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North Korea Vows "Merciless Response" to Provocation; North Korea Holds Military Parade; North Korea's Nuclear Arsenal Growing Rapidly; U.S. Military's MOAB "Right Weapon against Right Target"; Pope Observes Good Friday in Rome; F1 Prepares for Bahrain Grand Prix. Aired 12-12:30a ET

Aired April 15, 2017 - 00:00   ET




CYRIL VANIER, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Rare reporting from Pyongyang, North Korea, where the country is commemorating the birthday of its late founder even as it warns the U.S. against any provocation.

Hi, everyone. Thank you very much for joining us. I'm Cyril Vanier. We're live from the CNN NEWSROOM in Atlanta.


VANIER: North Korea is putting out a very clear message for the U.S. It says it will respond to all-out war with an all-out war. A military parade is underway in Pyongyang commemorating the 105th birthday of Kim Il-sung, the late founder.

Running the country now is his grandson, Kim Jong-un. As he watches the parade, he's got the international community on edge. Satellite images suggest another nuclear test could be coming very soon and Pyongyang has threatened a merciless response to any American provocation.

China, one of North Korea's few allies, said no one would be the winner if war broke out. Other regional powers are holding their breaths as missiles are being paraded through Pyongyang.

CNN's Will Ripley is in the North Korean capital. He witnessed firsthand this remarkable display of force. Here's how he described it to our Don Lemon just a short while ago.


WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What's happening behind me right now is you are seeing the North Korean military. That the military band is playing throughout the parade.

What we saw a few moments ago and I don't know it we have the tape, if we can cue it back up. But North Korea put its missile arsenal on display for this military parade. If you look here, there's some jets flying over overhead right now. If we could pan up, you can see with the colors of the North Korean flag.

The missiles that we just saw, Don, I'm not a missile expert, but I know we saw submarine launch ballistic missiles. We saw missiles that are capable of being launched from a mobile launcher. And just seconds before we came on the air, we saw this very large, what are believed to be intercontinental ballistic missiles.

So these are the kinds of missiles that North Korea is testing and trying to perfect because what their ultimate goal is just to have an ICBM with a nuclear warhead capable of reaching the mainland U.S.

Most analysts say that they are not there yet. But you see from this arsenal rolling by that they are getting closer and investing a tremendous amount of their country's very scarce resources in developing these weapons.

So now what you are going to see happen, you see behind me, there are tens of thousands of people holding up this pink and red pompoms. These are the citizens of Pyongyang who have already been out here for more than five hours.

And every time this country hold a big celebration, citizens are expected, you know, to leave their jobs, they come out, they came also to the square, the huge space in the middle of the city and they stand and they perform and they spend sometimes months rehearsing for these types of events.

This is what happens. This is what comes with the territory when you are somebody who lives in Pyongyang, North Korea. You are expected to be out here in all weather conditions to show your revolutionary fervor and send a very grand message to not only to the people in our own country and to your supreme leader Kim Jong-Un.

But this is tailor made for the rest of the world to see as well.

We know that the North Koreans are responding to provocation from the United States where they consider provocations including tweets from President Trump.

I was speaking with a government official here just in the last hour who told me, Don, that the special military operation that North Korea released pictures of a couple days ago as commandos jumping out of airplanes, they say that was in direct response to tweets from President Trump.

This is the first time that we have heard this from the North Korean officials that they conducted a special operation exercise as a result of President Trump's tweets.

But, you know, the bigger provocative act in the eyes of the North Koreans is in waters of the peninsula. You have this carrier strike group, the U.S.S. Carl Vinson with, you know, submarines equipped with nuclear missiles, 60 airplanes and 97,000 ton aircraft carrier. And analysts know that North Korea, they believe could be ready at any time to push the button on its six nuclear tests. So the show of force that North Korea is showing today its citizens, these are now university students. You can tell they are university students by the uniforms they are wearing.

Look at those giant statues up there of the two late leaders of North Korea. On the left, Kim Il-sung; on the right, Kim Jong-Il. That's the grandfather and the father of the current, Kim Jong-Un.

You see statues like this all over the city.


RIPLEY: There are portraits of the late leaders hanging up all over the city. This entire society is built to protect an image of power surrounding these leaders and now the current leader, Kim Jong-Un.

And the number one way that they like to show power to the rest of the world is by pushing the buttons on a nuclear test or launching a missile. And Kim Jong-Un has promised that a nuclear test will happen, not a matter of if, but when. And he has also said that he will be launching more missiles because he wants a ballistic missile with the nuclear warhead that can hit anywhere in the mainland U.S.

And now, these are the citizens I was telling you about. Saturday is actually a workday here in North Korea. But these are people who are not at their jobs right now because they are out here. They are waving their balloons and their flags. They are screaming long live Kim Jong-Un. You will see tens of thousands of people doing this.

