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Morning News Brief: North Korea Anniversary, Turkey Referendum


We have a guide to this day's news.


Yeah. Up First, Steve, North Korea says it will, quote, "go to war" if the United States chooses to provoke it. In an interview with the Associated Press this morning, North Korea's vice foreign minister said his country would not keep its arms crossed in the event of a preemptive strike by the United States.

This weekend, we should say, North Korea is going to be celebrating the 105th birthday of its late founder, Kim Il-Sung. And this is the kind of anniversary that has prompted the country to launch missile tests in the past as kind of a show of force.

INSKEEP: So let's talk about this. We have NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis in the studios. Hi, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: And also Ishaan Tharoor, who's a foreign affairs writer from The Washington Post. Welcome.

ISHAAN THAROOR: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How serious is this situation?

THAROOR: Well, whenever we're talking about nuclear weapons, it's always going to be somewhat serious. And there has been a steady escalation by the North Korean regime in the past few months, various missile tests. And yes, indeed, this weekend, we are looking at a likely nuclear missile test or an ICBM test. What this means going forward, it will be harder to tell.

But it's important to recognize that this is not a regime, as hideous as it is, that is run by lunatics. Their saber rattling has strategic uses. It's a show of force at home. And it's always been over the years a way in which they extract concessions from their neighbors and other governments.

INSKEEP: And I want to be clear on The Washington Post's reporting on this, on your reporting on this. You said a likely nuclear missile test, not a likely nuclear test of a weapon. That's what you're hearing, is that correct?

THAROOR: Let me restate that. We - of course it's hard to tell.

INSKEEP: I guess you don't know what's going to happen because it's North Korea.

THAROOR: Absolutely. It's an opaque regime.

INSKEEP: So how would such a test really change the situation, given that North Korea has tested both bombs and missiles in the past?

THAROOR: Well, the new factor here is the Trump administration. This is an administration that has promised unilateral action before that is maybe able to escalate the conflict in ways that we have not seen before in the past. And we're going to - we'll see how they react.

INSKEEP: OK. Let's talk about something that's in the air about the Trump administration. NBC was reporting about preparations for a preemptive strike to prevent a test. We've been checking that out. And, Sue, what has NPR been hearing?

DAVIS: Well, NPR's correspondent, Tom Bowman, checked with sources. And they said, you know, of course the U.S. military is always prepared to strike. We're prepared to strike at all times. But I think this is also part of this posturing, that North Korea's posturing that they may do this attack.

The U.S. is posturing that they would be willing to take stronger action there. The president has indicated he wants to take a more muscular approach to North Korea. He's even suggested the U.S. would take unilateral military action towards the nation, although he has not said what that means. And...

INSKEEP: Aren't officials kind of knocking down this idea of a preemptive strike, acting before North Korea acts?

DAVIS: Yes, and that it seems unlikely. But I think, you know, the president is still figuring out his foreign policy. But I also think North Korea's testing a new president.

INSKEEP: Let's listen to the new American president, who's been focused on getting China to help with North Korea. Here's what President Trump said after meeting President Xi Jinping last week.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think he wants to help us with North Korea. We talked trade. We talked a lot of things. And I said the way you're going to make a good trade deal is to help us with North Korea.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, Ishaan, can China do more than it's already doing?

THAROOR: It certainly can exert pressure in various ways but its priority is to preserve the Korean regime to prevent a collapse. And it's worried that any further pressure, any greater pressure will trigger a crisis that it can't control. So it is - it has its hands tied in various ways.


GREENE: You know, one thing we should mention is Vice President Mike Pence is going to the region this weekend. And he works for a president who has talked tough, is moving military might around the region but Pence has more Washington experience, more foreign policy experience than his boss.

And if Americans are nervous that these tensions, you know, are there and want someone to step in, get some commitments from allies, somehow calm this down, Pence could be the guy. This is a big moment for him.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, let's move on now to Turkey. Big news there this weekend. An important vote is going to take place this weekend. David, set us up.

GREENE: Yeah. Let's remember, Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, survived that failed coup attempt last July. And now we come to this weekend and a referendum on Sunday. He is hoping to increase his power massively and extend his term limits so he could remain president until the year 2029, so a big vote. And it's worth remembering that Turkey has been an ally of the United States and a really important partner in the fight against the Islamic State.

INSKEEP: Ishaan Tharoor of The Washington Post is still with us. Erdogan is already very powerful. What's the need or the reason for this referendum?

THAROOR: Well, this has been a project of Erdogan's for the past couple of years. He is desperate to transform Turkey's parliamentary system to one where the power is consolidated under the president, where he has greater control over the military, the judiciary and the legislature.

They are convinced - he and his allies are convinced - that Turkey's kind of dysfunctional parliamentary history, its history of military coups in the past necessitates a stronger central civilian leadership.

INSKEEP: Weren't you're there after the failed coup just last year in Turkey?

