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Trump: "Major, Major Conflict with North Korea" Possible; Tillerson Speaks at UN about North Korea Threat. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired April 28, 2017 - 10:00   ET



[10:00:34] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, happening now at the United Nations, a very important moment. The Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, about to chair a special meeting of the U.N. Security Council, the topic, North Korea and its nuclear program. This is all happening after the President of the United States, Donald Trump, issued a stark, provocative warning overnight that the situation could get very, very bad.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, there's a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea. Absolutely.


BERMAN: Possibility of a major, major conflict, though it comes at the same time we're getting signals in new language from the administration that there is the possibility, or at least they are open to the idea of negotiations. Elise Labott at the United Nations. Elise, we are waiting to hear from the Secretary of State in a big moment in this debate and discussion with the tensions rising in the Korean Peninsula. What do you expect to hear this morning?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, we expect the U.S. to kind of make clear -- Secretary Tillerson making clear to the international community, this is really the top national security priority for the administration and that means that they want to handle this problem. They don't want to kick it down the road, as they say, previous administrations have done.

And so, Secretary Tillerson will be telling the council that if North Korea continues with its provocative behavior, we're talking another nuclear test or an ICBM, that long-range missile test that could hit the continental United States. They need to be ready to put additional sanctions on North Korea. That includes China. That has a lot of leverage on North Korea.

But at the same time, Secretary Tillerson is saying that the U.S. wants to have direct talks to solve this problem with North Korea. In the past, the U.S. wanted to do it with other nations, China, South Korea, Japan. Now Secretary Tillerson is walking back that position to say that the U.S. would talk to the North Koreans but with some very specific criteria. Take a listen to what he told "NPR" this morning.


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: What we hope to convince them is: You do not need these weapons to secure the existence of your regime.

STEVE INSKEEP, "NPR": Meaning you could assure the existence, or the continued existence of the regime?

TILLERSON: We have been very clear as to what our objectives are. And equally clear what our objectives are not. And we do not seek regime change. We do not seek a collapse of the regime. We do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula.


LABOTT: And so, the goal here is to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and those long-range missiles, but not regime change. And that's something the North Koreans have been looking to hear for a long time. So, maybe that could calm the real escalating tensions, John.

But Secretary Tillerson definitely here to send a very strong message that the Trump administration wants to deal with this problem and doesn't want to delay it any further because U.S. commanders have said that North Korea could have that long-range missile to hit the U.S. and the ability to marry it with a small nuclear weapon on it within a couple of years.

BERMAN: Elise Labott at the United Nations. On the right-hand side of your screen there, you can see the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. He has entered the chamber of the U.N. Security Council. This meeting is getting underway. We will go back in there the minute the secretary starts speaking.

Let's go to the White House now. CNN's Joe Johns is there. Not only do we get this sort of policy shift from the Secretary of State, Joe, but also more words from the president, beyond just major, major conflict on North Korea. He sort of talked about Kim Jong-un in terms that we hadn't really heard before.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: He certainly did and I still have to underscore that blunt language by the president in the interview with "Reuters," essentially speaking in blunt terms that there could be war. And it raises a couple questions.

First, whether it was intentional to send a signal to North Korea about President Trump's resolve or in the alternative, whether the President of the United States and the Secretary of State of the United States somehow were not on the same page, because you saw just from Elise Labott's reporting there, hey, he's talking about direct talks with North Korea. There was something else interesting in that interview as well that was President Trump's assessment of Kim Jong- un.

[10:05:00] And when you listen very closely to it, it sounds like there's just a bit of empathy there about the position the North Korean leader is in. Listen.


TRUMP: He's 27 years old. His father dies, took over a regime. So say what you want but that is not easy, especially at that age. I'm not giving him credit or not giving him credit, I'm just saying that's a very hard thing to do. As to whether or not he's rational, I have no opinion on it. I hope he's rational.


JOHNS: One of the more confusing policy points the president touched on there in that interview was the possibility of South Korea paying for the THAAD missile defense system, which is very controversial, owned by the United States and costs about $1 billion. So, that's raised a bit of a fury in South Korea. Back to you.

BERMAN: All right, Joe Johns at the White House. Again, you're looking at live pictures from at the United Nations. The United Nations Security Council about to begin a very special meeting on North Korea, its nuclear program. We will hear from the U.S. Secretary of State very shortly. Perhaps he will explain exactly where the United States is, this morning on its North Korean policy, because we've been getting mixed messages. That's the secretary right there, Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, sitting directly behind him. Again, when he starts speaking, we will bring that to you live.