Later on, they will do a big mass dance and then later on in the evening, all of the students will come out and do something similar.

This is what you are expected to do if you're a citizen in the North Korean capital. This comes with the territory. Because we know that the people who live in this city have a much higher living standard than people elsewhere in North Korea.


VANIER: Remarkable footage coming out of the North Korean capital. Remarkable reporting from Will there.

Let's get the other side of the story on the other side of the border. Alexandra Field joins us live from Seoul, South Korea.

Alexandra, South Koreans see tensions rise every year with North Korea, almost like clockwork.

How seriously are they taking this latest episode of heated rhetoric?

ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, Cyril, the threat of another nuclear test and the strong possibility, the likelihood, the probability of additional missile tests aren't new for South Koreans. It's not those facts in and of themselves that cause the most concern but it's the changing climate right here on the peninsula that has people more worried than they have been in the face of these provocative actions from North Korea in the past.

That's namely the fact that we do not know at this point how the U.S. plans to proceed when it comes to countering the North Korean nuclear threat. President Donald Trump has been very clear in saying that if China won't solve the North Korea problem, that the U.S. could act alone. And now they have deployed the vice president, Mike Pence to the region. He'll be coming to Seoul, South Korea, and on to Tokyo, Japan, to talk to allies about what kind of options are on the table and what options are being presented to President Trump when it comes to looking at how to deal with North Korea.

We know the White House has said they'll look into a military option. That's what raises concern here in South Korea because, while you have a lot of talk going on between China and the U.S. about how to deal with North Korea and when you have North Korea trying to project these images of strength and possibly on the verge of even more provocative actions, you have South Korea sitting right here very much in the line of fire.

It is widely believed if the U.S. conducted some sort of preemptive strike on North Korea, that South Koreans could very much be in harm's way with a strong possibility of North Korea then retaliating.

VANIER: They are vulnerable indeed. I've been wondering how the ongoing domestic political crisis in South Korea is shaping their ability to respond to this. The country's president was impeached. You reported on that a lot. New elections are due to take place in the country shortly.

Is South Korea right now able to respond to a threat?

FIELD: It is such an important question because you have the two world powers, China and U.S., really dominating the conversation when it comes to how to proceed with North Korea.

But you have an acting president here in South Korea who is trying to issue assurances to the people in this country. And we've heard these same sorts of words echoed by other officials in South Korea. They are telling the public here to rest assured that the U.S. will not act without them, that they're in close contact with their counterparts in the U.S., particularly when it comes to the idea and the possibility of some kind of military action.

This acting president has stood firmly on the side of the U.S., agreeing to continue to endorse and move forward with the deployment of the very controversial THAAD missile defense system.

That's a U.S.-designed missile defense system being installed right here in South Korea, despite the objection of neighbors in the region, including China and Russia.

So that's the position that has been staked out by the acting president. It is very much in line with the ousted president.

But the question of how to proceed with North Korea and how to talk to the U.S. about questions concerning how to proceed with North Korea are dominating this election cycle.

You have five candidates on stage for a presidential debate here earlier this week. All of them are being asked about how they would try to thread this needle and work with the U.S. in order to ensure peace here on the peninsula -- Cyril.

VANIER: Very interesting to see how South Korea is coping with this at the moment. Thank you very much, Alexandra Field reporting live from Seoul. We appreciate it. Thank you.

And CNN's Brian Todd has the latest assessments of where --


VANIER: -- North Korea's nuclear technology currently stands.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): CNN has learned Kim Jong- un's nuclear weapons build-up is advancing rapidly. North Korea's now estimated to have produced between 13 and 30 nuclear warheads.

That's according to a new report from former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright, whose firm examined the regime's plutonium and uranium production.

Albright stresses North Korea's nuclear program is so secretive that completely accurate figures are difficult to get. But based what he's found, the former inspector has an ominous projection for the number of warheads Kim could soon produce.

DAVID ALBRIGHT, INSTITUTE FOR SCIENCE AND INTERNATIONAL SECURITY: By the end of 2020, the numbers could go up to 25 to 50 and, in the worst case, could go up to 60.

TODD (voice-over): With a stockpile that large, analysts say, Kim's regime could make it harder for the U.S. to track his nuclear weapons.

GORDON CHANG, AUTHOR: That means they can disperse them. Most of them I suspect will be underground and that ultimately means the U.S. does not have a first strike capability because we can't be assured of taking out all of their weapons.

TODD (voice-over): U.S. intelligence officials and independent weapons experts tell CNN, Kim Jong-un's been more aggressive with nuclear and missile tests over the past year and a half than he's ever been.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies says the regime's tested missiles more than 20 times since the beginning of 2016 and tested nuclear warheads twice in that span. Albright says with each nuclear test, the young dictator gets closer to producing a more powerful nuclear bomb.

