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Media Availability with Secretary Mattis en route to Hawaii

Press Operations

Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis
Jan. 25, 2018
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SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS:  Okay, so coming out of -- want to just put it right there?  Does that work okay?

Coming out, obviously, of Hanoi, en route to Honolulu -- here we go.  Productive visit, and let me describe productive -- (inaudible).

This is the normal coordination, collaboration, consultation, as we work out a relationship with Vietnam, and leaving things in the past as our starting point.  We're still working on removing, mediating the effects of the war.  We signed, two days ago, a memorandum of intent to start addressing the Bien Hoa Air Base ground contamination.

So, we're dealing with those things in respect to the past, but it is definitely a forward-looking -- (inaudible) -- relationship, military-to-military relationship, going -- you know, I met with the minister of defense, my counterpart.  I also met with the president of Vietnam, and the secretary -- the general secretary of the Communist Party there.  All were positive and transparent and warm engagements.

You know, we see ourselves having common ground.  Neither one of us liked to be colonized, and so, you know, we've got like-minded partners between the two of us with shared values in determining free and international order -- open international order; the rule of law, international law, in this case; freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the East Sea; and as you heard, we're finally finalizing details on the possible visit of U.S. carriers going to Vietnam sometime this spring.  Still have to finalize the details at this time.  It's not final, but it all looked very encouraging.

And so, the ties are close now and getting closer, but we're still getting processes down, what -- what venue will we use to address what issues, just sort of kind of working out how we're going to go forward.

We see it in our best interest to see an independent, sovereign, prosperous Vietnam for the reasons we discussed going into Hanoi, coming out of Indonesia.  And we discussed, basically, the way to support that goal.  You know, how do you actually make those words turn into something pragmatic.  So, we're working on the practical aspects of how to go forward.

And, of course, we wish good luck to the Vietnam national football team as they go into their big game.  Those of you who were out on the street, I'm sure you've seen some of the excitement on the TV screens as you're walking along.  It was all good.

Now, along the way I want to go -- stop in Hawaii on the way back to meet with Admiral Harris and Pacific Command leadership.  We're discussing a whole range of issues; not just when I was out here, discussing Indonesia, and -- and Vietnam, but also, all the issues out here in the Pacific.  It's an opportunity to do that, and catch up on a couple things together in a room, and we'll do that.

I'll talk first with Admiral Harris when we arrive there this evening Hawaii time, and then tomorrow morning.  Oh yeah, and following my meeting with PACOM -- (inaudible) I’m going to meet with the ROK -- Republic of Korea minister of defense, Admiral Song.

This is, as you know, an ironclad alliance.  It's built on United Nations Command and the ROK-U.S. Command.  And we're -- again, this is the normal, ongoing consultation.  It was not set up like directly because of the Olympics or because of -- (inaudible) -- forecasted that weeks ago.  When I saw I was going to be out here, he said "Do you want to see me?"  I said "Let's cut the travel time for both of us and meet in Hawaii."  So that's why it's going on.  But it's also frequent, whether by telephone or in person.

And of course, we'll again address the nuclear-free -- (inaudible) -- policy of the ROK and Japan, the United States, the Chinese, the Russians and obviously the U.N. Security Council, in light of the three unanimous -- (inaudible) -- resolutions.

And this is still in the diplomats' hands, as you know.  While military options for defense of ROK, --(inaudible)-- exist, they are always ready.

As a reminder, I went into Vancouver two weeks ago for simply the opening hour and a half of the meeting there of foreign ministers of the sending states, plus ROK and Japan.  And then I left and the meeting went on without me there.  These were the diplomats, the foreign ministers.  Canadian foreign minister -- (inaudible) -- and Secretary Tillerson hosted it in British Columbia, and nations from Latin America and Europe, from Asia, North America obviously, all gathered for it.

So, we'll continue to hold the line and provide credible military options so the diplomats can speak from a position of strength and persuasion.

So that's basically the trip.

We've got a couple questions, we'll take them here.  So -- (inaudible) -- am I, Bob?  I like that.

