Morning News Brief: North Korea's Nuclear Threat, Trump TV

Aug 9, 2017
Originally published on August 9, 2017 7:38 am
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

North Korea's nuclear arsenal may be advancing faster than analysts had once thought.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Yeah, The Washington Post reported yesterday that North Korea has produced a nuclear warhead small enough to sit on top of a missile. Since that news broke, the U.S. and North Korea have been trading threats back-and-forth. President Trump warned that North Korea would face, quote, "fire and fury" if it continued to threaten the U.S.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States.

CHANG: It didn't take long for North Korea to come back with a threat of its own. The state-run news agency said the North Korean military is carefully examining a plan to strike the U.S. territory of Guam. Here's what Guam's governor, Eddie Calvo, had to say about that.

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EDDIE CALVO: An attack or threat on Guam is a threat or attack on the United States.

MARTIN: All right, we've got a lot to work through this morning so we have brought in two correspondents - NPR's science editor Geoff Brumfiel and NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly. Thanks, you guys, for coming in.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Geoff, I'm going to start with you. Now that we've got this reporting that North Korea has miniaturized a nuclear warhead, do we know if North Korea actually has the capacity to hit Guam?

BRUMFIEL: Well, we know it has several key components. We know it has missiles that can reach Guam and, actually, probably the lower 48 states for that matter. According to this one report, we know that they have warheads small enough to fit on top of those missiles. So those are kind of the two main things you need to strike.

MARTIN: Those are pretty good indicators that they could do this.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. Now, that doesn't mean they have everything. I mean, you know, you - making an operational nuclear weapon that can actually go up and come back down and survive re-entry through the Earth's atmosphere is a more complicated issue.

MARTIN: Yeah.

BRUMFIEL: But, you know, it seems that they've - you know, according to these reports, I think you have to take it seriously - yeah, that they could.

MARTIN: Wasn't this supposed to be a long ways off, Mary Louise? I mean, the official assessment, I thought, was that North Korea wasn't going to be able to do this for a while.

KELLY: Well, the official intelligence assessments have been changing fast, in part to reflect the fact that the North Koreans are making advances very rapidly. I mean, they have been testing missiles at an unprecedented rate, including two in the last month - five nuclear tests, including two in the last year. The silver lining, from the U.S. intelligence point of view, if you're trying to look for one in this, is that all of that activity is giving U.S. analysts a lot to look at. Every time North Korea tests, there is military equipment moving around. There are photos. There's satellite imagery coming in. So there's a wealth of new data coming in, which helps explain why the assessments are moving very quickly.

MARTIN: Yeah. Geoff?

BRUMFIEL: I mean, I think it's also worth mentioning that the intelligence community has been talking increasingly about North Korea having advanced nuclear capabilities in long-range missiles. I think the public discussion has lagged behind. And that's part of what this Washington Post report has sort of brought out to the fore.

MARTIN: But - so Mary Louise, you're not suggesting that the intelligence community, perhaps, missed this? It's just that they had limited data. That we're just not - I mean, we don't have human intelligence coming out of North Korea.

KELLY: North Korea is an incredibly hard target. You talk to people at the CIA, and they will tell you it's maybe the hardest target they face. So there's always uncertainty. That's the nature of the intelligence business. What's significant in terms of North Korea is that there is a global consensus. I mean, every serious intelligence agency in the world is tracking this. They all agree that North Korea has nuclear weapons. The missile tests are real. I mean, we've all been able to watch...

MARTIN: Yeah, televised.

KELLY: ...Them unfold. And the idea that North Korea - we know what their goal is in terms of developing, and we - it's - there's no disagreement over the fact that they are moving forward. The disagreements are over exactly how far along North Korea may be, the exact location...

MARTIN: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Of strategic facilities. But there's - this is not U.S. intelligence out there on its own on this.

MARTIN: Because it's - we can't forget the war in Iraq based on assessments about whether or not Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. I'm sure that looms over all the intelligence agencies. But this particular intelligence is coming from just one - right? - the DIA.

KELLY: The Defense Intelligence Agency is the agency that The Washington Post is citing in reporting that North Korea has now successfully miniaturized a nuclear weapon. So that's - Defense Intelligence Agency - that's the Pentagon agency that provides intelligence to war fighters. And one of the questions that journalists are trying to figure out is - is this broadly supported by the entire U.S. intelligence community?

MARTIN: Yeah.

BRUMFIEL: But just to come back to Mary Louise's earlier point, this is not a case of one intelligence agency making one report. Traffic cameras in Japan have seen the re-entry of an object...

CHANG: Wow.

BRUMFIEL: ...From the last North Korea test. I mean, there is open-source data out there that shows this stuff is real.

MARTIN: So North Korea now threatening to strike Guam - Geoff, if they were to launch a missile in that direction, what kind of U.S. response would come? I mean, what are our defense mechanisms?

