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THE SITUATION ROOM

Special Report: North Korean Crisis

Aired April 4, 2013 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is a SITUATION ROOM special report -- North Korean Crisis.

Happening now: North Korea may -- repeat, may -- may be ready to launch. The US is tracking missile movements that could push the region closer to war.

He's armed and dangerous. We're taking a closer look at what may be driving Kim Jong-un to make brazen threats and defy the world.

And dialing it down: the Obama administration addresses concerns that its response to this crisis has only made matters worse.

It's one of the world's most dangerous regimes right now. And now, North Korea says it is on the brink of war. U.S. officials fear it may be planning a missile launch soon. The threats have been amping up every single day from a nation under the thumb of a young and unpredictable leader. Kim Jong-un is armed with a huge military, powerful conventional weapons and a nuclear program. This hour, our correspondents are taking an in-depth look at the threat to the United States and the world, and President Obama's response.

And Christiane Amanpour and Fareed Zakaria, they are here. They'll give us a global view of this crisis unfolding right now.

But let's begin with our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, who's watching all of this unfold.

It's pretty tense. What's the latest, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, as you know, the talk has been hot rhetoric for days now. And now, new information about a possible missile test by North Korea that poses a new threat.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): It's one of the most alarming signals yet, that Kim Jong Un is exercising his military might. CNN has learned that classified sufficient imagery and communication intercepts confirm North Korea has moved up to two mobile missiles, launchers and fuel tanks to its east coast.

The concern? Kim Jong-un is planning to test missiles that could threaten the region with little warning.

JOHN PARK, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: The reaction time is much less when you have mobile launchers.

STARR: The missile called the Musudan has a 2,500-mile range. It could some day hit targets as far away as Guam and even Alaska's west coast. The problem right now? The test could send a missile over Japan.

U.S. warships armed with their own missiles would have to quickly react if it looks like Japanese territory is threatened.

MICHAEL O'HANLON, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: If the missile is mobile, we've got to either be following it constantly, or be lucky enough to surveil all the area where it could be.

STARR: U.S. intelligence satellites are scouring North Korea's coastline for signs of a launch, especially here at Tonghae. They may also be a hidden launch pad somewhere, U.S. officials say.

The ultimate concern is that North Korea has progressed in trying to put a nuclear warhead on top of these mobile missiles. It already has enough materiel for up to half a dozen nuclear bombs.

But some experts warn the U.S. shouldn't get overexcited about Kim's threats of war.

JOSEPH DETRANI, FORMER U.S. INTELLIGENCE OFFICIAL: He and his advisers must know that this extortion will not work any longer. They are not going to be exacting any concessions from the United States or anyone else.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Now, still, the U.S. and allies hope that Pyongyang will issue one of these standard notices to commercial aviation and shipping before it launches a missile towards Japan, warning everyone to stay out of the launch or the impact area. Looking for that notice, that's going to be the first sign that a launch may be imminent -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's hope that doesn't happen. All right. Barbara, thanks very much.

Let's get the reaction at the White House. Our White House correspondent Brianna Keilar is working this part of the story.

What are they saying over at the White House? How worried are they, Brianna?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, White House officials are downplaying that there's any new real level of concern here, that they're significantly more concerned at this moment. They say North Korea has been on the radar for a while. Particularly since December, with that ballistic missile test that was successful.

But I'll tell you, the discussions here on North Korea are very much in overdrive. One senior administration official telling me that top officials from the State Department, the Defense Department, intelligence officials, have been meeting for, really, much more frequently here in the last week and a half in the Situation Room. So, North Korea really becoming the most pressing foreign policy issue at this moment for the administration, Wolf.

BLITZER: Brianna, stand by. You can certainly beat Pentagon officials are gaming up North Korea's next moves right now.

We're doing the same thing in the virtual studio. CNN's Tom Foreman is there, along with CNN military analyst, the retired U.S. Army General James "Spider" Marks.

Walk us through this, Tom.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Sure, Wolf.

All eyes right now, of course, are on the east coast of North Korea. Why, general, would they do this missile placement? There are two possible missiles along that coast. Why?

GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Tom, the east coast closer to the United States presence in the region and its allies, Japan, South Korea, certainly. They didn't put it on the west coast because they're not trying to threaten China.

FOREMAN: That's simple enough right there.

MARKS: That's right.

FOREMAN: Let's bring in what we're talking about here. We'll get rid of this and bring in a model of the type of missile we're talking about, the Musudan that Barbara mentioned a moment ago. This is really designed to be used by Soviet submarines. The Iranians have a version of this called the Shahab.