(Laughter.)

We were trying to -- (inaudible), couldn't quite make it happen, but we're trying.

Q:  What sort of advice or observation did the Vietnamese give you in regards to North Korea?

SEC. MATTIS:  North Korea was firm in -- in at least several of the meetings, maybe all of them, but at least two of the meetings, so -- that they support international sanctions, United Nations sanctions.  And they have lived up to them, in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolutions.  Very straightforward.

Q:  Did they have some advice for you going forward on how you deal with the problem -- (inaudible)?

SEC. MATTIS:  Like all of us, they would like to -- they strongly, earnestly desire to see it solved diplomatically, like all of the nations that are trying to solve this.

Q:  That was in reference to Vietnam, right?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.

Q:  In regards to Turkey, has there been any change in Turkey's behavior in northern Syria since you and other senior administration officials sort of issued warnings -- (inaudible)?

SEC. MATTIS:  What did we do?

Q:  Well, you essentially have issued warnings, like, you know -- (inaudible) -- deteriorate and the war against --

(CROSSTALK) 

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, I got it.  Yes.  

Our concern is, is this going to be a distraction from crushing ISIS at this point in time?  The -- ISIS is not finished.  We are engaging at military levels with Turkey, at foreign minister, secretary of state level, and at the presidential level.  There's concerns about limiting this in time and in space and in protection, in -- there are a lot of non-combatant citizen people there.  

But, meanwhile, we're trying to keep a focus on some very tough fighting down on the Euphrates River Valley, several hundred kilometers away.  And yes, we have -- we are concerned this will be distracting.  The pace of the air -- the Turkish airstrikes have moderated from the first day.  I think that would be the best answer for you.  

Q:  Can I take you back to North Korea for a second?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.

Q:  You talked about, when you were in Vancouver, part of your responsibility is to provide credible military options.

SEC. MATTIS:  Of course.  The defense of South Korea is a treaty alliance with us.  There is not a peace treaty.  There is only an armistice right now.  So, from the day the fight -- fighting ended in 1953, there's been military forces along the -- what we call the Demilitarized Zone -- all along the southern side of that.  

And, numerous times, North Korea has violated that over the years, and out in the waters, and even against airliners -- civilian airliners, that sort of thing.  So those military options remain, since 1953, in place.  They remain there today.  We could fight tonight, shoulder to shoulder with the Koreans -- or South Koreans, if they're attacked.

Q:  Well, when you talk about ensuring that those military options that are available -- to being leverage, ostensibly, for diplomats, do you think that those military options --

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, they exist, and I don't want to -- I don't want to take you down the wrong road here.  They exist so that the diplomats speak from a position of authority, that they have to be listened to, because an attack on the Republic of Korea will be severely rebuffed if it's attempted.

Q:  Do you think that that -- those military options, that capability in any way dictates Kim Jong-un's behavior?  Do you think --

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  You'd have to ask Kim Jong-un that.

Q:  So you don't see any specific indication --

SEC. MATTIS:  No, I'm saying you'd have to ask Kim Jong-un that question.  I'm not -- I've got modest expectations that I can predict Kim Jong-un.

Q:  You have modest expectations you can get him --

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm sorry, what did --

Q:  You have modest expectations you can --

SEC. MATTIS:  I have modest expectations of my ability to predict --

Q:  I'm sorry.

SEC. MATTIS:  Kim Jong-un's behavior.  

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Sir, your discussions in Vietnam -- how much did military sales come up, whether things that these governments might want specifically, or just the idea of further --

SEC. MATTIS:  It's probably more the idea, Paul.  We -- again, we were setting up the procedure to do some of these things.  So some of the specifics that would be handled -- we're setting up the way that we would bring them from a pool, to -- you know, stuff like that.

Q:  Will there be something unique about how that happens with Vietnam?

SEC. MATTIS:  No.

Q:  Because they're not -- (inaudible) --

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  We're setting it up for the first time in Vietnam.  It's not going to be -- we have procedures and they have procedures.  It's a matter of matching them now.

