Morning News Brief: North Korea Sanctions, Venezuela's Political Crisis

Aug 7, 2017
Originally published on August 7, 2017 7:36 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is saying that now is the time for North Korea to stop with those missile launches.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

At a security forum in the Philippines, the secretary of state said North Korea could prove it's ready to negotiate by no longer launching missiles.

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REX TILLERSON: The best signal that North Korea could give us that they're prepared to talk would be to stop these missile launches.

CHANG: That came after the U.N. Security Council decided over the weekend to impose additional sanctions on North Korea. Also, President Trump had a one-hour-long phone call with the president of South Korea. They agreed to work together to fully implement sanctions against North Korea.

GREENE: And let's bring in our colleague Elise Hu, who is on the line from Seoul, South Korea. Good morning, Elise.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So sanctions against North Korea - this is not a new storyline. Are people reacting to this in a way in the region that suggests this might accomplish something?

HU: Well, South Korea's leadership - the administration here certainly supports the latest round of sanctions. But the South Korean president, in his call with President Trump, said that he really wanted to see a peaceful, diplomatic resolution to the issue. Now, as for the general public, it's not watching this news more closely than other news, really, because South Korea has arguably been under an existential threat for some 70 years now.

GREENE: They're used to this.

HU: Right. North Korea's long-range missiles don't change the game for South Korea since it's always been within reach.

GREENE: Let me ask you about what sounds like a potentially awkward moment because Secretary of State Rex Tillerson participated in a meeting that North Korea's foreign minister was also attending, right?

HU: That's right. And there were never any plans for the two of them to meet privately. But there was a chance for both top diplomats to be in the same room together at a gala in the Philippines last night. Tillerson decided at the last minute to skip it. But North Korea's top diplomat did attend, and he was spotted talking and laughing with other attendees.

GREENE: Skip it, Tillerson did presumably - or maybe because he just didn't want to even come close to talking to North Korea's diplomat.

HU: We don't know for sure.

GREENE: We don't know for sure. Well, the key thing here, as always, seems to be what China is ready and willing to do - whether China's going to apply meaningful pressure. Does the United States feel like they're getting positive signs from China?

HU: For now, yes. China certainly doesn't want to see North Korea use its nuclear weapons. So it has signed on to the latest round of sanctions. In the past, it's had reservations about sanctions. But the bigger question, David and Ailsa, is really whether isolation in the form of sanctions is even effective. Will it get North Korea to come back to the table and change its position on its nuclear development? A lot of observers in this region doubt it because North Korea pins its very survival, its domestic legitimacy, on its deterrence capabilities.

GREENE: Right.

HU: And so a decade of sanctions we've seen now - they really haven't yielded the intended result of getting North Korea to the table. Instead, it's kind of the opposite, right? North Korea has been improving its capabilities. And we should mention state media from North Korea, KCNA, did respond not too long ago. It warned that it was ready to make the U.S, quote, "pay the price for its crime thousands of times." Bombastic...

GREENE: Sounds scary, but we hear that before.

HU: (Laughter).

GREENE: We've heard stuff like that before, we should say.

HU: That's right. And South Korea is still attempting to reach out diplomatically. So Pyongyang hasn't responded so far, but there is some possibility of diplomacy there.

GREENE: NPR's Elise Hu speaking to us from Seoul, South Korea. Elise, thanks a lot.

HU: You bet.

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GREENE: And let's turn now to Venezuela, a country that seems to be slipping deeper and deeper into political chaos.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

CHANG: What you're hearing is from a video that was released yesterday. Armed men, in military uniform, called for Venezuelans to rebel against President Nicolas Maduro. He's been trying to consolidate his power and rewrite the constitution. Twenty anti-government fighters had infiltrated a military base outside Caracas, and they were apparently hoping to start a military uprising. Two of the men were killed. Several were arrested. And now there's an ongoing search for 10 of the men who escaped with weapons. President Maduro called the incident a terrorist attack.

GREENE: OK. And we have NPR's Philip Reeves, who is in Venezuela in Caracas. Good morning, Phil.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So when countries are in chaos, often we do look to the military for a sign of where things might be going. Is President Maduro losing his military support?