In the meantime, joining me, Alex Burns, CNN political analyst, national political reporter for "The New York Times," Kimberly Dozier, CNN global affairs analyst and senior national security correspondent for "The Daily Beast" and Frank Sesno, the director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, author of "Ask More: The Power of Questions to Open Doors, Uncover Solutions and Spark Change" and Frank is also a member of the CNN Hall of Fame.

Kimberly Dozier, I want to begin with you as we are waiting to hear from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. You, overnight, suggested he was open to the possibility of direct negotiations with North Korea. What are you expecting to hear today from him?

KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST AND SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT "THE DAILY BEAST": Well, at the U.N., I think what he needs to do is, convince people to step up economic sanctions against North Korea. So, while he was signaling that he was open, that the United States is open to talk to Pyongyang, if they behave properly, that he also is willing to put more measures in place to turn up the heat on North Korea.

One of the things that they could do is the U.N. has investigated several different organizations, individuals that are thought to be linked to the North Korean nuclear regime or other weapons of mass destruction. So, what you could see is the U.N. National Security Council working together to put an even stronger raft of sanctions together. If they're not willing, if that gets blocked, then the U.S. has the possibility of implementing some of those sanctions on its own, but it's much stronger coming from the whole body. BERMAN: This is the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. You can see him there on the right-hand side of your screen. I don't believe these are his official remarks. Can you tell me if they are, because I don't want to miss these? He's just doing sort of introductions right now, procedural things. When he starts speaking in earnest, we will go back to that.

Alex burns, again, we are waiting to hear from the secretary right now. We've been talking about the mixed messaging or different messaging or the dual messaging we've been getting on North Korea. On the one hand, the president warned of a possibility of a major, major conflict. On the other hand -- well, I guess on the same hand, the vice president last week said no direct talks with North Korea short of denuclearization, which isn't about to happen, but also now opening the door to the possibility of direct negotiations. Now, when you're dealing with foreign policy, you can have the carrot on the stick, but this White House has also had some issues with mixed messaging on many other fronts, so how can we tell which it is?

ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST AND NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, in the context of the North Korea issue, I would listen to what Secretary Tillerson says. I would listen to what Secretary Mattis says. That these are the folks in the administration who I really have to measure their words the most carefully in this kind of official context -

BERMAN: Are you suggesting don't listen to what the President of the United States says?

BURNS: I'm not saying - John, I'm not saying don't listen to what the President is saying, but I am saying take it in the context of his personality and the way he talks, that any U.S. president for the last 65 years could have said it's possible that we would have a major, major conflict with North Korea and it would have been true. But they wouldn't say something like that because that's not something that you say when you're President of the United States by any conventional standard.

So, I don't know that I would look at the president's comments last night or in this interview as a shift in policy as much as him sort of, you know, freestyling the way he does. And in the same interview, if you were trying to signal that you're preparing for war with North Korea, you wouldn't in the same interview say we might go to war with North Korea. And by the way, we're going to undercut our trade deal and defense relationship with South Korea, right? That doesn't strike me as extremely strategic.

BERMAN: Frank Sesno, I want you to comment on what Alex burns just said, because it's fairly remarkable.

[10:10:00] Alex is suggesting that if you want to know where the U.S. is really headed on North Korea policy, really on any issue, he's saying listen to the Secretary of State and defense before you listen to the President of the United States. First of all, do you agree? And if yes, that's a pretty remarkable place to be on day 99 of an administration. FRANK SESNO, CNN HALL OF FAME AND DIRECTOR THE SCHOOL OF MEDIA AND PUBLIC AFFAIRS GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: Well, I'm not sure I agree that you don't listen to the President of the United States. He is, after all, the President of the United States -

BURNS: I didn't say don't listen to the president, I said interpret the president in the context of the way the president tends to speak about policy. He was talking about ditching NAFTA a few days ago. Turns out we're not ditching NAFTA, right?

So, again, I'm not saying the president's words are not important. They are very important and they have huge implications for the people who hear them around the world in places like South Korea and North Korea. But as far as trying to deduce a firm and strategic policy stance from the administration, this is not a president who always talks in a linear way or in a strategic way.

BERMAN: Frank, go ahead.

SESNO: No, well, that's exactly what I was going to say. I'm saying you don't dismiss the words of the president. You have to listen to the words of the president. But this president more than other presidents wings it and is a freelancer and speaks in superlatives and then reels himself back. It is on-the-job training day 99. We'll see where day 100 and beyond go.

