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News Brief: North Korea's Nuclear Warning, Iran Protests


We begin this morning with North Korea...


...Where Kim Jong Un began the new year with a speech broadcast on national television.



CHANG: In it, he made his own dark New Year's resolution to focus on the mass production of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.

MARTIN: Let's bring in NPR's Shanghai correspondent Rob Schmitz, who's following all of this. Good morning, and Happy New Year, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel. How you doing?

MARTIN: So sort of a grim message from Kim Jong Un - I suppose it plays well, though, domestically, huh?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. I mean, like many of the North's communications directed at the outside world, there's a fair amount of posturing here. And a lot of that posturing is, of course, for his audience back home. Kim warned the U.S. that its mainland is within range of a nuclear strike from the North and that the button to launch that strike is always on his desk - so obviously a message there that we as a nation have arrived on the global stage as a serious nuclear power.

He went on to say North Korea's greatest achievement of 2017 was the, quote, "historic accomplishment of completing our nuclear capabilities" and said the U.S. would no longer dare to strike North Korea. So that's another message to the home audience, that he's working hard to protect them. And then he sort of changed his tone a little and said that his country is a responsible nuclear nation that loves peace. And he said that as long as there is no aggression directed at North Korea, his country does not intend to use these newfound nuclear powers.

MARTIN: Can we extrapolate that that means he's open for diplomatic talks?

SCHMITZ: That's one way we could extrapolate it, I think. Yes.

MARTIN: I'm trying to be positive, Rob. It's a new year.

SCHMITZ: (Laughter) And, you know, I think, you know, yeah. Obviously, that's an opening, right? And I think that, you know, he - there was another part of his speech that was also an opening to his southern neighbor. You know, after taking this threatening tone toward the U.S., he sort of softened his approach to South Korea and said he wished for a peaceful resolution with the South. He wished South Korea all the best for hosting the upcoming Winter Olympics. And he made a surprise call for immediate dialogue with Seoul to discuss the North's participation in the games. If such talks happen, it would be the first time the two Koreas have had an official dialogue since South Korean president Moon Jae In took power last May.

MARTIN: Wow. Well, that at least seems significant.

So 2017, I mean, we saw this much more emboldened North Korea, right? There were all these missile tests. They were crossing more red lines - seemed like every other day there were some new red line that North Korea was was just flagrantly crossing. So what does that mean for 2018? I mean, are we likely to just see more of that on repeat?

SCHMITZ: You know, from this speech I'd say, yeah. It certainly sounds like it. Kim said in the speech that the next step for his regime is to try and mass produce warheads as you mentioned as well as intercontinental ballistic missiles that can carry those warheads. We believe from reports earlier this year based on U.S. defense intelligence that North Korea has figured out how to miniaturize a nuclear weapon into a warhead that fits on a missile. But there's a lot of questions about how close the North is to actually being able to successfully deliver that warhead with a missile. What is clear is that Kim Jong Un is tightly focused on this goal and that this message to the rest of the world this morning was that everyone needs to take him more seriously in the coming year.

MARTIN: NPR's Rob Schmitz - thanks so much for joining us, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Rachel.

MARTIN: Now to the antigovernment protests that have been unfolding in Iran.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

CHANG: Demonstrations began late last week and continued over the weekend. Some protesters have even taken an extraordinary step, calling for the removal of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Yesterday, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani appealed for calm. He said Iranians have the right to protest but warned that the government will not tolerate those who damage public properties violate public order and create unrest.

MARTIN: Ali Noorani is in Tehran. He's a journalist for AFP. And he joins us on Skype. Thanks so much for being with us this morning.

ALI NOORANI: Hi, Rachel. Thanks.

MARTIN: What can you tell us are protesters out on the streets again today, and what have those looked like?

NOORANI: There's nothing coming today yet because it's just afternoon. But overnight, there were continued protests in several cities across the country. Last night, some - at least four people died in two towns. And in these four days of protests, at least 400 people have been arrested and...

MARTIN: And people have died. I mean, that death toll is escalating, no?

NOORANI: Yes. The total deaths - death toll is at six now in the whole protest, at least. That is the confirmed number. But some unverified reports say that it may increase for the past night.