It doesn't look like much of a missile. There are no fins on it. Let's talk more about it, because one of the keys is the mobility, right?

MARKS: Absolutely.

FOREMAN: We'd only seen in parades like this. Why does that matter so very much?

MARKS: This is a mobile missile system. It can go anywhere and launch from any location. All it needs is a piece of level terrain, and within minutes, Tom, this thing can launch.

FOREMAN: And let's talk about the capability of this. Well, we're going to bring in the stats on this. Fairly big, and a lot of different ways in which it can be presented, yes?

MARKS: Tom, this is about 40 to 60 feet in length. It's got a payload of about 2 1/2 tons. But what's important is the warhead, we do not anticipate it has a nuclear warhead at all. We think it's high explosive.

FOREMAN: So, H.3, high explosives, that's the concern right there. MARKS: Right.

FOREMAN: And yet when you talk about a high explosive weapon like this, the question does become range, what it can hit.

Let's bring in the map and talk about that a little bit because as Barbara pointed out, you're talking maybe 2,500 miles, possibly a one or two-stage missile. If it's two stages, it might be able to get that far, not so much at one stage. And it becomes somewhat less reliable.

But even best case scenario, they launch it, California has nothing to worry about.

MARKS: Tom, the mainland United States is not at risk at all. Hawaii is not at risk. Possibly the west coast of Alaska.

But what is at risk is Korea, Japan, and certainly down in Guam. Very much so. Underneath that umbrella.

FOREMAN: And Guam really matters.

MARKS: Very important. That's where the United States Air Force has a very large B-52 bomber presence. Those bombers are used in the defense of the peninsula. So, it's critical that they stay protected.

FOREMAN: And, of course, tens of thousands of troops in other areas here.

One last question about all of this: if, in fact, this launches, one of these missiles, two of these missiles launch there, right, whether or not North Korea says it's a test, what happens immediately with all of our forces in this area?

MARKS: Tom, when that missile launches, it says off an I.R., an infrared signature, which is picked up from our satellites from space. It's then tracked by sea, land, and air-based radar. And it will determine that totally automated system will determine the attitude, the Asmat (ph), and the location of where that missile is headed.

FOREMAN: So, computers are tracking it. This is, by the way, an inertial-guided missile. Once it's launched, there's no guidance on it. So, they will know pretty much where it's going. And if it's headed to any U.S. or ally target, a ship, land, anything, what happens?

MARKS: That missile will be taken out by a high altitude anti- ballistic missile system. It will be gone.

FOREMAN: So there are many, many steps as you can see, Wolf, on the analysis of where these missiles may be and what North Korea's intentions may be. But the response, no matter what the say, would largely be the same -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It would be intense, indeed. Guys, thanks very much.

Let's bring in our chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour. She's also the global affairs anchor for ABC News.

Also joining us, CNN's Fareed Zakaria, the anchor of "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS".

Christiane, what's motivating all this tough talk from Kim Jong-un and his generals in North Korea?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think it's anybody's guess and people have tried to psychoanalyze Kim Jong- un ever since he came in, particularly in these last couple of weeks. Obviously, some people say he's trying to prove himself to his own people, prove himself to his own hardliners, perhaps even prove himself to those who may be pulling the puppet strings. Who knows?

What we know is what's being said and what the reaction is.

What we also know and I spoke to professor Siegfried Hecker, who is the last American to have gone into Yongbyon, the nuclear plan that they have. He says and he's very confident that they do not have the nuclear capability as the general said to threaten either South Korea or the United States. They could perhaps deliver some kind of warhead to South Korea, but not on a missile, maybe by plane, maybe by a ship or truck. But they don't have that ballistic delivery capability.

They, also, if they restart Yongbyon, which they've said that they would, at the plutonium, re-processing plant, it could take six months to a year. Remember, we went in there -- I went in there in 2008. I watched them disable it. That was sort of a honeymoon period between North Korea and the West, as they disabled it.

And then it sort of comes to where it is right now. They said it could restart within six months to a year.

BLITZER: Yes. those were the good old days. Not so such good days right now.

Fareed, the fear is, though, that there could be a miscalculation. Even though no one thinks North Korea is suicidal, that they know they would be destroyed if they were to do something drastic. If there were an incident, and the new government in South Korea responded, who knows what would happen?

FAREED ZAKARIA, ANCHOR, FAREED ZAKARIA GPS: That's exactly right, Wolf. The problem is imagine that one of these missiles is launched, the K-8 missiles, the KN-08 missiles. They don't have nuclear warheads small enough to put on them so they would be high explosive, but they launch it into the sky, we have destroyers that have (INAUDIBLE) radars, track them, we fire our own missile, the SM-3 to intercept and destroy it.