You see, in some countries, it's what we would call our joint staffs who would be working.  In some countries, it's the ministry of defense.  In this case, we're putting together how their country works, but it's not just on that.  It's on training -- you know, inviting them to training with U.S. or international forces.

It's how do we work together.  They are going to be sending troops from the United Nations -- (inaudible).  We have a lot of experience there; we're talking about how we share that experience so that their troops learn from the lessons we've learned.  That sort of thing.

All these various issues were brought up as far as who's going to talk to who.

Q:  I know you can't tell me the specifics, but anything in particular that they might like?  Either equipment or specific training exercises?

SEC. MATTIS:  It was more general in nature, than specific -- specific areas like training, education, military equipment, U.N. peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief.  But there were not ‘eaches’ inside of those.

Q:  Is it fair to say that both sides want those meetings to increase?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.

Q:  (Inaudible) -- freedom of navigation of both countries.  Did the U.S. ramp up -- ramp up the freedom of navigation actions recently? And do you hope and plan to do it in the near future?

SEC. MATTIS:  The freedom of navigation program is all around the world.  It is committed to keeping free and open commerce.  And I don't -- as you know, really, I don't talk about future military operations.  But we work multilaterally and bilaterally with many nations out there, and they are the beneficiaries also of freedom of navigation; all nations benefit.  We don't say ‘freedom of navigation only for nations that are like us or our allies.’  For all nations.

We think that's -- that's part of what responsible nations do.

Q:  (Inaudible) -- situation in the region.  So is it different from the -- (inaudible)?

SEC. MATTIS:  It's probably just steady.

All right, I suppose you all want to get some rest too.

You haven't asked anything, Joe.  You got fever?

Q:  No --

(Laughter.)

SEC. MATTIS:  We'll -- we'll end with him, all right?  Okay, go ahead.  

We'll start with you and then we'll end with --(inaudible).

Q:  Okay, so you said that the meeting that's planned between you and your South Korean counterpart was scheduled before any of the Olympics adjustments.

SEC. MATTIS:  It might have been about then -- (inaudible) but it's weeks old -- it's weeks ago, okay?

Q:  Well, because those things happened, and there has been this shift where it seems like North Korea wants to talk directly to South Korea, do you -- are you going to be providing any different advice that the South Koreans may be able to make progress, even if we're not in the room, if the U.S. isn't in the room for those conversations?  Is there anything you can tell them that they might be able to -- (inaudible)?

SEC. MATTIS:  President Moon -- I -- you'll need to check this, but I believe President Moon is the one who said, from their government, that, if the North wants to bring up other issues outside the Olympics, they'll be told, "No, the right people are not in the room."

Does that sound right, Dan?

(UNKNOWN):  Yes, sir.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, it was President Moon.  So, right now, I don't think it's --

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  So you're relying on that, if it gets brought up now?

SEC. MATTIS: Well, absolutely.  We have very transparent communications with ROK at all levels, every day.  You know, there's communication, collaboration -- our policy people; our National Security Council staff; our State Department, obviously; our military-to-military -- you understand what -- (inaudible).  So, yes, it's very open communication, absolute trust between us.

The tensions are the tensions of the issues, not of the -- not of the -- between us.  At least -- at least, I don't have any -- I've not experienced any, now, in a year.  And I was the first in the administration -- you know, Cabinet-level -- to go to Korea, and I didn't have problems then.  I haven't had problems now.  And, in talking to Admiral Moon here in the last couple of weeks, we have not had any problems -- any miscommunications or anything.

Q:  I hate to -- I know you don't like talking about Niger before the investigation is complete, but there was a video that surfaced, and I was just wondering if you've heard about this video, whether or not --

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.

Q:  -- do you think that it's authentic, or not?

SEC. MATTIS:  I can't answer that question.  Yes, we've heard about the video.  AFRICOM is reviewing the video, and I -- so I can't comment on it right now.


Q:  Can we switch to off the record for a second?

SEC. MATTIS:  Okay, yes.  You want to go off the record for a minute?

Q:  If we're off the record.  Could you (give us?) --