MARTIN: Why are these happening, and why are they happening now?

NOORANI: The reason why this is happening is really not known to analysts and officials. But it did begin on the back of economic problems and people protesting to high prices and cost of living and poverty and unemployment in the northeast of the country - in the second city Mashhad on Thursday. But things got out of control. And the slogans suddenly changed toward the regime. And from that moment, it started to spread just to - in many other cities across the country, big or small alike and very randomly because it's spreading through social media.


NOORANI: And there is no real algorithm.

MARTIN: So this has got to be complicated for Hassan Rouhani. He brokered the Iran nuclear deal in hopes that his economy was going to improve, right? That's what he told Iranians. But you're saying that these protests are about economic instability. So people clearly are not deriving or at least feeling like they are getting a benefit from that economic opening.

NOORANI: Yeah. That is a problem for Rouhani because ordinary people on the street haven't been feeling real fruits of his nuclear deal really on the table. And yes. For him, that is a problem. But his officials and himself have indirectly said that there could be - the start of this protests could be by the conservatives - his opponents - to undermine his economic outreach to the world. But it's not clear yet who was behind it. But it is going on through social media. And it is still on.

MARTIN: We should say one of the social media sites that's being used has now been shut down in the country. Ali Noorani of AFP reporting in Tehran this morning for us - thanks so much.

NOORANI: Thank you.

MARTIN: All right. Now we're going to get the view from the White House or the winter White House rather. That's where President Donald Trump has been spending the holidays. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now. Hi, Mara.


MARTIN: Happy New Year by the way.

LIASSON: Happy New Year to you.

MARTIN: So President Trump is monitoring all of this - two big international issues...

LIASSON: Two big international issues...

MARTIN: ...For him to navigate right now, right? How is he responding?

LIASSON: Yep. Two big international issues - he tweeted support for the Iranian protesters. He criticized the Iranian regime for shutting down parts of the Internet. He said the USA is watching very closely. But that got him some pushback from Republicans. Republicans aren't on the same page on either of these important foreign policy issues. On Sunday, on "Face The Nation," Senator Lindsey Graham said, you can't just tweet here. You have to lay out a plan. If I were President Trump, I'd lay out a plan as how I would engage the regime. President Trump hasn't done that.

And on North Korea, he told a New York Times reporter over the weekend just we'll see about what he's going to do about North Korea. He expressed displeasure with China for not cutting off oil shipments to North Korea. And even though in the past he has at times seemed to threaten military action to stop North Korea's nuclear program, he hasn't decided exactly what to do here. And Republican divisions are on display in both of these issues.

MARTIN: So let's switch gears sort of because there's another issue that has created all kinds of divisions within the Republican Party. This is, of course, the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. 2018 could see the end of this inquiry one way or the other, right?

LIASSON: It could. It might not. Nobody knows how long Mueller's going to take. But what's interesting about this is that there are Republican divisions about the attacks on Mueller. Over the weekend, in that New York Times interview, the president said he wasn't going to fire Mueller but that he could do anything he wanted to do with the Department of Justice. But he was holding back in the hopes of being treated fairly.

But in the same interview, he also had praise for Republicans in Congress and his supporters in the conservative media who have been attacking Mueller for being biased, corrupt, going so far to say the whole FBI is corrupt. And the strategy is to make sure that the Trump's base and maybe other voters can dismiss whatever Mueller comes up with at the end of this inquiry as a partisan witch hunt. And that is making some Republicans nervous. They're supposed to be the law and order party. And they are wondering why it's a good thing to undermine the FBI.

MARTIN: Also, big election coming up - 2018 midterm elections - Democrats are going to be able to capitalize on any of this?

LIASSON: There's certainly hope so. Expectations are very high. I think we're getting to the point where it's take the House back or bust for Democrats. But they still have a very high hurdle - 23 seats in the House fortified by redistricting is going to be tough for them to get. And they're defending a set of very difficult Senate incumbents.

MARTIN: NPR's Mara Liasson breaking down the news - we should look for the stories of 2018, only hours old at this point. Mara, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ERIC LAU'S "SOME TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.