Then, the North Koreans feel they've lost face. They have to do something. They start attacking South Korean patrol boats.

You see, that's that's the danger. Nobody wants this to happen.

I think the Obama administration is playing this just right, which is, this is at some level bluster. What you don't want to do is overreact to it, which then forces them to show that they're actually serious and you go down a tit for tat game. So, you've got to provide assurance and deterrence, assurance to the Japanese and the South Koreans, who are the most concerned, you have to deter the North Koreans, but you cast play into this game, because they are both somewhat irrational. They don't have very good command and control, one has to assume, and there could be some kind of miscalculation.

BLITZER: Does he really think he can get concessions, Kim Jong-un, money from China, from South Korea, from the United States by this tough talk?

AMANPOUR: Wolf, it's a pattern that has happened over the last decades with this regime. They do believe that they can. And they have been able to do this, this sort of extortion policy, if you like, in this regard. Obviously, nobody wants to let that happen right now.

The United States is now saying, you heard Barbara Starr say it, at the State Department said it today, they want to perhaps give some kind diplomacy an outlet. What they'll probably will not be doing over the next several weeks as these joint military games continue between South Korea and the U.S., they probably won't be showing some of the more demonstrable shows of force, marine amphibious landing on the coast, they probably won't be showing that.

And if they do, that also could be an issue. But I think the diplomacy is the problem, and they haven't had real diplomacy between either the Obama administration or the Bush administration. And this is what's having a major problem.

BLITZER: Is it time to send some sort of diplomatic envoy to Pyongyang on behalf of the president of the United States?

ZAKARIA: Well, the Bush administration actually did try diplomacy. They signed two agreements with the North Koreans. Plenty of people did.

The problem is, as Christiane pointed out, they cheat on them. They've cheated on every one of these.

There's only one country with whom diplomacy would work with North Korea, and that's China. The Chinese provide 50 percent of North Korea's food, 80 percent of its fuel. There are people in China who literally opened the taps and allowed North Korea to survive.

The problem is the Chinese have never thought that they could put the real pressure on the North Koreans without danger of the regime collapsing. So as for the Chinese, they worry about all this stuff. They don't like this --you know, the unpredictability of this regime. But they don't want to see a North Korean collapses.

What does that mean? It means millions of refugees into China, more importantly, it means almost inevitably the unification of the Koreas, North and South, in the kind of East German/West German style on South Korean terms. So, here's what you have on China's border, a very large Korea, with Seoul as its capital, with 40,000 American troops, a treaty alliance with the United States and nuclear weapons.

BLITZER: Guys, it's a complex, complex situation, but it's perilous right now. We're going to continue this conversation.

Also, a broader look at North Korea's military and massive fire power, the danger goes much deeper than simply one missile test.

And later, from the NBA to North Korea, did Dennis Rodman's recent visit have any influence at all on Kim Jong-un?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, he is certainly a huge reason why this crisis right now is so uncertain and so very dangerous. He's young, virtually unknown, and this is his first major test in the global arena.

CNN's Kyung Lah has put together what we know about him. She's joining us now from Seoul, South Korea.

He's critical in all of this. Kyung, tell us what we know.

KYUNG LAH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, to the outside world, he is simply the odd offspring of a tyrant, more image than man, an image developed by North Korea's twisted propaganda machine.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LAH (voice-over): He is the third of the Kim dynasty, a man not yet 30, in command of a nuclear arsenal, ballistic missiles and the world's fourth largest army.

But Kim Jong-un is in many ways an enigma, and a dangerous one at that. The youngest son of Kim Jong Il, he had a privileged upbringing while millions of North Koreans starved, attending an elite boarding school in Switzerland under a false name.

A Brazilian classmate remembers him as a shy teenager.

JOAO MICAELO, KIM JONG-UN'S CLASSMATE (via telephone): He was very quiet. He didn't speak with anyone. He was a competitive at sports. For him, he didn't like to lose.

LAH: He liked basketball and football and video games. His father had served a long apprenticeship before taking over the hermit kingdom.

But Kim Jong-un was catapulted into the leadership, suddenly becoming a general in his mid-20s without serving a day in the military. When his father died in December of 2011, Kim Jong-un became supreme leader, and the state propaganda machine.

DANIEL PINKSTON, INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP: They've been trying to establish this myth regarding his expertise. He speaks eight languages. He's a military genius, and technical genius. LAH: And a leader with a complete backing of the military. In his first public remarks as leader, he spoke of the heartbreak of a divided Korea. But there was also a warning.

