is not being seen as a very viable option right now. What are you encouraging and what are you offering Pakistan?

MS. NULAND: Again, I can go through this list again. I went through it some – quite extensively on Thursday. But just to remind that we are supporting large-scale energy projects in Pakistan that will add some 900 megawatts to the power grid by the end of 2013, fueling an additional 2 million households. These include renovating the power plants at Tarbela, at – and the Mangla Dams; modernizing the thermal plant at Guddu, Jamshoro, and Muzafaragarh; and building new dams at Satpara and Gomal Zam; as well as our work together on the TAPI pipeline.

QUESTION: See that – one more —

MS. NULAND: I think we’ve really done what we have on this one. Why don’t we move on? Thanks.

Anything else? Please.

QUESTION: Just one quick (inaudible) Syrian troops in Iraq, I got some reaction from (inaudible). I know that you are – you believe in spirit of interactive diplomacy. They just want to make sure that you call Syrian troops as noncombat, noncombatants in Iraq.

MS. NULAND: Obviously, the vast majority of Syrian troops have been combatants in this fight. I don’t want to leave any ambiguity about that. In this particular case, our understanding was that wounded troops were being returned across the border and that convoy was fired on by these al-Qaida affiliates.

Thank you all very much.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:30 p.m.)