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What’s the view of U.S. tensions from Pyongyang?

August 11, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
President Trump denounced North Korea yet again Friday, affirming the U.S. and its military are ready to deal with any further provocation from Pyongyang. Despite the tensions, it was revealed that U.S. and North Korean diplomats have had back channel discussions recently. Nick Schifrin looks at the internal response and gets the North Korean perspective from Rafael Wober of Associated Press.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: President Trump again denounced North Korea today, saying that the U.S. and its military was ready to deal with any provocation by the Pyongyang regime.

Special correspondent Nick Schifrin starts us off.

NICK SCHIFRIN: The U.S. military calls Guam the tip of its Pacific spear, and, today, it showed off bombers that carry more conventional weapons than any other plane.

From Guam, B-1 bombers can reach North Korea in only a few hours.

LT. COL. CHRISTOPHER OCCHIUZZO, U.S. Air Force: And that’s what this continuous bomber presence does. It assures our allies and deters our adversaries.

NICK SCHIFRIN: The military wouldn’t detail the bombers’ mission, but the message was clear, as President Trump tweeted this morning: “Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully, Kim Jong-un will find another path.”

Late this afternoon, he repeated his warning.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I hope that they are going to fully understand the gravity of what I said. And what I said is what I mean. If he does anything with respect to Guam, or anyplace else that’s an American territory or an American ally, he will truly regret it, and he will regret it fast.

NICK SCHIFRIN: On Guam, authorities are taking no chances. They distributed a fact sheet in case of imminent missile threat. Instructions include make a list of potential concrete shelters, and do not look at the flash or fireball. It can blind you.

In Japan, the military deployed Patriot interceptors in the districts that North Korea promised its missiles would overfly. An alarmed world is urging calm.

From German Chancellor Angela Merkel:

CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL, Germany (through interpreter): I am firmly convinced that an escalation of rhetoric will not contribute to a solution of this conflict.

NICK SCHIFRIN: To Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. He called U.S. and North Korean rhetoric over the top, and the risk of conflict high.

SERGEI LAVROV, Foreign Minister, Russia (through interpreter): When you get close to the point of a fight, the one who is stronger and wiser should be the first to step back from the brink.

NICK SCHIFRIN: In China, a state-owned newspaper urged both sides to step back. But it delivered a warning to North Korea, when it wrote, if North Korea attacked first, China will stay neutral.

Despite the tensions, we learned today that U.S. and North Korean diplomats have had back-channel discussions that continued after the June release of a comatose American college student from North Korean custody. He later died. Those talks obviously haven’t calmed tensions, but they could become a foundation for more serious negotiations.

We turn now for a view from North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, and Associated Press correspondent Rafael Wober.

Rafael, thank you very much.

Rafael, during past points of tension, we have seen things like air raid drills, camouflaged cars in the streets of Pyongyang. But, today, it’s actually quiet. Why is that?

RAFAEL WOBER, Associated Press: I think that here people in the DPRK, people have lived with this threat of war for decades. So, on the streets of Pyongyang, it is still calm.

There isn’t preparation that is visible here for war. But the statement which came from the general in charge of the DPRK’s strategic forces — that’s its missile forces — that came from him this week is something new, and it sets a bar, it sets a kind of — something to try to focus U.S. attention on making steps towards negotiations sooner, rather than later.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Rafael, here in the U.S., Kim Jong-un is often disparaged.

And I just want to play some sound for you, two pieces, one, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley and Senator John McCain.

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations: This is not a rational person, who has not had rational acts, who is not thinking clearly.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: China is the one that can — the only one that can control Kim Jong-un, this crazy fat kid that’s running North Korea.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Is the U.S. underestimating Kim Jong-un, and what’s the impact if it is?

RAFAEL WOBER: I think that foreign analysts have often said that the DPRK, North Korea, is a country which plays a weak hand very strongly.

So, it is in a difficult position, and the leadership is often characterized in this way. Plus, of course, the previous leader of the DPRK, North Korea, Kim Jong Il, the man in charge before the current leader, Kim Jong-un, he was remembered as saying that one of the best ways to keep a strong hand is to try to keep things under wraps and not let — not give away anything.

And, in fact, there’s often the feeling that the Koreans here want to keep the world guessing, and that’s the best way to make a strong position out of not very much.

So, I think that these kinds of assessments from the outside world, the throwaway comments made often are not really accurate, and I think there’s plenty of analysis from experts over the past weeks, months and years, even going back to the early 1990s, which suggests that, because, after all, it was back in the early ’90s that people thought that the country would collapse following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

And, in fact, here we are in 2017, and it is still here.

NICK SCHIFRIN: And, Rafael, quickly, can you describe how Kim is different from his predecessors, who really emphasized the military aspect? But he has emphasized both the military nuclear program and the economy.

RAFAEL WOBER: I think that, since 2012, which was the first full year that the new leader, Kim Jong-un, has been in charge, there’s certainly been a change. We have seen it here in discussions with economists here, as well as out and about in farms and factories, businesses and shops.

And that’s called here new economic management methods. The leadership here, the North Korean government, calls it a dual-track policy (INAUDIBLE) and Korean, which is developing the national defense industry at the same time as the economy.

Essentially, what has happened is, as economists here have told us, a new method of trying to free up people in the country to trade and do business and to become more productive economically.

So, we have seen there is definitely a big increase in economic activity within the country. Of course, the international sanctions most recently this past weekend, those are having an effect on the country’s ability to trade with the outside world.

But, since 2012, there has been a major step-up in economic activity, people doing business, trading with each other, being more productive inside the country.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Rafael Wober with the Associated Press in Pyongyang, thank you very much.

RAFAEL WOBER: Thank you very much.

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