KIM JONG-UN, NORTH KOREAN LEADER (through translator): Our military has become a powerful military, able to handle any kind of modern warfare with complete offensive and defensive capabilities. The foreign powers are not the only ones with a monopoly on military supremacy.

LAH: But he also promised no more famine.

KIM JONG-UN: It is our party's firmness resolve not to let our citizens go hungry again.

LAH: As he has consolidated his role, Kim has tried to promote his youthful side, attending a concert with Disney characters, and a youth festival. Watching basketball with Dennis Rodman.

Kim Jong-un has already married. His young attractive wife was announced by state media as comrade Ri Sol Jo.

But he's also reinforced North Korea's military first policy.

With the successful launch of a ballistic missile In December and another underground nuclear test in February.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAH: And the biggest and most dangerous gap is that we simply do not know, Wolf, what is happening inside this young man's mind -- Wolf.

BLITZER: A lot of technical information we -- the world knows about North Korea, but inside stuff, obviously, that is a key, key problem. Kyung, we're going to get back to you. Kyung Lah is in Seoul, South Korea. It's only about 30 miles or so from the demilitarized zone with North Korea.

North Korea's nuclear capabilities are an open question. Their conventional military is heavily equipped, capable of inflicting immense casualties and damages on the millions and millions of people just below the demilitarized zone.

Let's go back to CNN's Tom Foreman and retired U.S. Army General Spider Marks for more on this -- Tom.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, there's a tremendous amount of power in the hands of this young man.

Let's go through a little bit if we can, Spider. Let's talk about this nuclear capability first. What do we really think they have right now?

GEN. SPIDER MARKS (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Tom, we think they have eight bombs. They probably have the materiel for 12. But we don't think these are weaponized. They haven't been married up with a missile capability to launch someplace else.

FOREMAN: So, they are weapons, but as long as they're not able to be delivered well, they're not weaponized. That's what we thought there.

MARKS: Correct.

FOREMAN: What about the other hardware they have? They've got a tremendous amount of artillery and rockets, missiles, things like this. Talk about that some.

MARKS: The North Korean military, the Korean people army was trained by the Soviets and trained by the Chinese communists. So they rely on volumes and volumes of artillery fire. So they have a massive amount of artillery and surface-to-surface missiles.

We would see those at the start of a conflict.

FOREMAN: And a lot of this has been dug in ever since the end of the Korean conflict.

MARKS: Absolutely, it has.

FOREMAN: They've been preparing for 50 years for the next one.

MARKS: They sure have. They sure have.

Completely where the armistice was signed, back in '53, 1953, is where a lot of those units remain today.

FOREMAN: OK. And beyond that, there is this question of the sheer number of people they have for a really quite small country, massive army.

MARKS: They have the fifth largest military in the world, over a million men under arms. That's on the active component. The reserve component has got about 8 million folks. That's about the largest reserve component military in the world. And they could be mobilized at a moment's notice.

FOREMAN: Are they generally considered to be well-trained?

MARKS: They are -- the active component, very well-trained. And in fact, when you compare the military to the population, the military has a much higher level of nutrition training. So they are prepared.

FOREMAN: A couple of other things to talk about here. They have a navy, so to speak. They have an air force. They have submarines. But we don't think of those in the traditional way we do other forces like that.

MARKS: Tom, let me talk about the air force for a second. Our primary concern about their air force is for the insertion of their very large, over 100,000 special operations forces. Now, the navy can also insert special operations forces through midget submarines and other type of water craft that they have. Then they would also activate sleeper agents that are in the South, and they would go after targets to disrupt the decision-making capability of the United Nations command.

FOREMAN: So the simple truth is, Wolf, even if you get past the nuclear question here, there's a formidable military force in North Korea right now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's huge indeed, could cause enormous, enormous destruction and disaster.

Guys, thanks for that report.

Still ahead, an administration insider on President Obama's North Korea playbook and what's worrying him most right now.

And life in North Korea, as I saw it, when I was there, during another time of crisis in the region.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Happening now:

North Korea's dangerous new military moves, one miscalculation by either side could be a disaster. National security insiders tell us what they're learning about the U.S. response.

Thousands of Americans are at risk on the Korean peninsula right now. We're going to explore America's stake in a region that could explode literally at any moment.

And Kim Jong-un's new pal. Did the former NBA star Dennis Rodman have any influence at all on the North Korean leader or on his plan of attack?

I'm Wolf Blitzer, and this is THE SITUATION ROOM special report of the North Korean crisis.

The Obama administration is struggling right now to calm an explosive situation in North Korea. As we reported, Kim Jong-un may be gearing up for a new missile launch soon after weeks of warmongering.