ALBRIGHT: They can break into kind of thermonuclear weapons if they continue to test. And that would give them the ability to make a much larger explosion. It would give them ability to actually miniaturize their warheads better.

TODD (voice-over): Experts with the monitoring group 38 North believe Kim already has the ability to test a nuclear warhead 16 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, the calculations made even more menacing by the unpredictable nature of the young man with his finger on that nuclear trigger.

CHANG: I believe Kim Jong-un is even more dangerous than he appears. And the reason is that I don't think his regime is stable. And that means Kim Jong-un could have a much lower threshold of risk than we think. It means he could do something that could surprise us because, from his perspective, he may think he has little to lose.

TODD: Analysts say if Kim Jong-un conducts another nuclear test in the coming days or weeks, it's going to mean China likely was not able to use its leverage and influence over Kim Jong-un and that, they say, is a very dangerous sign -- Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.


VANIER: For more on North Korea's nuclear strategy, I'm joined by Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a former Stanton nuclear security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He knows all about this.

Adam, is there a technological threshold, whether it's to do with nuclear capacity or missiles capacity, that would be a conversation changer, that would push countries such as the U.S. into some sort of action?

ADAM MOUNT, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Well, the response is going to be a matter of debate but there are several thresholds that will be critical. The one we mentioned earlier and the one that's critical is the ability to put a nuclear warhead on top of an intercontinental ballistic missile that threatens the continental United States. Now we think they're closing in on this capability, which is of serious concern.


VANIER: If I can stop you there.

Can you be a little bit more specific?

I know there are varying assessments of how close they might be to doing that.

MOUNT: Well, sure. And there are going to be large error bounds on all of these assessments.

So for example, tonight there was a military parade, as you showed just a moment ago, that showed off several new systems, including what appeared to be solid fuel ICBMs. Now sometimes North Korea shows mock-ups of missiles in their parades that don't exist yet. Analysts will be going over these images over the next couple of days to determine what they mean. But potentially that could be a system that's capable of hiding from

enemy sensors, launching at very short notices and traveling over very long ranges, including possibly to the continental United States.

What it looks like, it certainly appears to be a message to the United States that they are capable of threatening the U.S. homeland. That's their objective.

VANIER: So they're parading it through the streets of Pyongyang and yet you talk about it as if there is still a matter of debate as to whether they have that technology and whether it's useable.

MOUNT: It is a matter of debate. They've never tested or demonstrated the capability to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile. They've held off testing that system so far.

So we don't know the status of it exactly in the unclassified environment. But there are other missile programs they're advancing at -- very rapidly and they show no signs of slowing down. So we can see that they are making good progress in converting their missiles to solid fuel.


MOUNT: And we can also see that they are improving the reliability of some systems. So they are making rapid advancements. We're just not quite sure when they intend to test an intercontinental ballistic missile. And if they do, what its capabilities will be.

VANIER: Look, the Americans' ability to deter the North Korean nuclear missile program seems extremely limited right now and it has appeared very limited over the last few years. Help us look at it now from the North Korean perspective.

Is there anything that would incentivize the current North Korean leader to drop his nuclear and/or missiles program?

Is there anything that -- in exchange of which he might want to do that?

MOUNT: Well, that's the million-dollar question. And so putting together a package of sanctions that would pressure North Korea back to the table, as well as, quite frankly, inducements, North Korea is not going to give up their program for nothing.

And as they advance their nuclear missile capabilities, the price keeps rising. So you know, there's some real creative thinking that this administration is going to have to do when thinking through what it's prepared to offer, what it's prepared to pay and how to get North Korea to start talking about limits on this nuclear program.

One thing that we do know is that pressure alone is not going to be sufficient. There's no number of carrier strike groups that you can send to the peninsula that's going to in and of itself compel North Korea to come back to the table. There has to be some kind of diplomacy and unfortunately diplomacy has not been this administration's strong suit so far. There's a lot of work to be done.

Just briefly, Adam, since Donald Trump has been sort of thumping his fist on the table recently, is there any kind of bomb or secret bomb the Americans might have?

They just used the mother of all bombs that could somehow bring about a military solution to wipe out a critical amount of North Korean nuclear capability.

MOUNT: Military solutions are highly risky. Any action that we would take would not stand 100 percent -- would not have 100 percent chance of eliminating the North Korean nuclear program. And it could face a nuclear response if we didn't get all the systems.

Quite frankly, nobody wants a war. It would be expensive for the United States, possibly extremely damaging for South Korea, devastating for North Korea and risky for China.

So it's not something that anybody wants but, unfortunately, sometimes wars happen when nobody intends them to happen because of a miscalculation or a misperception. That's something that we really need to be on guard for as tensions rise.

Those possibilities increase. So it's incumbent upon all parties to demonstrate restraint and to clearly communicate what their interests and objectives are.

