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Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh Holds a Press Briefing

DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY SABRINA SINGH: All right, hi, everyone. Good afternoon. I just have a few things here at the top, and then I'd be happy to take your questions.

Next week, the secretary will travel on his eighth trip to the Indo-Pacific region, to include the first-ever visit by a serving secretary of defense to Papua New Guinea. He will meet with government leaders to discuss next steps following the recent signature of the U.S.-Papua New Guinea Defense Cooperation Agreement, which reflects our friendship and our shared values as Pacific countries.

He will then travel to Australia and join Secretary Blinken to meet with their counterparts for the 33rd annual Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations to advance our unprecedented cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region and globally. Also in Australia, Secretary Austin will visit U.S. and Australian service members participating in Exercise Talisman Sabre, the United States' largest military exercise with Australia.

Every stop on the trip will highlight how since the start of the Biden administration, the United States, its allies and partners across the Indo-Pacific region have made major investments in their own sources of national strength and their shared ties, driving historic momentum toward a shared regional vision for peace, stability and prosperity in a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Yesterday, the department announced a new security assistance package that included additional air defense capabilities, munitions and mine-clearing equipment totaling $1.3 billion. This USAI package highlights the continued U.S. commitment to meeting Ukraine's pressing requirements by committing critical near-term capabilities, while also building the enduring capacity of Ukraine's Armed Forces to defend its territory and deter Russian aggression over the mid and long term.

Switching gears a bit to AFRICOM, U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa, Force Medical held an event in support of Africa Malaria Task Force on July 17-21 in Accra, Ghana. Tactical-level individuals from the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Health and key leaders from 25 partner nations attended with a focus on the emerging threat of malaria. Since its inception in 2011, the task force has brought together scientists and policymakers with demonstrated interest in malaria programs to share resources, strategies and expertise that would ultimately leave -- lead as a catalyst for change. The African (sic) Malaria Task Force complements the U.S. president's Malaria Initiative focused on malaria prevention in Africa and the African Partner Outbreak Response Alliance, which supports global health security objectives for the United States and partner nations.

And lastly, today, the Senate Armed Services voted on the nominations of General CQ Brown for the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Gen- -- General George for Army -- for the chief of staff for the Army. The committee, including Senator Tuberville, unanimously voted to move these nominees to the Senate floor. But however, as you're very familiar, Senator Tuberville is holding up military nominations not just be -- not because of their qualifications, but because he disagrees with a DOD policy. This unprecedented hold directly impacts readiness and our national security.

And to reiterate what Secretary Austin said earlier this week, one in five troops are women. They do not get a chance to pick where they are assigned and they sacrifice every day. This policy allows service members and their family -- and their family members to access noncovered reproductive health, including important family services such as in vitro fertilization.

And with that, I'd be happy to take your questions. Tara, do you want to start us off?

Q: Sure, thanks, Sabrina. Several questions about Private King. Could his escorts make a mistake not escorting him all the way to the plane and staying to make sure he was on the plane when it took off? And then secondly, do you have a better idea now of what he was doing from the moment he left the customs area until the point he crossed into North Korea? Then I have a couple more.

MS. SINGH: Sure. So in terms of the -- the escorting to the plane, this was someone that was going -- as Private King, I should say, was going from one duty station. He was -- he was leaving a deployment and going back and returning home to his home base prior -- his home station. So when he was escorted all the way up, he was -- they were only able to escort him up to security, and when he got to the gate, he did confirm that he was -- he was near the gate.

And in terms of -- I'm sorry. Your second question was on --

Q: Do you have any better visibility on -- you know, there's about half a day where --

MS. SINGH: Yeah.

Q: -- you don't know where he was.

MS. SINGH: So we have -- the Army has launched an investigation into this incident. It's going to be led by Army counterintelligence personnel, and they'll be conducting this in coordination with U.S. Forces Korea. So we -- at this moment right now, I can't tell you more about his whereabouts. That's something that the investigation would reveal.