Take a look at how he's ramping up tensions if the region.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER (voice-over): Tensions began to skyrocket in mid-February when North Korea went ahead with its third nuclear test. A furious U.N. Security Council hit back a few weeks later, imposing punishing new sanctions.

The U.S. began planned war games with South Korea, and the North said it was pulling out of the agreement that ended the Korean War.

Direct threats against America intensified. North Korean TV aired a video simulating an attack on the White House and the capital building.

In a show of force, the U.S. added nuclear capable B-2 stealth bombers to its military drills with South Korea.

Then, Kim Jong-un put his forces on standby to strike the U.S. mainland, Guam and Hawaii. And he declared a state of war with the South.

U.S. stealth fighter jets joined those war games in the region.

And the threats went nuclear. North Korea said it would restart a closed plutonium reactor. The regime claimed its plans for a nuclear attack on the U.S. were ready to go.

The U.S. has ordered missile defenses to nearby Guam as fears grow that North Korea may be planning a launch soon.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: We've assembled our own security council here in THE SITUATION ROOM, including some of the more knowledgeable folks about North Korea, to try to break all of this down for you.

Joining us now is Tommy Vietor. He served in the Obama White House. He's a former spokesman for the National Security Council.

Also joining us, Christopher Hill. He's former U.S. ambassador to South Korea. He's now dean of the School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

And retired U.S. Navy Admiral William Fallon. He served as the head of the U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Central Command.

Admiral Fallon, what worries me the most is a miscalculation that could trigger all-out war. Am I overly concerned or are you concerned about that as well?

ADM. WILLIAM FALLON (RET), FORMER COMMANDER, U.S. PACIFIC COMMAND: Wolf, I think it's prudent to be concerned, and certainly pay close attention to this. But I believe this thing may be a little bit overhyped right now.

BLITZER: Tell us why. Tell us why.

FALLON: Well, the first thing is, his ability to strike the U.S., I think, is mostly talk. There's a possibility that some of his missiles might be able to range Alaska, or possibly a U.S. territory or bases closer in. But unlikely, they've never demonstrated an ability to get anything to fly as far as the U.S. It took them many years to try to get that one missile that we call the Taepadong-2 to fly.

So, I think there's an awful lot of rhetoric. It's not helpful, of course, but this is -- this is a lot of the same old stuff out of the playbook that his father and grandfather used. And it's unfortunate.

You've got to wonder what he's up to, and what the real motivation is, whether he's just trying to act strong in front of his military people. Or again, what's worked in the past, in some instances, is to act outrageously and then demand some kind of concession, and move on.

But it is a time to be very attentive. I think we've made, the U.S. has made some very prudent moves. We have a significant missile defense capability. I think our people are certainly up to the task. And from what I can see -- I don't get any daily intel reports anymore, but I -- it looks to me like we've taken the appropriate precautions.

BLITZER: Where does diplomacy, Ambassador Hill, fit into this? The U.S. does have indirect contacts with North Korea. The South Koreans do. Japan, China. But where -- where should the U.S. be engaged right now, trying to ease this crisis?

HILL: I think there are basically two tracks. One is with our allies, South Korea and Japan. I think it's been very important that we reassure them, and that we not hold back on these annual exercises. So if there's an air component to these exercises, we need to go through that. Because we need to really assure our allies. So that's one track.

The second track is, of course, is with China. China, they may deny that they have a lot of leverage with the North Koreans. But they do. And there's a lot more they can do.

A third possible track might be with the North Koreans. But you know, they kind of started this dance. I'm not sure it would be in our interests to be kind of approaching them. I think to leave in our mind that we're worried, afraid or somehow blinking. So I think we need to be very careful in how we would deal directly with the North Koreans. I'd rather see a -- much more of an effort with China.

BLITZER: Tommy Vietor, you know that back when he was a candidate in 2007, 2008, President Obama at that point made it clear, he's willing to talk to these kinds of despots, if you will, without pre- conditions. Dennis Rodman came back from North Korea saying, call -- call him. Kim Jong-un. Do you think that's something the president would even consider?

TOMMY VIETOR, FORMER SPOKESMAN, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL: Huge thank you to Dennis Rodman for delivering that message. I think the president has expressed a willingness to have direct negotiations or conversations with North Koreans. But those need to be constructive. And they can't be in the context of these absurd threats and this propaganda and continued nuclear development, continued tests of intercontinental ballistic technology.

And so I agree with what the admiral said. I think that anytime you combine long-range missile technology, efforts to develop a nuclear program, that's something you have to take very seriously.

