“On a scale of one-to-10, with 10 being the best, I put my visit to Washington at 9.5,” said Speaker Kenneth Kedi in an interview with the Journal Wednesday this week.
The Speaker was in Arkansas at mid-week, following a packed agenda in Washington, DC over several days last week with meetings with many high-level US government officials.
The Speaker met with Special Envoy Ambassador Joseph Yun, who President Joe Biden recently named to head the Compact negotiations with the three freely associated states. Kedi said he expected a meeting of about 30 minutes with Yun and representatives of the Departments of State and Interior, and the White House National Security Council. “But we met for over an hour,” he said. That meeting segued into Yun inviting the Speaker to dinner where they continued the conversation for several hours, and were joined by former US Ambassador to RMI Karen Stewart and Assistant Secretary of Interior Keone Nakoa.
At the initial meeting with Yun and other US officials, it was nine-to-one, with Kedi the lone occupant of a chair on his side of the table. “I told them that nine-to-one was very intimidating and they laughed,” he said as he recounted the meeting. “But because this is among family and friends, I am not intimidated and I am going to speak frankly,” he said, adding that he felt this relaxed everyone for a productive discussion.
“I made it clear that I was there not as a negotiator for the Marshall Islands but as the senator for Rongelap and as the Speaker of the Marshall Islands,” Kedi said. He noted that Yun told him that he has already met in person Palau President Surangel Whipps, Jr. and FSM President David Panuelo. He talked with President Kabua by video conference call recently.
Kedi said he outlined the four key “pillars” on the RMI agenda for the Compact talks:
• A new economic aid package including “full inflation” adjustment for US funding.
• Climate change as a threat to both Marshall Islands and US national security, which includes threats to ongoing use of the Kwajalein missile range. He urged the US officials to ensure the RMI is included in a climate adaptation plan proposed by President Biden, which would make RMI eligible for climate assistance as any state in the US.
• Needs of the people at Kwajalein. “I didn’t go into detail, explaining that once the Compact Negotiating Committee meets with him they will present the issue in detail,” he said. But, he said he made it clear that “issues at Kwajalein need to be addressed in the new Compact agreement.”
• The nuclear test legacy. “We had a long discussion on the issue,” he said.
The Speaker said he restated to the US officials what he has said in Nitijela and in interviews with the Journal: “If there is no nuclear settlement, there will be no Compact three.” But, he said emphatically, “this is not a threat. My belief is that we will address it this time around. We’re here to stay with the US so let’s eliminate this big obstacle. We should look at a dignified solution as partners and family members.”
Kedi said he was pleased to hear Yun’s responses on multiple issues. Among other points, he said Yun responded that the US will seriously look at these issues. “Ambassador Yun told me that what he wants is for all parties to be happy to sign the (new) Compact. I told him that is what we want too.”
An indication of the tone that was set with these meetings was evident to the Speaker in some seemingly small things. “I’ve been to DC many times,” he said this week. “In all my previous trip to Washington over the years, I have never seen my US counterparts walk me to the door and to write their personal cell phone numbers on their business cards for me.”
He said Yun said he was unable to accept President Kabua’s invitation to visit the RMI this month due to previously scheduled meetings with the FSM, but is considering June as a possibility. Kedi also noted that top US officials are hoping they can respond positively to invitations to attend the Nitijela opening in August if border entry restrictions have been eased.
Kedi said he greatly appreciated US Ambassador Roxanne Cabral’s assistance in arranging his Washington, DC visit.