Q: Okay. And then just to see if anything's changed, has North Korea responded to any outreach from either the U.S. or from another country acting on our behalf about his welfare?

MS. SINGH: Unfortunately, no. They -- we have not heard any communication or correspondence from the North Koreans on this incident.

Yeah, I'll go to Jen.

Q: Sabrina, I'm trying to understand still why he was allowed to be unescorted to the gate. He was facing disciplinary measures back here in the States. Are you saying that there was just a -- sort of an honor code and a trust that he would get onboard or -- why -- I don't understand why there wasn't more monitoring or somebody to fly with him.

MS. SINGH: Sure. Well, he wasn't in custody when he was going through the airport. He was flying home. So because of that, he wasn't -- he -- because he wasn't in custody, he was leaving his deployment and had faced consequences in Korea, had served those -- or served that time that he served in the correctional facility and then was returning home. So --

Q: -- face more consequences at home?

MS. SINGH: He was --

Q: Disciplinary?

MS. SINGH: He was facing additional administrative action but I'd leave that to the Army to speak to what exactly that was, but what I can say is that, from what I've -- from what we know, is that when he was being escorted to the airport, his escorts were not allowed to go beyond security.

Q: And then there's a story out suggesting that there's an Army report indicating that this may have been pre-planned with the North Koreans, that somehow this soldier had -- had been contacted and that this was part of a plan or an outreach and that the North Koreans weren't surprised when he crossed. Is that accurate? What can you say?

MS. SINGH: I haven't seen that report. This is of course under investigation. We don't have any inclination of that at this time, but again, we'll let the investigation take its course, but I haven't seen that report, so I couldn't comment on it.

Q: Was he a defector?

MS. SINGH: I -- again, that's something that the investigation will certainly glean. That's not something -- a characterization that we're using right now.


Q: Do you have any knowledge of -- or perhaps intelligence that -- that Private King is -- is alive?

MS. SINGH: Well, that's something that we're focused on. We're focused on -- our -- our priority focus and what the Secretary reiterated at the beginning of this week was that we want to bring him home. We don't know his condition, we don't know where he's being held, we don't know the status of his health, but we are working with the interagency, through the DOD, through the NSC and State, really pulling all levers of government here to -- to try and find out more but I don't -- I don't have a -- I don't have anything else to add on that.

Q: -- so you don't know -- you couldn't say right now whether -- even through intelligence channels, that you know he's alive?

MS. SINGH: I wouldn't be able to get into any intelligence or -- or speak to that. All I can say is that, from when he crossed over to the DMZ, we know he is in custody of the North Koreans, but beyond that, in terms of his condition, I just -- I can't speak to that.

Q: And then on the issue of U.S. forces in South Korea, has there been any kind of greater restrictions put on them? Has anything changed regarding, you know, their freedom of movements when off-duty or in -- in a -- you know, a -- when they're in travel, you know, themselves?

MS. SINGH: That's a good question for South Korea forces there. I am not aware of any changes to any policies, so I'd direct you them -- to them.


Q: Thank you. Same questions on these issues. I'm wondering, because everybody have a lot of questions about this -- I visited this area several times. JSA is a place where safety is highly demanded. But how could this soldier who left without boarding a plane attended a tour of Panmunjom?

MS. SINGH: Well, that's something that the investigation is going to be looking at. We don't know his motivations for why he did not board the plane. We don't know what he did in the hours between when he left the airport and when he crossed over into the DPRK.

We have snippets of time and -- and understand from -- I'm -- we've seen some of the publicly reported imagery of him taking the tour, of what time that was, but beyond that window of sort of the questions that you're getting into on, like, what he did during the time that between when he left the airport and the tour, that's something that the investigation is going to have to look into.