But the bottom line is, the United States has been working on missile defense technology for years. The administration had recently announced that bill put 14 more ground- based interceptors on the West Coast. They are putting additional radar capability in the region. There are additional military ships in the region, as part of regularly-scheduled military exercises. This is something we're well prepared for. I don't think your viewers should worry that there's an immediate homeland threat, because the North Koreans simply haven't indicated or tested some of the weapons that would give them that capability.

BLITZER: Everybody stand by for a moment. I want to go it the White House right now. Our correspondent, Brianna Keilar, once again is standing by.

So, are they worried at the White House, Brianna, about this escalation that's been going on now for the past few weeks? And whether it has gone too far?

KEILAR: Well, certainly, Wolf, there's a lot of talk among White House officials that they want to see things de-escalate. And you're seeing that in some of their changing rhetoric today.

They also insist, though, that this sort of show of force has been a necessary deterrent to show Kim Jong-un that, if he's going to make good on his threats, there will be consequences.

I will tell you, Pentagon officials have been a little more candid with CNN. And they say that after accusing North Korea of amping up its rhetoric, they're afraid they may have done the same thing.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR (voice-over): Worried that muscular displays of U.S. military might may have pushed North Korea too far, the Obama administration is changing its tone and says North Korea should, too.

VICTORIA NULAND, SPOKESMAN, STATE DEPARTMENT: We have also been saying all the way through, that this does not need to get hotter. That it can -- we can change course here, if the DPRK will begin to come back into compliance with its international obligations, will begin to cool things down.

KEILAR: Secretary of State John Kerry is leading the effort to dial back the discord, sources tell CNN, while behind the scenes at the White House, attention to an increasingly threatening North Korea is in overdrive.

A senior administration source says top officials have been meeting more frequently in the situation room for the last week and a half. Deputies from the president's National Security Council, the defense and state departments, the CIA, and the joint chiefs of staff, among others, are at the table. Victor Cha was a top adviser on North Korea to President George W. Bush.

VICTOR CHA, ADVISOR TO PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Yes, I think they're watching very carefully the situation. I think they're watching to see if there are military maneuvers, or a higher level of military alert on the ground in North Korea, that is accompanying all of this rhetoric.

(END VIDEOTAPE) KEILAR: Now, don't expect North Korea to be leaving the headlines anytime soon, though, Wolf. The new President Park will be here next month visiting with President Obama. Their first visit. And it's certainly expected, I would say, that North Korea, as it does at times, may act up and try to steal some of the attention during that time, as well.

BLITZER: Brianna, thanks very much.

Let's go back to our guests for some further analysis right now. There is a new government, Ambassador Hill, in South Korea, and President Park, she's tough. If there is some sort of provocation, I suspect, unlike her predecessor, she might respond right away, and that could escalate a dangerous situation.

HILL: Well, she's tough, but I think the times have changed somewhat. And this North Korean bluster is pretty serious.

So I think the problem is, the North Koreans might feel they can get away with some incident, whereas as you suggest, I think the South Koreans would hit them back pretty hard. And there does appear to be some shift in the rules of engagement. That is local commanders seem to be empowered to move right back at them, rather than phone home to Seoul.

So yes, I think it is kind of a dangerous situation. And as we look at the various paths of this -- of this crisis, I think this kind of inadvertent conflict could be the most serious.

BLITZER: As you know, Admiral Fallon, two years or so ago, when I was in North Korea, the North Koreans did bomb an island; they killed a whole bunch of South Koreans. They attacked a South Korean warship; they killed a lot of sailors. The South Koreans at that point did not retaliate. But I would suspect if they did those things again, the situation would explode.

FALLON: Wolf, I think it's noteworthy that within the last week or ten days, there was an agreement reached between the U.S. and the Republican of Korea. I don't know the details of it, but it sounds to me like it was a heightened effort to consult very closely in the event of some untoward incident, or unpredictable activity on the part of the DPRK.

You know, we worked very, very closely, have for many years with our South Korean allies. There's a well-integrated plan, lots of discussion, and exercises for many years. We work very well together. There's a high level of confidence between the two militaries.

And I think, again, this is a time to certainly be very attentive, to take the prudent precautions, which I believe we're doing. And to consult very closely with our allies in the region, because this is fundamentally a regional issue.

BLITZER: Tommy, you worked with the president for a long time when you were at the National Security Council. Give us a little flavor how he deals with an emerging crisis like this. VIETOR: Well, I mean, the first thing I'd say, Wolf, is that, you know, these problems with North Korea didn't emerge just recently. And this is something he's been working on for a long time. So his efforts to bolster a missile defense system is going to be critical.

But you're right that, when there's an incident like this, or a series of incidents, that the tempo picks up. The deputy's committee will meet more regularly. And the president will receive regular briefings about the issue, in the BDD and other venues.