VANIER: And of course and that's why tensions are rising and so high at the moment in the region. Thank you very much, Adam Mount, thanks for joining the show, thanks a lot.

MOUNT: Thank you.

VANIER: Coming up after the break, why the U.S. military says dropping that mother of all bombs on ISIS was the right thing to do.





VANIER: The U.S. military says dropping its most powerful bomb short of a nuclear weapon on ISIS was, quote, "the right weapon against the right target." The ordnance targeted a network of ISIS tunnels in Eastern Afghanistan. CNN's Barbara Starr has more.


BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: The largest conventional bomb ever dropped in combat exploded above a complex of caves and tunnels in a remote area of Eastern Afghanistan. The top U.S. commander adamant the mission was only about killing ISIS. GEN. JOHN NICHOLSON, COMMANDER, U.S. FORCES IN AFGHANISTAN: The timing of the use of this weapon was simply the appropriate tactical moment against the proper target to use this particular munition. So it is not related to any outside events.

STARR: It does deliver a psychological message to ISIS. One military official tells CNN the massive bomb is powerful enough to destroy nine city blocks.

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It will level that area and provide an unbelievable amount of concussion to that area. So it will collapse caves, it will blow up things and it will -- if you're alive afterwards, you're going to have perforated ear drums and a lot of trauma.

STARR: General Nicholson says it all went according to plan. Caves and tunnels destroyed, Afghanistan officials saying dozens of ISIS fighters killed.

NICHOLSON: We have persistent surveillance over the area before, during and after the operation. And now we have Afghan and U.S. Forces on the site and see no evidence of civilian casualties nor have there been any reports of civilian casualties.

STARR: The bomb had been in Afghanistan since early January. Nicholson signed the final order authorizing the mission just 24 hours before the bomb dropped. Afterwards, local Afghans described the enormity of the blast.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Last night's bomb was really huge. When it dropped, it was shaking everywhere.

STARR: A lot of firepower was used but the estimate is there's still upwards of 800 ISIS fighters inside Afghanistan -- Barbara Starr, CNN, the Pentagon.


VANIER: Pope Francis will lead an Easter vigil mass later Saturday at the Vatican.


VANIER (voice-over): And during Good Friday commemorations in Rome, he denounced the suffering of refugees and spoke out in support of victims of racism. The holy day recalls the crucifixion of Jesus. CNN's Delia Gallagher was there as the pope led a candlelit procession through the stations of the cross.



DELIA GALLAGHER, CNN VATICAN CORRESPONDENT: Pope Francis offered a prayer for the world as he presided at the stations of the cross, saying the world looks at Jesus with its eyes lowered out of shame, shame for its silence in the face of injustice, in the face of blood shed by innocent women, children, immigrants, those persecuted and killed for their faith and for the color of their skin, the pope said.

Shame also for the priests and bishops of the Catholic Church who have caused scandal. The 14 stations commemorate the moments leading up to and just after the crucifixion of Jesus.

And the Vatican chooses representatives from around the world to help carry the cross. It is one of the most solemn moments of this holy week, which ends on Sunday with Easter mass at the Vatican -- Delia Gallagher, CNN, Rome.


VANIER: It's being called one of the greatest rivalries in Formula 1, Vettel versus Hamilton. We'll preview their battle for Bahrain on the eve of that Grand Prix. Stay with us.


VANIER: Welcome back.

Lewis Hamilton has been called Formula 1's rock star. He and rival Sebastian Vettel are now tied at the top of the championship points standings. The deadlock should be broken at Sunday's Grand Prix in Bahrain. Richard Quest reports on the battle of the desert circuit.



RICHARD QUEST, CNNMONEY EDITOR AT LARGE: Every great sport is built on great rivalry: Messier versus Ronaldo, Palmer versus Nicklaus, Federer versus Nadal. Now Formula 1 has its next great rivalry to define the sport, for years to come.

Sebastian Vettel, hungry for his first title with Ferrari, and Lewis Hamilton, eager to reclaim the limelight at Mercedes, two superstar drivers with cars and teams and money invested to match.

Two weeks in, with one victory each, they're neck and neck. After years of Mercedes domination, this year's title is anything but a one- horse race, Vettel versus Hamilton leading the way, transforming the sport across the grid.

This year's cars are lower, faster, more difficult to drive, every tweak and change designed to make the race more thrilling, entertaining, more based on skill.

And it's not only on the track. There are new faces in the board room, too. Liberty Media are the new bosses with plans to turn each race into a turbo-charged Super Bowl. Bahrain is no exception. It will decide whether Vettel or Hamilton takes the upper hand in F1's biggest rivalry in years.

(END VIDEOTAPE) VANIER: All right. And that's CNN NEWSROOM for right now. Stay with

us. I'm back with the headlines in just a moment.