Q: -- you think there was a security gap because they not follow him and the -- they not -- this is guy’s a troublemaker, something, you know, you --

MS. SINGH: Sure. Well, again, that's something that I mentioned before. This wasn't a service member that was in custody. He had served in a -- in a correctional facility in South Korea. He was being returned to his duty station at home. So there was -- you know, we -- I don't think anyone anticipated that he was going to leave the airport.

He did have escorts take him all the way up through security, and what we know is that he confirmed that he was, you know, near or -- or somewhere close by the gate, but I don't think there was any anticipation that he was going to not board his flight.

Q: -- can I follow up with another question?

MS. SINGH: Yep, we can do another one.

Q: -- China and Russia are conducting large scale military exercise on the East Coast near South Korea. Meanwhile, North Korean Kim Jong-un announced they -- he ready for the nuclear war. How can you respond to this?

MS. SINGH: Well, I think, on -- on the exercises, we've seen the -- China and Russia conduct these exercises just last year. Again, it shows China siding -- or -- or prioritizing an exercise with a country that unjustly invaded its sovereign neighbor. You saw the joint statement that President Putin and President Xi, I think, had also put out.

Again, all of this demonstrates that the link between European security, Indo-Pacific security, it's all -- it's all linked together. And we certainly are -- are in touch with our allies and partners around the world but we've seen this exercise take place just -- just last year.

I'm going to move on and I can -- I can always come back. Matt, yeah?

Q: Thanks, Sabrina. Today, North Korea's Defense Chief implied that the presence of the nuclear-capable USS Kentucky at port in South Korea might fall under the legal conditions for his country's use of nuclear weapons. Do you take that as a threat? And what's the department's response to that language?

MS. SINGH: Well, I -- I certainly don't think rhetoric like that is -- is helpful. The port visit that you're referring to is something consistent, that the President had said early on this year, when President Yoon came to visit -- I'm -- I'm forgetting the exact month -- but when the two leaders met.

This is something consistent, when it comes to strategic deterrence, and it reflects our ironclad commitment to the region, but I wouldn't say that -- you know, rhetoric like that, it's incredibly dangerous. We're not there to instigate or to -- you know, I -- I'm using a bad expression, but poke the bear -- we are there -- this is a further deepening of our cooperation with South Korea and something that was announced during the Washington Declaration.

So again, I would just refer you back to what the President had announced when the state -- when President Yoon visited earlier this year.

Q: Okay.

MS. SINGH: Yeah.

Q: Can you say any more about the efforts being made to contact North Korea, either directly or through intermediaries? Is this a matter of making the calls and just no one's picking up on the other end, there's no sign of any response at all so far?

MS. SINGH: Unfortunately, no. There's no sign of engagement from the North Koreans. We don't have any lead -- we've always maintained that we want to have diplomatic channels remain open. We've always wanted to ensure that there are -- is military-to-military cooperation and communication. But sadly, there's -- there's not on the North Korean side.

You've heard from my NSC counterparts that there has been engagement at their level to Sweden and -- and other, you know, interagency efforts to try and engage North Korea, but we just have not heard back on this issue.

Q: Thank you.

MS. SINGH: Yeah. Oren?

Q: Just a -- a quick clarification on that.

MS. SINGH: Sure.

Q: Those efforts, those outreach efforts continue despite North Korea's non-answers, right? There -- there are still ongoing outreach efforts?

MS. SINGH: There are, yes.

Q: And then the second question. At any point while Travis King was in South Korea, especially after he had served 50 days in a (inaudible) jail, was there ever a psychological evaluation conducted to see if there were any issues or to determine if something like this might have been likely or concern about something like this?

MS. SINGH: I'd have to refer you to Army for that. I'm just -- I'm -- I don't know off the top -- I am not aware.

Q: OK.

MS. SINGH: Yeah.


Q: Hi. I wanted to ask a follow-up question about the USAI package from yesterday.

MS. SINGH: Sure.