But the fact of the matter is the diplomacy is carrots and sticks, diplomacy is good cop and bad cop. We've seen that before we went to war in Iraq. We saw that before we went into Panama. What's really significant about what we heard from Rex Tillerson is a very clear signal. And I actually think that it is in concert with what Donald Trump was saying.

Donald Trump was saying we could have a major, major conflict, but Tillerson is saying, but hang on, we're not trying for regime change. We're not trying to upset the apple cart here. Trump says, you know, maybe it was a tough job to get when you're 27 years old.

So, there's an alternative path here. And they're grabbing him by the lapels and saying listen in and get to the business of diplomacy and negotiating this away, but there is that firm threat in the background. This is an unconventional president who communicates in unconventional ways. But fundamentally, we've seen this pattern before in major national crises where the administration will convey a very clear signal that we're ready to do what it takes while trying to negotiate a path that averts that.

BERMAN: I think you guys are all laying out why these comments we're about to hear from the Secretary of State are so very important. Again, we are watching and waiting for them. And while we do that, Frank Sesno, you mentioned the sort of on-the-job training of the president. And President Trump made some fairly remarkable comments overnight about how hard he is finding the job. He did an interview with "Reuters" and he basically said it's harder than I thought. Listen to this.


TRUMP: My problem is that I've established a very good personal relationship with President Xi. I really feel that he is doing everything in his power to help us with a big situation. So, I wouldn't want to be causing difficulty right now for him.

This is more work than my previous life. I thought it would be easier.


BERMAN: "This is more work than my previous life. I thought it would be easier." Frank, look, every president, again, daunted by the enormity of the task at hand, but he sort of seemed forlorn, like he missed his old life, suggesting that maybe he liked it more.

SESNO: Well, what he's discovered is that this train that he's on now actually has brakes. And they're called the courts. And they're called the Congress. And they're called the media. And they're called public opinion. And they're called the opposition party. And they're called his own party.

And so, the world is a complicated place. Health care is complicated. Korea is complicated, the Koreas, China is complicated. It's easy to rail against these things when you're campaigning. You meet President Xi and he's a human being and he talks about his people. And you've got trade and diplomacy and military and all kinds of things. This is an extraordinary situation! President Trump never served this country in any capacity. He's never held office. It is astonishing on-the-job training. So, yes, it's complicated! It's really hard work.

BERMAN: And it's only beginning, right? I mean, it's day 99. There are a lot more days to go. So get used to it.

Kimberly Dozier, we also played sound there -- you heard it before, the fact about the job being a little bit harder than the president thought it would, about the president speaking of his relationship with the Chinese leader Xi Jinping. How much of what we hear from the secretary today is directed toward China?

DOZIER: Well, we've already heard some comments in the "NPR" interview that are meant to reassure China. When the secretary says that they're not seeking a reunification of the Koreas or a toppling of the North Korean regime because China has messaged in its own way in some of its local English-language newspapers that essentially serve as a way to launch trial balloon for their policy that China might not intervene if the U.S. strikes North Korea's nuclear system. But it wouldn't stand for any attempt at regime change or any sending of South Korean or U.S. troops over the North Korean border.

[10:15:00] So, this is a kind of thing that Tillerson will be reinforcing today, that they're not trying to threaten China's influence in the region. They're just trying to take a dangerous nuclear actor off the table by taking that weapons program off the table. So, it's a two-pronged message.

BERMAN: You know, Alex Burns, if I can jump in with one question not on North Korea right now. And again, we will hear from the Secretary of State any minute. You know, if not for North Korea, we'd be talking about health care and the failure of Republicans to put a vote on the floor today. They are delaying it again. They are losing moderate votes here. Can they win them back?

Let me just read you a line from Byron York. We both like reading Byron. He wrote. "It's becoming increasingly clear the Republicans have not repealed Obamacare because a lot of Republicans do not want to repeal Obamacare."

BURNS: I think it's really, really tough to win those moderate votes back. To flip from no to yes on this particular bill would involve probably some kind of meaningful concession that would then lose votes on the right. That this is really the sort of lose-lose dilemma that Republicans in the House have been in all along.

I do think, John, in the big picture -- and this gets to the point of Byron's column -- there has not been any large-scale effort on the part of House Republicans or the White House to sell the public on the merits of their plan. And if you're not bringing along public opinion, it is really, really tough to go to those, you know, dozen or two dozen members in the middle who have tough races and say, you know, walk the plank with us.

BERMAN: All right, guys, let's go to the floor, right now, of the United Nations, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson beginning his remarks on North Korea.

