White House —
The Biden administration says it will do “everything we can” to bring home Private 2nd Class Travis King, the junior soldier crossed into North Korea earlier this week “willfully and without authorization.”
John Kirby, director of strategic communications for the National Security Council, told VOA on Thursday that American officials have not had a chance to communicate with the 23-year-old soldier, who crossed the demilitarized zone earlier this week.
Kirby also expressed concerns about political infighting in Congress that has delayed passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, about concerns over Moscow’s pullout from the deal that allowed grain shipments to leave ports in the Black Sea, and about the continued lack of direct communication between the militaries of the U.S. and China.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VOA: Thank you for joining us this morning. Let’s start with the saga of Private Travis King. Do we have any updates on his condition, his motivations, his whereabouts, and have we heard any communication from Pyongyang? And is the administration committed to bringing him home even if that’s against his wishes?
Kirby: We don’t have any updates on Private King. We continue to conduct appropriate outreach to the North Korean side to try to gain some information and insight as to his whereabouts and his well being, but we just don’t know. And we are absolutely committed to working to getting him returned to his family. We don’t know the motivation here. We haven’t had a chance to talk to him. So we don’t know exactly what he’s thinking right now. But he’s an American soldier. And we’re going to do everything we can to try to find out where he is, how he is, and work to get him back home.
VOA: Let’s move on to Russia and the grain deal. Is the administration looking at any workarounds to get these essential supplies out of port? Things like NATO escorts, or reflagging vessels? How seriously does the administration take the threat from Russia’s defense ministry that it’s going to treat all vessels in that port as carrying military equipment?
Kirby: We have to take that ridiculous threat seriously. We are working and we will work with Ukraine and our allies and partners to try to find other ways to get the grain out of Ukraine. It’ll most likely have to go through ground routes. We’ve done this before [when] the grain deal was in effect. It’s not as efficient; you can’t get as much grain out that way. We understand that. But we’re going to keep trying.
Look, what has to happen here is — aside from Russia ending its blockade and, make no mistake, what they’re threatening to do is a military blockade that is a military act, so aside from just not doing that — they need to get back into the deal. The deal was good for everybody including Russian farmers. But it was really good for developing nations who have food scarcity issues that are only going to be exacerbated by this throughout the Global South, Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
VOA: Let’s move on to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin. First of all, the Kremlin has said Putin is not going to South Africa, which allows him to avoid getting arrested. Does the U.S. still encourage International Criminal Court signatories to arrest him if they have the opportunity? And does this change or improve the relationship between Washington and Pretoria now that there’s no longer this awkward situation between them?
Kirby: I’ll let the South African leaders speak for themselves. We believe it’s important that everyone responsible for the atrocities and war crimes in Ukraine to be held accountable and that includes Russian leaders who are responsible for the efforts of their troops on the ground in Ukraine.
VOA: We’ve seen Prigozhin resurface and say — allegedly — that Wagner troops are not willing to fight in Ukraine. What do you make of this? What are the implications?
Kirby: It’s too hard to know right now exactly how seriously we should take this or what the impacts on the battlefield will be. I will tell you that Wagner forces — we haven’t seen them fighting in Ukraine since Mr. Prigozhin attempted overthrow of the Ministry of Defense. It’s unclear exactly how many are in Ukraine, but we haven’t seen them contribute much to the fighting in Ukraine. So it’s just too soon to know.
VOA: Moving on to the Aspen Security Forum: China keeps coming up as the big concern. U.S. Admiral John C. Aquilino said that they’re still trying to reopen military-to-military communication with China. Can you update us on that effort and why it’s so important?
Kirby: Military-to-military communications remain closed. That’s unfortunate, especially when tensions are so high. You want to be able to pick up the phone and talk to your opposite. And try to take the tensions down and to avoid miscalculation when you have that kind of military hardware sailing so close together, flying so close together. The potential for miscalculation and risk only shoot up if you can’t talk to one another.
VOA: On Iran: in April the U.S. confiscated some Iranian oil from a tanker. Iran’s navy chief is very unhappy about this and says they’ll retaliate. Is the U.S. ready to engage militarily with Iran on this? And what are the rules of engagement?
Kirby: Nobody wants to see armed conflict in the Gulf region. That said, Iran’s attacks on maritime shipping have continued nearly unabated, some of them successful, some not, because we intervene. You saw that the Pentagon just recently announced some new force deployments to the Gulf region to make us more capable of deterring these kinds of attacks. And we urge the Iranian regime to stop these destabilizing behaviors. In the meantime, we’re going to make sure we’ve got the capabilities that we need and our allies and partners have had the assurance that the United States has the capability that it needs to continue to defend ourselves and in our interests.
VOA: Last week, you told us about a mass grave in Sudan. Does this return of ethnically tinged violence at the hands of the Rapid Support Forces change the U.S. position on who to support in this conflict?
Kirby: We’re supporting the people of Sudan. Make no mistake about it. And you saw us issue sanctions against both sides. You saw us condemn this report of mass graves in West Darfur. We are on the side of the people of Sudan. That’s not going to change and we will continue to hold those accountable who are making it harder for the people of Sudan to live, to work and to achieve the kinds of civilian governance that they so desperately want.
VOA: My final question is about the National Defense Authorization Act. Earlier this week, you gave an impassioned argument for why the administration believes that reproductive care needs to be offered to service members and their families. Some right-wing media in the United States have taken your argument as justification for why women should be barred from the military. I understand that this is not a proposal that the White House or the Pentagon would take seriously. But can you remind us why diversity, equity and inclusion add to national security?
Kirby: Diversity adds to national security because it helps us make better decisions. Yes, there is a representational aspect of this. We are an all-volunteer force. And we need to recruit people from all walks of life in the United States and this is a diverse nation. Why wouldn’t you want your military to represent the very people they’re defending? But I have seen, myself, in almost 30 years of naval service, that when you have diverse people in the room, decisions are smarter, they’re more contextual, and the way we operate is better and more efficient and more effective to national defense. And that’s not something that President [Joe] Biden will ever walk away from.
VOA: Do you want to say anything else about the delay in the passage of the NDAA and the effect that it’s having on morale or national security?
Kirby: The president looks forward to getting the NDAA legislation on his desk. He knows it’s going to look different when it gets to his desk than what it does right now. But it’s important that we do get an NDAA to the president’s desk as soon as possible so that the troops can have the resources that they need to continue to defend the nation. It is a national security issue.
VOA: Thank you so much for your commitment to our audience, John.
Kirby: It’s a pleasure.