Q: Can you provide any more details on the tactical vehicles for towing equipment, and also for recovering vehicles? Can you say if those have been sent before? And if so, why is this something that's being provided under USAI, rather than equipment drawdown?

MS. SINGH: Sure. USAI is a long-term commitment to Ukraine. We have done over -- or we are at 42 presidential drawdown authorities now. Again, it's our long-term commitment. We -- we have -- we evaluate what's on our stock shelves and see what we can provide, you know, within days and weeks immediately to Ukraine. But the USAI is just another type of commitment in our long-term commitment to Ukraine.

As you heard the secretary say earlier this week, the Ukrainians certainly have what they need to be successful in their counteroffensive. They have the combat power. They have the ability to demine the minefields that the Russians have laid. And so we're confident in their ability to continue to push on in the counteroffensive. And again, the USAI is just another tool in our toolbox to demonstrate our long-term commitment to Ukraine.

Go ahead.

Q: So with the counteroffensive, it's not a question of the U.S. stocks of these tactical vehicles being -- being low or (inaudible)...

MS. SINGH: No, it's just -- it's just another commitment for long -- it's a long-term commitment to Ukraine. And again, you can see some of the other packages -- other USAI packages that we've rolled out include similar equipment and systems. I don't have that whole list in front of me, but you can go on and -- and find all of that.

Let me take one question from the phone here. Howard Altman, War Zone?

Q: Thanks, Sabrina. Ukraine today issued a -- a warning about shipping in the Black Sea. It follows -- can you hear me? It follows (inaudible)...

MS. SINGH: We're just going to turn up your volume just a bit. Sorry.

Q: OK. Anyway, can you hear me now? How's that? All right, so Russia -- Ukraine today issued a warning about Black Sea shipping follow on by Russia yesterday. How concerned is the U.S. about shipping in the Black Sea given this warning, given the tensions? And -- and what, given there's no naval presence the U.S. has in the Black Sea, what is being done about that by the Pentagon?

MS. SINGH: Well, we've already seen the ramifications of Russia withdrawing from the grain deal. We're seeing higher global wheat prices all around the world, and we're going to see many countries impacted by Russia withdrawing from the deal -- Africa, Latin America, others that depend on this grain all around the world, countries that are food insecure.

And so I would say that the message that Vladimir Putin is sending to these countries is that he doesn't care. He continues to engage in this unjust, unprovoked war that seems to be his priority, rather than the idea that there could be other starving countries all around the world, because he has, you know, withdrawn Russia from the grain deal.

So on our part, like you mentioned, we don't have assets in the Black Sea, but what we can do is continue to encourage and be outspoken about urging Russia to return to the deal and to allow that grain to reach as many people as -- as possible. (inaudible) I’ll come back into the room. Hey, Rio. Yeah.

Q: Thank you. I want to follow up about China-Russia by joint exercises in the Sea of Japan. Do you assess they are responding to U.S.-Japan's-South Korea’s closer defense cooperation? Do you characterize exercises as concerning?

MS. SINGH: Well, the -- we monitor the exercises, but this is something that we saw last year. So again, we -- we've seen that Russia -- China continues to engage in military -- in military cooperation with Russia, despite the fact that it is in -- its brutal war against Ukraine. So we do monitor, but this is something that did -- we did observe last year.

Yeah. No problem. Sorry. Yes?

Q: Hey, thank you. I want to go back to grain deal question...

MS. SINGH: Sure.

Q: ... regarding the tensions that have been building up recently. How engaged are you with the Turks? Or are you in close contact with them regarding the security for these (inaudible) trades, for example? (inaudible)...

MS. SINGH: I don't have anything more specific to add right now. I mean, Russia just withdrew from the grain deal. We continue to urge Russia to return to it. Turkey was the leading nation that helped broker that deal. We certainly talk to our Turkish counterparts and our allies who have been supportive of Ukraine during this war, but I just don't have more to -- to share at that -- at this moment.