TILLERSON: ... thank you for the opportunity to address the Security Council. According to UN Security Council Resolution 2321, a stated objective of this council is North Korea's abandonment of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

For the past 20 years, well-intentioned diplomatic efforts to halt these programs have failed. It is only by first dismantling them that there can be peace, stability, and economic prosperity for all of Northeast Asia.

With each successive detonation and missile test, North Korea pushes Northeast Asia and the world closer to instability and broader conflict.

The threat of a North Korean nuclear attack on Seoul, or Tokyo, is real.

And it is likely only a matter of time before North Korea develops the capability to strike the U.S. mainland.

Indeed, the DPRK has repeatedly claimed it plans to conduct such a strike. Given that rhetoric, the United States cannot idly stand by. Nor can other members of this council who are within striking distance of North Korean missiles.

Having for years displayed a pattern of behavior that defies multiple UN Security Council resolutions, including 2321 and 2270, and erodes global progress on nuclear nonproliferation, there is no reason to think that North Korea will change its behavior under the current multilateral sanctions framework.

For too long, the international community has been reactive in addressing North Korea. Those days must come to an end.

Failing to act now on the most pressing security issue in the world may bring catastrophic consequences.

We have said this before and it bears repeating: the policy of strategic patience is over. Additional patience will only mean acceptance of a nuclear North Korea.

The more we bide our time, the sooner we will run out of it.

In light of the growing threat, the time has come for all of us to put new pressure on North Korea to abandon its dangerous path.

I urge this council to act before North Korea does.

We must work together to adopt a new approach and impose increased diplomatic and economic pressures on the North Korean regime.

The new campaign the United States is embarking on is driven by our own national security considerations, and it is welcomed by many nations who are concerned for their own security and question why North Korea clings to nuclear capabilities for which it has no need. Our goal is not regime change. Nor do we desire to threaten the North Korean people or destabilize the Asia Pacific region. Over the years, we have withdrawn our own nuclear weapons from South Korea and offered aid to North Korea as proof of our intent to de-escalate the situation and normalize relations. Since 1995, the United States has provided over $1.3 billion dollars in aid to North Korea, and we look forward to resuming our contributions once the DPRK begins to dismantle its nuclear weapons and missile technology programs.

The DPRK, for its own sake, must dismantle its nuclear and missile programs if it wants to achieve the security, economic development, and international recognition that it seeks. North Korea must understand that respect will never follow recklessness. North Korea must take concrete steps to reduce the threat that its illegal weapons programs pose to the United States and our allies before we can even consider talks.

I propose all nations take these three actions beginning today:

First, we call on UN member-states to fully implement the commitments they have made regarding North Korea. This includes all measures required in Resolutions 2321 and 2270.

Those nations which have not fully enforced these resolutions fully discredit this body.

Second, we call on countries to suspend or downgrade diplomatic relations with North Korea. North Korea exploits its diplomatic privileges to fund its illicit nuclear and missile technology programs, and constraining its diplomatic activity will cut off a flow of needed resources. In light of North Korea's recent actions, normal relations with the DPRK are simply not acceptable.

Third, we must increase North Korea's financial isolation. We must levy new sanctions on DPRK entities and individuals supporting its weapons and missile programs, and tighten those that are already in place. The United States also would much prefer countries and people in question to own up to their lapses and correct their behavior themselves, but we will not hesitate to sanction third- country entities and individuals supporting the DPRK's illegal activities.

We must bring maximum economic pressure by severing trade relationships that directly fund the DPRK's nuclear and missile program. I call on the international community to suspend the flow of North Korean guest workers and to impose bans on North Korean imports, especially coal.

We must all do our share, but China accounting for 90 percent of North Korean trade, China alone has economic leverage over Pyongyang that is unique, and its role is therefore particularly important. The U.S. and China have held very productive exchanges on this issue, and we look forward to further actions that build on what China has already done.

Lastly, as we have said before, all options for responding to future provocation must remain on the table. Diplomatic and financial levers of power will be backed up by a willingness to counteract North Korean aggression with military action if necessary. We much prefer a negotiated solution to this problem. But we are committed to defending ourselves and our allies against North Korean aggression.

This new pressure campaign will be swiftly implemented and painful to North Korean interest.

I realize some nations for which a relationship with North Korea has been in some ways a net positive may be disinclined to implement the measures of pressure on North Korea.

But the catastrophic effects of a North Korean nuclear strike outweigh any economic benefits. We must be willing to face the hard truths and make hard choices right now to prevent disastrous outcomes in the future.

Business as usual is not an option.

