Controversy at State Department, prospects for US-DPRK talks, and Iranian oil tanker

a 7-minute news roundup from the Press the Button podcast

This is a transcript of a recent Early Warning segment from the podcast Press the Button, in which  Joe Cirincione discusses a State Department-attempted purge of dissenters, prospects for getting the talks going between North Korea and the United States on denuclearization, and Gibraltar's release of an Iranian oil tanker, with Ploughshares Fund Deputy Director of Policy Mary Kaszynski and Jessica Lee, Senior Director at Council of Korean Americans. Listen and subscribe to our weekly podcast today! 

Early Warning segment, August 20, 2019

  • Joe Cirincione, President
  • Mary Kaszynski, Deputy Director of Policy, Ploughshares Fund
  • Jessica Lee, Senior Director at Council of Korean Americans

JOE: I'm delighted to be joined for Early Warning this week by Jessica Lee, who's the Senior Director of the Council of Korean Americans, and Mary Kaczynski, our Deputy Director of Policy here at Ploughshares. Thank you, Mary. Thank you, Jessica.

JESSICA: Thank you.

MARY: Thank you, Joe.

JOE: Great, I want to start with you, Mary, right off on Iran because you've got a couple of stories to cover today and let me start with something that's not happening in the Middle East, but it's happening in Foggy Bottom, a State Department-attempted purge of dissenters. Tell us about what's going on.

MARY: Exactly. So there have been some emails and some rumors that Trump administration officials at the State Department have been systemically harassing and pushing out career officials based on supposedly-political reasons that these officials were promoting Obama administration policies. The State Department Office of Inspector General just released a report last week. They've been looking into these allegations and they found that in fact this was true; that Trump administration officials have been pushing out employees for betraying Trump administration policies. Again, it was systemic harassment, accusations of betrayal and things like that. This was the first of two reports that the Office of Inspector General has released. The second one, the second report, they are still working on and Democrats in the house will also be investigating these reports and these allegations.

JOE: Yeah, on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

MARY: Exactly.

JOE: And is this related specifically to Iran, or is it a number of issues?

MARY: Absolutely. So, uh, there were, there was at least one official who worked on Iran policy who was pushed out of State, very likely because the Trump administration viewed this person as not toeing the Trump administration line.

JOE: And so - so they're out?

MARY: Yes, exactly.

JOE: Lost their job because of their policy differences?

MARY: Yes.

JOE: Hmmm. A Democracy, huh?

MARY: Exactly. In theory, yeah. That's what we've got so far. If we can keep it.

JOE: Thank you very much. Jessica, there's been a lot happening with Korea lately, but I want to ask about what might happen. What are the prospects for getting the talks going between North Korea and the United States on denuclearization? These were supposed to happen within a couple of weeks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, and that was about a month ago.

JESSICA: That's right. Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump had agreed at the inter-Korean border on June 30th to resume talks, but nothing has happened. And of course the news that we're hearing about the potential risk of reshuffling of Steve Biegun being appointed as ambassador to Russia is also disconcerting in the fact that he is our point of contact, our point person, on talks with North Korea. And so we want make sure that these talks between the United States and North Korea continue at both the working level and at the highest levels. And I think the lack of momentum over the last month, as you point out, is worrisome.

JOE: What do you think about Steve Biegun? How do you assess his role in the few months that we had him working on these issues?

JESSICA: He's very sharp. He has met with members of my community and he has been very receptive to talks with the Korean American community and the broader public, as you know, on the issue of diplomacy with North Korea. So removing him in this pivotal role within the US government at a time when we are more or less stuck would be a real backsliding.

JOE: I mean, he’s qualified to be the ambassador to Moscow. This is part of his training. I think you were pointing out to me that he speaks Russian?

JESSICA: Right, he studied Russian in college. His professional background has - 

JOE: So Moscow's gain will be Korea’s loss.

JESSICA: That's exactly right.

JOE: Hmm. Okay. And meanwhile, bring us up to speed on the consequences of the missile test that Russia has been doing – I mean that North Korea has been doing, I mean they're modeled on Washington missiles, that's why I slipped right into that. But there are about six, if I understand correctly, just in the last five weeks.

JESSICA: That's exactly right. There are short range ballistic missiles, which means they can't reach the continental United States – 

JOE: So we don’t care!

JESSICA: No!! But they can reach American bases in Asia. They can reach, of course, American troops in Asia, and of course our allies in South Korea and  Japan. So it's not a small matter, but the timing of these six tests is I think quite obvious to observers in that North Korea is trying to create a wedge between the United States and South Korea to say, “Look as long as you guys do these rehearsal invasions” – as North Korea calls the joint drills between US and South Korean military, even though a lot of it is computer-simulated – “there’s no prospect of talks.” And so this is a problem. I think North Korea’s attempt to really create this wedge between the United States and South Korea is something that we need to call them out on. And I think the United States has to be really aggressive in making sure that South Korea, as a coequal partner in all this, is included in any sort of ongoing talks.

JOE: Has this tactic worked? Have they been successful in driving a wedge between the US and South Korea? What do you think? How do you assess the state of the alliance?

JESSICA: You know, the direct exchanges of letters between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump.

JOE: “I love you, Donald!”

JESSICA: “I love you back!” You know, this very public professing of love certainly creates, I think, the public perception that the relationship between the US and North Korea is getting warmer, that they're establishing this trust and there is so much potential here for some sort of a breakthrough. And I think, you know, the fact that we've been sort of mum on Kim Jong Un’s ridiculing of South Korea’s democratically-elected President, Moon Jae-In. You know, when when Kim Jong Un calls him "senseless" and says, “these talks are of course not going to start under these circumstances”, that's problematic. And so if we don't want this perception to persist, that there's some sort of a wedge, then of course the United States should be much more forceful in embracing South Korea is continued role.

JOE: Thank you very much. Thank you. Mary, we're running a little short on time, but there's some important news out of Gibraltar.

MARY: Gibraltar of all places, yes! So Gibraltar seized in Iranian oil tanker. The US has been attempting to pressure Gibraltar to hold onto this tanker, to not give in – as they think – to the Iranians. Gibraltar just released the oil tanker in direct contradiction to what the Trump administration wanted them to do. I think this is further evidence that the Trump administration's attempt to sort of rally allies at all levels against Iran is simply not working. So Tehran is playing the victim here and everyone else is on the one side versus the Trump administration.

JOE: So you might say Gibraltar is not exactly a ROCK of US-Iran policy?

MARY: Exactly.

JOE: Oh god. What did I do? Okay. Well thank you very much. We are out of time. That's seven minutes exactly. I want to thank you Jessica. Thank you, Mary, for joining us today.

MARY: Thank you, Joe, it’s a pleasure.

JESSICA: Thank you, great to be here.


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