Q: Anything specific regarding the security of this trade to our energy and civilian ships, or any other ships?

MS. SINGH: No, noth- -- I mean, nothing specific from, like, what the United States is doing. We don't have assets in the Black Sea right now.

Q: With regard to that, are you in close cooperation with Turks? Is there anything specific on the table?

MS. SINGH: Nothing that I can share at the moment. Yeah.

Yes, in the back? Hi.

Q: Thank you, Sabrina. The Belarus the military and members of Wagner formed a group. As the military of Belarus announced, they will hold four days of joint training in the region near the Poland border. So how much concern do you have about the security situation in that area specific -- specific of the eastern border of the NATO and E.U.? And is there any change with the U.S. troops planning priority there (inaudible) take from (inaudible). Thank you.

MS. SINGH: No announcement in terms of any type of troop movement or repositioning of -- of any of our trips along the eastern flank. In terms of what we're seeing in Belarus -- seeing the reporting that Wagner troops continue to move into that region and continue to, I think, consolidate there.

Look, I would -- I would let the Belarusians and -- and Wagner speak to what their intentions are. We've certainly seen Wagner forces get sort of re-integrated within the Russian military. But again, our focus is on Ukraine, what we can do to help Ukraine in this fight now and what you -- we can continue to sustain with for its long term. And so that's what our focus is on. You just saw us roll out a -- another security assistance package for long-term assistance earlier this week. We're going to continue to roll out more packages as we go forward.


Q: Thank you. I have two questions on North Korea.

MS. SINGH: Sure.

Q: The first -- next week, July 27th will mark the anniversary of the armistice of the Korean War in 1953. How much are you worried about North Korea additional provocations, including another satellite missile launch?

And to follow-up on the detention of the U.S. soldier. Given the recent tension in the region, are you worried that North Korea could use this case as a bargaining chip?

MS. SINGH: Well, it's hard to speak to hypotheticals. So I couldn't really say on -- on that front.

Our biggest concern about Private King is that we want to bring him home, and we are doing whatever we can through the interagency, from DOD and -- and other partners, to find a way that we could bring him home. Again, as you heard me say, I just -- we have not heard any contact, we have not received any communication back from the North Koreans, but that is something that remains our focus.

In terms of the anniversary, I mean, again, hard to predict. I don't know what DPRK is planning. All I can say is, again, we don't -- we don't seek conflict. We continue to work with our allies and partners in the region to further deter but we're not looking to seek conflict and we're not looking for more provocation.

Constantine, yeah.

Q: Yeah, thanks, Sabrina. On the outreach to Private King, how confident is the Department of Defense that your outreach is being received by the North Koreans?

MS. SINGH: Well, it's hard to say. We haven't received any communication back from them. All we can do is continue to communicate, both publicly and in private channels. It is of course concerning when you don't hear back but we've never also had engagement with the North Koreans and they certainly have shut down military-to-military engagement with us at senior levels.

So it's not unexpected, but with this case in particular, we are of course -- our priority is to bring an American home. That is what we want to do, so we're going to keep engaging where we can.

Q: Thank you.

MS. SINGH: Yeah, Tara?

Q: ... a follow-up?

MS. SINGH: Sure.

Q: Can you describe what those private channels are? Is -- are these phone calls, is it cables? What -- how are you communicating?

MS. SINGH: I would let each agency speak to that. These are -- you know, these are pretty sensitive ways of communicating, and I would just leave it at that.

Q: Can I follow-up?

MS. SINGH: Yeah, I'm going to go to the back and then I'll come back for one more. Yeah?

Q: Thank you for your time today. I had a quick question regarding the U.S.-Japan-ROK Trilateral Summit ...


Q: ... reported today it's to take place next month. Can you provide us with any insights into the agenda and the primary objectives of the meeting? And can we expect these meetings to continue later down the line as well?