But I don't think that the White House is on high alert right now, as a result of these actions. It's something that they've been aware of and working on for a long time.

And the long game here, I think, is going to be conversations with the Chinese. Because the United States can, you know, work to get more sanctions on North Korea and do a variety of other efforts to increase diplomatic pressure.

If the Chinese would just turn the screws a little more, they could have a real impact with North Korea. And they need to stop letting them get away with these -- these temper tantrums.

BLITZER: Tommy Vietor, thanks very much. Admiral Fallon, and Christopher Hill, guys, we'll continue this conversation.

If cooler heads can't prevail and shooting actually begins, many important U.S. targets could be within range of North Korea's guns and thousands, tens of thousands of U.S. troops. Also coming up this hour, pictures from my own rare visit to North Korea.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: North Korea isn't the only country doing some serious military muscle flexing right now. A pair of U.S. stealth bombers has made the round trip from their base in Missouri to South Korea and back. Plenty of other U.S. fire power is deployed much closer to North Korea and could become targets.

CNN's Pentagon correspondent, Chris Lawrence, is joining us with more on what's going on.

What are you seeing, what are you learning, Chris?

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you've got thousands of American troops stationed just about 15 miles south of the DMZ, and you've got all of North Korea's heavy armor and artillery aimed right at them.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LAWRENCE (voice-over): Twenty-five miles, it's the magic number as far as American troops are concerned. Some of North Korea's massive artillery can fire up to four mortar rounds a minute, 25 miles away.

RODGER BAKER, STRATFOR: U.S. forces that are near the front are probably going to be within range of the artillery.

LAWRENCE: About 10,000 American troops are deployed to bases around Camp Casey, just 15 miles from the DMZ. Others are concentrated at Osan Air Base. The U.S. recently put radar-evading Raptors on display there and flew long-range bombers like the B-2.

But the risk to troops deployed closest to the DMZ will change. Over the next few years, the U.S. will move them to another base south of Seoul.

BAKER: That means that the bulk of U.S. military forces in Korea are not going to necessarily be within range of the artillery strikes at the beginning.

LAWRENCE: Farther out in the western Pacific, the Navy deployed the USS Decatur and USS McCain, armed with a sophisticated radar system to detect North Korean missiles, and then launch rockets to intercept and destroy them.

The first reinforcements could come from one of the many American bases in Japan, home to the Navy's 7th Fleet and more than 100 aircraft.

And some 2,000 miles away, North Korea threatened a nuclear strike on Guam. Now the U.S. is deploying a land-based missile defense system, somewhat easing fears of an attack on the U.S. territory.

GOV. EDDIE BAZA CALVO, GUAM: Though I hearken to see these -- these improvements in the defense posture, I am concerned, as -- not only as a governor, but as a -- as a man who has a wife and children and grandchildren here.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAWRENCE: And you know, those are the -- some of the same concerns that husbands, wives and children here in the U.S. have for their service members who are stationed over there in South Korea.

One of the big advantages that the U.S. has is how quickly they can reinforce troops. Within two weeks, Wolf, they could double the size of their combat aircraft and triple the size of U.S. ground troops in the area.

BLITZER: Yes, and Guam has almost 6,000 U.S. troops who are based there at any one time. Not very far away indeed.

Chris, thanks very much.

North Korea only has two direct neighbors right now, South Korea and China. The saber rattling has nerves on edge in both countries. Let's get the latest from our correspondents in the two capitals, starting with CNN Jim Clancy in Seoul.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JIM CLANCY, CNN CORRESPONDENT/ANCHOR (voice-over): The South Korean capital could become ground zero if there would be a conflict here on the Korean Peninsula. The people who live here know that it's not the nuclear arms, it is the conventional weapons that are possessed by the North that could reduce this city, or parts of it at least, to ashes in a short period of time.

Older people tell me that this is the most tense time they can remember since the end of the Korean War, some 60 years ago.

Younger people say, "We can't relate to it. We are post-war." They do not believe that Kim Jong-un is going to attack the South. They believe, instead, that what he wants to do is to blackmail South Korea: to get the money, to get the food aid, in order to keep his dictatorship afloat.

Jim Clancy, CNN, Seoul.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Let's go to David McKenzie right now in Beijing. What's going on over there? Because everyone seems to think China could play a critically important role if the government in Beijing decided to.

DAVID MCKENZIE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it's a smoggy day here in Beijing, and the mood is certainly darkening here in China, with its close neighbor, longtime ally North Korea, ratcheting up the rhetoric, and even making moves, potentially, for a missile strike.