There is also a moral dimension to this problem. Countries must know by now that helping the North Korean regime means enabling cruelty and suffering.

North Korea feeds billions of dollars into a nuclear program it does not need while its own people starve.

The regime's pursuit of nuclear weapons does not serve its own national security or the well-being of a people trapped in tyranny.

I ask the community of nations to help us preserve security and protect human dignity.

In one of my first trips as America's Secretary of State, I looked across the DMZ at the haunted land of North Korea. Beyond the border is a nation of sorrow, frozen in time. While the world sees the gleaming buildings of Pyongyang, the blight of oppression and starvation has swept this land for over 60 years.

But even though the present condition of that country is bleak, the United States believes in a future for North Korea. These first steps toward a more hopeful future will happen most quickly if other stakeholders in this -- in the region and the global security join us.

For years, North Korea has been dictating the terms of its dangerous course of action.

It is time for us to retake control of the situation.

We ask the members of this council and all other partners to implement a new strategy to denuclearize North Korea.

Thank you.

I resume my function now as president of the council. I now give the floor to His Excellency, Mr. Fumio Kishida, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Japan.

[10:25:40] BERMAN: All right, that was the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. He just said, there is no reason to think North Korea will change its behavior under the current policies in place by the United Nations and failure to act now, says the secretary, could have catastrophic consequences.

Joining me now, Elise Labott, she was at the United Nations, Michelle Kosinski at the State Department and also with us, Kimberly Dozier and Frank Sesno. Elise Labott, first to you. In terms of new policy there, the secretary talked about a new pressure campaign on North Korea, but he says will be quickly implemented and difficult for the North Koreans to take.

LABOTT: That's right, John, essentially forcing North Korea to the table. It's very similar to the campaign that the U.S. tried to institute against Iran several years ago, which led to those, you know, breakthrough nuclear talks and that nuclear deal. I think it will be a little bit more difficult for North Korea, because they're not as much of a member of the international community as Iran was. But essentially, he's talking about everybody cutting North Korea off, be it trade, be it diplomatically, any effort to deny the North Korean regime, any type of revenue that could fund their nuclear and missile programs.

And so, that's, whether it's the guest workers that go into various countries and send money home, diplomatic missions are also seen as revenue for the regime. And so, it's not only sanctions, it's these diplomatic measures really squeezing North Korea off from the international community and saying to members of the international community, if you do not do this, you, too, will suffer the consequences.

BERMAN: Yes. LABOTT: And for the first time, I think the secretary was very clear that the U.S. is prepared to issue third-party sanctions against companies and banks that do business with North Korea. And when he says that, he's really talking about the Chinese, because he mentioned that China has 90 percent of North Korean trade and that's something that I understand President Trump was very struck with when they did this North Korean policy review.

BERMAN: Right.

LABOTT: And basically, they've assumed that unless China comes to the table and really puts the squeeze on North Korea, this is not going to work, John.

BERMAN: I did also hear, while you heard that tough language and Frank Sesno, you brought this up beforehand. He did seem to offer North Korea a path out of this. He specifically said that the goal of the United States, the United Nations, should not be regime change in North Korea. And then he also specifically said that North Korea must reduce the threat of its weapons systems before we even consider talks. To me, actually, that seemed like a somewhat achievable bar from North Korea. Reduce the threat of your weapons program, not eliminate it altogether, reduce the threat and we could begin talks here, Frank.

SESNO: This was a very clear statement from the Secretary of State as to exactly what the United States wants and is pressuring. They want tangible indications from the North Koreans that they're going to do something, stop testing, make some commitments, that's also an invitation, an over picture to China to see where they can wing in for some kind of effort. And again, as Elise said, we've been through this sort of thing before, although not anywhere near the kinds of military threat at the same time, in the dance with Iran, the very complicated negotiations with Iran.

But the simultaneous message, we're not looking for regime change, we're willing to resume U.S. aid to North Korea. People may forget, but there was a time when the United States was actually providing financial and other aid to North Korea. There is a brighter future here. This was a sort of classic American expression with more military punch behind it, where military options are on the table. That there is this carrot and stick that I was talking about and there's a way forward, trying to get the world around it as well.

BERMAN: Michelle Kosinski at the State Department, this is a major moment for the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, again, who seems to be trying to lay out this clear policy. You're seeing these efforts from him for diplomacy, to make clear not just to China, not just to the United Nations, but perhaps to the White House itself about where the efforts should be going forward.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I think what I heard from this is more clarity. I mean, Tillerson has said himself he's not a guy that's used to dealing with the press.