MS. SINGH: Thanks for the question. I'm just not going to get ahead of anything or any further announcements. So I will -- I will not get ahead of that -- sorry -- and I have nothing else to provide. Sorry.

I'm just going to Erin and then I'll come back to Janne.

Q: So when you say agencies, how many are involved? It's not just the DOD trying to get Private King back, it's DOD, State? Who else?

MS. SINGH: Yeah. This is an interagency -- this is collaborative, where you -- we don't work in silos ...

Q: ... referring us to ask DOD -- ask DOD...

MS. SINGH: Yep. Well, it is -- it is our -- it is our soldier but we are certainly working with State and the NSC, both who have incredibly powerful voices all around the world and have counterparts all around the world, to lever what we can to engage with North Korea, and unfortunately we just have not had any successful engagement breakthrough right now.

OK, Janne, and then I'll go to Mike.

Q: ... that -- the -- Travis King voluntarily defected to the -- North Korea but the -- how do you know whether he wants to stay in North Korea or he doesn't want to come to the United States and his home?

MS. SINGH: Well, again, Janne, I -- I am cautious to use that word. That's something that the investigation will yield. What I can tell you is that the soldier's current duty status is absent without leave. That's all I can say right now.

I -- it's hard -- I can't say what he was thinking at the time. This is a very difficult situation. I can't imagine what his family's going through. All I can say is that our priority is to bring him home, and we are doing everything that we can to do that.

All right, Mike?

Q: Is (inaudible) the only country that acts as an interlocutor between the U.S. and North Korea, or are there other countries that are -- that the U.S. is reaching out to?

MS. SINGH: I can't speak to other countries but I know that we have worked with Sweden previously.

Q: Have you worked with Sweden on this particular issue ...

MS. SINGH: Yes, we are. The NSC spoke to that as well, that the -- that we are engaging with the Swedes on -- on this front.

Q: ... what administrative actions were proposed against him once he got back to Fort (inaudible)?

MS. SINGH: I would refer you to the Army for that, for more context. All I can say is, you know, I -- he was facing additional administrative action ...

Q: ... (inaudible) ...

MS. SINGH: I do not -- I do not. I would refer you to the Army for that, who can answer more questions.

OK ...

Q: ... as a private cavalry scout, he probably would have had -- been privy to much information that North Korea would be interested in though, right?

MS. SINGH: I mean, we're not -- we're -- we're not -- that is not our assessment. This is, again, our -- something that the investigation will certainly look into, but that is not our assessment at this time. Right now, again, our focus is on bringing him home.

Q: So what (inaudible)?

MS. SINGH: That he is -- what -- how did you phrase it, a -- an intelligence liability or a -- some -- I'm sorry ...

Q: ... was a Private E-2 Cavalry Scout.

MS. SINGH: Right. So I don't remember exactly how Mike phrased it -- yep -- yep, I'll take two more. Tara and then Luis.

Q: Just a follow-up on -- has there been any other communication with the family besides the next of kin? Do they have a case officer that's staying in touch with them about this?

MS. SINGH: That's really a question for the Army. They are the point of contact for the family, so I would -- I would defer to them on that.

Yeah, Luis?

Q: Sabrina, there have been some reports that the -- Ukraine has used the cluster munitions the United States has provided to them. Can you confirm that? And what kind of effect do you expect that they'll have on the battlefield, if that is the case?

MS. SINGH: Yeah, I believe -- I believe they have started using them. In terms of the effect on the battlefield, I'd -- I'd really let Ukraine speak to how they -- in -- intend to employ them, but, you know, this is a powerful artillery that we have given them. They have -- have promised to -- or have committed to use it responsibly, to keep track of -- and record where they are using it, so when this war is over, they can begin those de-mining efforts.

But I would let -- to -- Ukraine speak to more of their operational uses on that front.

Q: And these are the ones that are included -- that are housed inside of artillery shells, is that correct?

MS. SINGH: That's right, yeah.

All right, great. Thanks. We can wrap it up there.