The key may be China, Wolf, with China having a lot of influence over Pyongyang. They could literally close the taps, the fuel taps, and even those conventional military ties between the two countries.

A lot of frustration here in Beijing, with North Korea, though, in recent months, particularly with that missile strike -- that missile test, and nuclear test. Their frustrations might be boiling over, and they could be pushing for North Korea to get to the negotiating table -- Wolf.

BLITZER: David McKenzie in Beijing for us there, watching it very closely. Thank you.

I was in North Korea just two years ago. Stand by for a rare look.

Plus, we're going to assess the impact of Dennis Rodman's improbable visit with the North Korean leader.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: For all North Korea's threats and its military power, its people don't have much. They live under very difficult conditions. I got a rare look inside the secretive nation when I traveled there at the end of 2010.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Well, thank you so much. (voice-over): During my six days of North Korea, I didn't see a whole lot of color unless you count the propaganda posters. We visited in the winter when buildings often go unheated. In this school, it's so cold in the classroom you could see their breath. Even today top leaders, like Kim Jong-Un and his generals, often wear overcoats indoors.

Why the hardships? Because so much of their limited money goes to the military. According to the CIA, North Korea industry is crippled, and there are chronic food shortages.

KONGDAN OR, AUTHOR: Basically it's a starving country. Always they are looking for better, better food. And where is something to eat, to fill my stomach?

BLITZER: Starvation reportedly killed up to two million people in the 1990s. This 24-year-old defected from North Korea six years ago.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): You can see dead people everywhere on the street.

BLITZER: In this satellite photo, South Korea is blazing with lights at night. But North Korea is pitch black, except for the capitol. That capital, Pyongyang, is the home of top government officials with good salaries and impressive offices.

(on camera): We're on top of the world's tallest stone tower here overlooking Pyongyang. And it really is majestic to see what's going on. You see the river. You see the bitter cold, freezing snow.

The buildings are really impressive to see what's going on here in the North Korean capital.

(voice-over): But one thing we noticed, not a lot of people with cars.

(on camera): There's not a whole lot of traffic here. It's icy here. The streets are icy. It's snowing. You see a lot of people shoveling. And there you see the hammer and sickle of this communist government, manifestations of the communist philosophy.

(voice-over): The subway is clean and orderly, although the lights don't always stay on. It's very deep underground. It doubles as a bomb shelter. And it's filled with propaganda pictures and even patriotic music.

(on camera): We're moving now. It's pretty smooth.

(voice-over): In spite of all the propaganda, analysts say, the population may be getting other glimpses of the world.

OR: The younger generations are very skillfully adapting using the internet and gaining the momentum and finding the information. And they finally are asking, North Korea is not paradise on earth. It's actually hell on earth. Why are we living like this?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Up next, a wild card in U.S. relations with North Korea, the former NBA star, Dennis Rodman.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has met with one U.S. citizen, the retired NBA star Dennis Rodman. They watched basketball together. They ate sushi in February.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DENNIS RODMAN, RETIRED NBA STAR: His country like him. I like him. Love him. Love him. Guess what? Yes, yes, I love him. I love him. The guy is awesome.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Rodman was there for an HBO series called "Vice." Fareed Zakaria is a consulting producer for that -- for "Vice," which is part of our sister network, HBO.

You know, it's hard to -- when I heard that Dennis Rodman was going, I couldn't believe it. I don't know about you, but you can't make this kind of stuff up.

FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN ANCHOR: You can't make it up. He wanted Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan, perhaps, wisely decided not to be part of it.

BLITZER: He declined.

ZAKARIA: You know what partly this tells you, to add to the complexity of this story, is this 29-year-old boy, Kim Jong-un, is probably not running national security strategy. The guy is a few months in the job. There's a military dictatorship. He's fully in control of basketball policy for North Korea. But national security policy's probably being controlled by very senior generals.

BLITZER: He is the son, though, of Kim Jong-il, the grandson of founder of North Korea, so the power he has potentially is enormous.

ZAKARIA: Enormous, and it unifies the country, and it keeps the regime intact. But probably behind the scenes there are -- there are people actually pulling the strings, which makes it more complicated, because there are probably multiple centers of power here.

BLITZER: Where do you see this going, bottom line?

ZAKARIA: Bottom line, I think they will be deterred. I think they're trying to get attention. They're trying to get concessions. The Obama administration is probably not going to do it. So we'll probably ride this out. But as you said at the start, there have been miscalculations here.

BLITZER: Always can be mistaken.

Those are pictures from the demilitarized zone right there. Fareed, thanks very much. We'll, of course, stay on top of this story.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. The news continues next on CNN.