REEVES: It's very difficult to know. It is seen as absolutely crucial to his survival and power that the military stays on his side. It's done so so far during what are four months of protests, which have seen, you know, very large numbers of Venezuelans on the street battling with security forces and losing their lives. The upper ranks do have a big commercial interest here. They are very involved in business, so it is in their interest for the status quo to be maintained. People watch for signs that the military support is cracking - the middle ranks and the lower ranks - because their families are likely going through what a lot of Venezuelans are going through here because of the collapse of the economy. And by that, I mean dire shortages of food and of medicine and so on.

GREENE: Yeah, I mean, you're spending time there. How bad is it for ordinary Venezuelans watching their country not just go, as you say, through political chaos? But, I mean, this is truly impacting their lives in terrible ways, it sounds like.

REEVES: Yeah, it's difficult for me to say because I haven't been here for very long. And so I can't give you a very accurate picture of that. But I did go out yesterday around the capital, Caracas, just trying to absorb some of the atmosphere. And I saw what has so often been talked about in terms of Venezuela, which is people rifling through the trash, looking for food. I actually saw that happening. I hadn't seen it before. So although that wouldn't represent the entire picture, there are clearly some very desperate people around. And I think the situation is pretty serious.

I think something else worth mentioning here is that, you know, on the street yesterday, after this attack became known in Valencia, which is where it happened, as you mentioned, people stopped, turned - when they got news of it, they went out on the street and started singing the national anthem and chanting, freedom. And so that, I think, is a sign that parts of this country are on a hair trigger. They were dispersed by security forces using tear gas. But that is quite a telling detail in all this, I think.

GREENE: OK. Speaking to us from Venezuela, Caracas, that's NPR's Philip Reeves, following a country that seems truly in political chaos right now. Phil, thank you.

REEVES: You're welcome.

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GREENE: OK, Ailsa, let's bring things closer to home here.

CHANG: Yeah. I mean, by comparison, all is fairly quiet on the Western front. Lawmakers have gone home for August recess, and President Trump is enjoying a 17-day vacation in Bedminster, N.J. The noise these days is actually coming from Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans to sue the Department of Justice. Mayor Emanuel says it's illegal for the Justice Department to withhold federal grants from so-called sanctuary cities.

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RAHM EMANUEL: We're not going to actually auction off our values as a city. So on Monday morning, the city of Chicago's going to take the Justice Department to court based on this. We find it unlawful and unconstitutional to be, as a city, coerced on a policy. And we think we have a strong case on that.

GREENE: NPR's Scott Horsley has been traveling with President Trump these last few days. He's on the line. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, David.

GREENE: So this has to deal with whether cities will work with the federal government when it comes to immigration policy. So what exactly is the argument that Chicago's mayor is making here?

HORSLEY: Well, the argument is twofold. It's partly a legal argument - that this attempt by the federal government to use its purse strings to coerce behavior is heavy-handed. Rahm Emanuel referred to it as blackmail. There are echoes here of the argument that was made during the Obama administration when the federal government tried to press states into expanding their Medicaid programs by withholding Medicaid funds. In that instance, the Supreme Court ruled that it was too much and unconstitutional. The second argument that Chicago is making is practical - that forcing local law enforcement to act as an immigration arm of the federal government is counterproductive, that it breeds distrust in the immigrant communities, whose cooperation local law enforcement needs in order to fight crime.

GREENE: And what about a financial argument, Scott, in terms of what the city needs? I mean, are we talking about a lot of money Chicago could stand to lose if they don't cooperate?

HORSLEY: It's not a huge sum if we're talking just Chicago. They're looking for about $3.2 million from this grant program - money they use to buy equipment and so forth. But nationwide, this particular grant program is worth about $347 million. And so this is not an issue that just involves Chicago. Other potential sanctuary cities that could be targeted include Baltimore and Albuquerque, N.M., and San Bernardino, Calif. And then, of course, there are other grant programs that might be affected, too. So it's bigger than just this one case.

GREENE: The possibility of a major American city suing the Trump administration over this - I mean, has the White House responded at all?

HORSLEY: Well, the Justice Department has responded by pointing to Chicago's own murder rate, which is one of the highest in the country, and saying, you know, the city should not be suing the federal government but should be working with them. However, there is no real nexus between immigration and Chicago's murder rate, which is largely a homegrown problem.

GREENE: They brought up the murder rate, suggesting, like, you should be - you have big important problems, and you need our money to deal with it. That's...

HORSLEY: Exactly.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Scott Horsley - Scott, thanks so much. We appreciate it.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROKE FOR FREE'S "PANORAMA SHAMA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.