THAROOR: Indeed. And that failed coup was a catalyst for some of the steps they've taken now. They've conducted a vast unprecedented purge of state institutions. And with this vote, this referendum, we're seeing a kind of existential tipping point for Turkey.

INSKEEP: Is this still going to count as a democracy, given the way that the government is taking control of more and more of the media, and one man is assuming more and more power?

THAROOR: The government will say they're very much a democracy. Their critics say that this is a de facto dictatorship trying to institutionalize one-man rule.

INSKEEP: Sue Davis, how much does the United States care - to put it very frankly - how democratic Turkey is or is not, given that it's a NATO ally?

DAVIS: Deeply. They - we care deeply. And the relations with Turkey in the final years of the Obama administration were definitely frayed over the war in Syria and other matters. And what's interesting about Turkey is they've taken a rather quiet posture towards the Trump administration in the early months. Erdogan has been quick to criticize the West.

But even when Trump came out with his executive orders on immigration and things like that that affected majority Muslim countries, he was quiet. And I think that that's seen as a potential reset for U.S.-Turkey relations, which is a critical relationship that we still - is not one that has been necessarily at the top of the foreign policy discussion.

INSKEEP: Each president, Erdogan and Trump, has a certain strongman quality to him, I suppose you could say that.

THAROOR: Yes, absolutely. And I think it's important to note that no matter what happens in the referendum, if Erdogan wins or he loses, we're going to be seeing a profound period of political uncertainty and crisis in Turkey. Erdogan's opponents aren't going to take this lying down. And if he loses, he's going to perhaps want to create a new sort of political situation for him to try again later on.

GREENE: Yeah. Just listening to what you said there, Sue, I mean, the United States does care if Turkey is a democracy but it cares because of what that means for results, I think. This is a relationship built on results like the fight against ISIS. Pro-democracy groups will say democracy is an important value but it's more important to look at the reality that the United States works with allies that are far from democratic.

And more important at this moment, I think, is whether Erdogan is emboldened with these new powers and somehow says hey, we don't need to be in lockstep with the United States anymore, or does he still value the relationship?

INSKEEP: OK. We're going to say goodbye now to Ishaan Tharoor of The Washington Post and NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Thanks to both of you for coming in so early, really appreciate it.

DAVIS: You bet.


KENDRICK LAMAR: (Rapping) Nobody pray for me. It's been that day for me.

INSKEEP: That sound can only mean one thing. David, what is it?

GREENE: Well, it's a song I've been listening to on repeat all week long. That is rapper Kendrick Lamar. And he gave us this taste of his new music with that one song, "Humble." Kendrick now has dropped his entire new album this morning. It is called "DAMN." And you'll remember, Steve, we've had Kendrick on our show. He's just so thoughtful.


GREENE: No surprise Time magazine named him one of the most influential people in 2016.

INSKEEP: OK. NPR Music's hip-hop writer Rodney Carmichael stayed up all night to listen to Kendrick Lamar's new album. He's in the studios. Good morning.


INSKEEP: So I was listening as well. He begins with this line - is it wickedness? Is it weakness? You decide. So what's your decision?

CARMICHAEL: It is both resoundingly.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

CARMICHAEL: I mean, Kendrick is doing a lot of soul searching with this album, as he always is. And I think he's looking at the troubled state of the world and dealing with his own inner conflict. And he's trying to reconcile the two.

INSKEEP: Well, let's give a listen to some of this. There's a song here called "FEEL," and we've got a clip of it.


KENDRICK LAMAR: (Rapping) I feel like a chip on my shoulders. I feel like I'm losing my focus. I feel like I'm losing my patience. I feel like my thought's in the basement. Feel like, I feel like you're miseducated. Feel like I don't want to be bothered. I feel like you may be the problem. I feel like friends been overrated.

INSKEEP: What strikes you about this?

CARMICHAEL: I mean, like so much of this album, he's grappling with his demons. And I think he really sees his own suffering as a metaphor for the evils of the world, so to speak. And it's almost like he's offering himself as a sacrificial lamb of sorts.

INSKEEP: He's got a line in one of these songs - Deuteronomy - the biblical book - says we've all been cursed. That's a pretty heavy thing to lay down.

CARMICHAEL: It is. It is. I think that, you know, in terms of how Kendrick looks at his generation, you know, this is a guy who's come from Compton, gang land, and he sees a lot of that same kind of lifestyle reflected in the world at large and he's really trying to tackle that.

INSKEEP: He's gone from that background to being a guy who is utterly on the cultural scene, was noted by former President Obama and many other people.

CARMICHAEL: Exactly. And he mentions Obama as well as Trump in this new album. It's heavy listening. It's going to take a while to dig into it. And I'm here for it.

INSKEEP: OK. (Laughter) All right. Rodney, thanks for being here for it, really appreciate it. That's NPR Music's hip-hop writer Rodney Carmichael. Let's listen.


KENDRICK LAMAR: (Rapping) Hail Mary, Jesus and Joseph. The great American flag is wrapped and dragged with explosives. Compulsive disorder, sons and daughters. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.