BRUMFIEL: Well, the main sort of big U.S. missile defense system is up in Alaska, so it wouldn't be much good for Guam. But there is a ground-based system in Guam right now. There's also ship-based systems that they could move into the region. How effective they would be against a long-range North Korean missile is a little unclear. They're mainly designed for short- and intermediate-range missiles.

MARTIN: Last question - it's a big one for you, Mary Louise. So we talk about defensive options, but just from a bigger perspective, what are the U.S. options moving forward at this point?

KELLY: Well, there are no great options. If there were a really attractive option for dealing with North Korea, it would have been tried. But the range is you are hearing a lot about the possibility of a pre-emptive military strike, which carries with it the risk of escalation, raises the specter of all-out war. There is the possibility of some sort of covert action - so a cyberattack. If that is already underway - and we don't entirely know - it clearly hasn't slowed the North Korean program to the extent the U.S. would like. There are economic, financial measures.

MARTIN: Anyone talking about regime change?

KELLY: Regime change is one of the things - Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says that's not what the U.S. wants, but the U.S. says it does want a denuclearized North Korea. And it's not clear that both of those goals are compatible.

MARTIN: All right. NPR science editor Geoff Brumfiel, national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly - thanks to both of you guys for coming in this morning and talking with us.

KELLY: You're welcome.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF COVERKING'S "HUMBLE - INSTRUMENTAL VERSION")

MARTIN: President Trump says the, quote, "fake news" hasn't been fair to him, so he's come up with his own solution.

CHANG: That's right. Trump's re-election campaign is now releasing short, network news-style videos, taped in Trump Tower, on the president's Facebook page every week. Trump's daughter-in-law Lara Trump recently introduced this online series.

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LARA TRUMP: Hey, everybody - Lara Trump here. I bet you haven't heard about all the accomplishments the president had this week because there's so much fake news out there. We wanted to give you a glimpse into his week.

CHANG: So what should we make of Trump TV?

MARTIN: What should we make of Trump TV? We're going to put that question to Hadas Gold of Politico. She's in our studios this morning. Hi, Hadas.

HADAS GOLD: Good morning.

MARTIN: So I suppose we shouldn't be super surprised here.

GOLD: No.

MARTIN: I mean, this is a president who is - he's a bit of a tweeter. He likes to talk about going straight to his supporters, straight to the American public.

GOLD: He also knows the media very well...

MARTIN: Yeah.

GOLD: ...And has worked in it for many years.

And we also shouldn't be surprised that a president is doing this. President Obama had something called the West Wing Week - it was a very slickly produced video every week that went through what the president did every single week. And this is sort of in the similar vein but at a different level of quality.

MARTIN: OK, tell me. You've seen this? You've seen both broadcasts. Can we call it that?

GOLD: I've seen - I've compared both of these broadcasts different weeks. This is only the second iteration of Trump TV, you could call it. And it looks very much like kind of a public access - there's a person sitting in front of a screen that says Trump behind it. They have a little box to their right of the different images that pop through.

In comparison to the Obama West Wing Week, which was - looked like it was produced by kind of a Hollywood style versus this was just sort of a straight news, minute-long.

MARTIN: Interesting. So - but to your earlier point, this is just what presidents do in the modern age.

GOLD: To an extent.

MARTIN: They need to shape their own narrative.

GOLD: Yes.

MARTIN: And that's what the Trump administration is...

GOLD: And the...

MARTIN: ...Trying to do.

GOLD: ....The Trump administration definitely feels as though the mainstream media is against them. It doesn't report on all of the successes that they are having, and so they say that this is a way to get their supporters what they're actually doing, all of their success. However, there is sort of a Dear Leader quality to these segments that give all of the credit to the president. And if President Barack Obama's West Wing Week also was sort of a praiseworthy of how great the White House is, it at least did the Dear Leader-ness (ph) in a little bit more of a slickly produced way and not as overt as these Trump Tower videos are.

MARTIN: It may have nodded to criticism, whereas this just ignores?

GOLD: It - I mean...

MARTIN: Or they didn't nod (laughter)?

GOLD: I don't know if they necessarily nodded to criticism. But it wasn't in the same way of - because of President Obama, everything is now wonderful again. It was a little bit more - it was a little less overt than what these Trump TV videos are.

MARTIN: And where does this thing go? I mean, is this all about, to some degree, a re-election campaign that they could be preparing for?

GOLD: It's definitely part of the re-election campaign. It's part of shoring up the base, which they might be worried is starting to slip recently. Different - recent polls show that it might not be going as well for the base as they might have thought before.

MARTIN: And who's hosting this?

GOLD: It's been a rotating cast.

MARTIN: Rotating cast?

GOLD: It's been Lara Trump, the new RNC spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany - we'll see who it's going to be this week.

MARTIN: All right. Hadas Gold of Politico - she covers the media. She joined us here in our studios in Washington. Hadas, thanks so much for coming in.

GOLD: It was a pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVIL NEEDLE'S "CONSCIOUSNESS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.