Return to Transcripts main page


North Korea's nuclear tests causing earthquakes. Aired 12- 12:20a ET

Aired September 3, 2017 - 00:00   ET


[00:00:12] ISHA SESAY, CNN ANCHOR: Hello everyone. I'm Isha Sesay. We have some Breaking News for you this hour. Let's get right to it.

There are reports of seismic activity in North Korea. No word yet on whether this is some kind of nuclear test. But past tests have been detected as earthquakes.

That is the breaking news we want to bring you, that of seismic activity in North Korea. We do not know whether this is the result or fallout of some kind of nuclear test. But to repeat, past tests have been detected as earthquakes.

Well, just a few hours ago, Pyongyang said it has a hydrogen bond that can put on an intercontinental ballistic missile. These images report to show North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un inspecting the device.

In an English report, state media simply called it a nuke. But in Korean, it is described as a thermonuclear hydrogen bond. There has been no independent confirmation of the claims. Of course, a lot to get to, a lot to discuss.

Let's bring in our Ian Lee who joins me now from Seoul, South Korea. Ian, only one place to start and that would be, were these reports of seismic activity in North Korea, what are you hearing?

IAN LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Isha, we are hearing from the Korean meteorological administration, which is saying that the earthquake was a 5.8 on the Richter scale also saying that this was man-made. The United States Geological Survey is also confirming this earthquake being man-made, saying it was a 5.2. This happened though in an area where we know North Korea carries out nuclear test.

Now, we do not know what causes earthquake, but all signs right now are pointing to that this possibly could have been a nuclear test, Isha. And we should note that according to previous tests that we've seen previous, it has carried out that it also triggered earthquakes. This one is one of the largest we've seen so far, Isha.

SESAY: All right, so to be clear. You're hearing where you are from -- in South Korea that it's 5.8 on the Richter Scale, U.S. Geological Survey saying 5.2. As you say, larger than previously. This would be the sixth nuclear test if indeed that is what happened here.

I mean, what are we looking at in terms of a reaction from regional palace if indeed North Korea has gone ahead and launched a nuclear test?

LEE: President Moon is going to convene a meeting of the National Security Council here in South Korea. There -- that's going to take place in about a half hours time. We're expecting something to come out of that.

A lot of developments though happening in the last 24 hours and we haven't heard any of formal statements from the South Koreans, the Japanese, or the Americans. But if this is indeed a nuclear test, I expect something to come out quite soon.

And you also have North Korea saying that they are capable of putting a nuclear weapon on top of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Experts had thought that that was months if not years away, but North Korea saying they do have those capabilities. Although independent experts are scrutinizing the pictures that North Korea put out on state TV. But that's really all they can do to try to figure out if in fact North Korea does have those capabilities. But these both are very significant developments happening here on the Korean peninsula, Isha.

SESAY: And Ian, to that point of verification, if we focus on just the seismic activity which, you know, right now we're hearing from two sources, from the South Korean and American saying it was man-made. Do we anticipate that the North Koreans will confirm it if indeed they carry out a test, the nuclear test?

LEE: Well, in the past, we've seen the North Koreans brag, boast about successful test. So we'll be watching North Korean states media very closely to see what we can get from there. Really, that, Isha, is the window into North Korea is their state media.

So, that's something that not only we will be watching but experts and governments trying to figure out what exactly took place. So also expect, you know, the United States, South Korea, Japan has other ways of detecting if this was -- in trying to confirm directly for themselves, if this was a nuclear test. If it was, they would probably come out with some sort of statement confirming that.

But right now, what we do know is that you have this large earthquake, over 5.0 on the Richter scale in the northeastern part of North Korea, in an area which is known for the conducting of nuclear tests. Again, we don't know if it's a nuclear test, but all signs point to that it was, Isha.

[00:05:04] SESAY: All right, I want to pick up on something you just said. That the U.S. and its allies would be looking to verify what exactly took place in this northeastern part of North Korea. But let me ask you about anticipating such an event if it is indeed a nuclear test that we're looking at.

Should people be surprised that the U.S. and its allies and others with spy intelligence capabilities did not see preparations to such a test ahead of time?

LEE: Well, they could have seen preparations and just not have shared that, so with the public. You know, one way that they would be able to verify if this was a test, it is a flying aircraft and trying to gather samples from any radiation that may have leaked from a possible test. So that's one way that they would be able to verify it.

As far as, you know, intelligence gathering, you know, we reached out to the Koreans, we've reached out to the Americans, that they are fairly tightlipped at times like this. Although the north -- the South Koreans have said that they are expecting another nuclear test within the year. It looks like now that this possibly could be that test.

SESAY: Yes, it certainly does. Ian Lee for us there in Seoul, South Korea. Ian, we appreciate it. I know you're going to continue to get reaction for us. We will come to you for that when you have it.

Let's bring in Colonel Rick Francona who joins us there, you see on our screen. He's there in Port Orford, Oregon. And he's a CNN Military Analyst.

Colonel Francona, good to have you at this time. Let me start by asking you first and foremost, what you make of these reports of seismic activity? We're hearing that it is over 5.0, according to the USGS 5.2 on the Richter scale. In the past when we have seen this kind of activity, it's been tied to a nuclear test. Your thoughts?

RICK FRANCONA, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, I don't see what else it could be, especially if they've already declared that it's, you know, a man-made seismic activity. I don't know what else we would suspect it to be.

And we have been expecting the sixth nuclear test for sometime. We just didn't know when it was going to be. Of course, the intelligence committee may have been watching preparations that they haven't shared as you mentioned. But I don't -- I don't find this surprising at all. I find the timing a little surprising.

Today, Kim Jong-un shows us what he purports to be a hydrogen bomb. And now, we see this massive, rather massive test happening at the same time. The timing just seems too much to be a coincidence. So I think the Koreans have really ramped up the rhetoric. They ramped up this tit-for-tat game with the United States. The sharing of threats on one side, but one side says one thing, and then the other side reacts. And we're seeing this ramp up.

Now, we have to see what the American and the Korean and Japanese reaction will be.

SESAY: I mean, Colonel Francona, let's take a moment and pause on this issue of timing. Typically, when North Korea launches these tests or launches a missile of some sort, often it's around a major date, a major anniversary. We know that there's one coming up September 9th in North Korea, nothing that we can tell on the calendar at this moment, in these 24, 48 hours. So what is it in terms of mood music that you think might have led to this, this possible test?

FRANCONA: I think this is a reaction to that demonstration of force conducted by the Japanese, the South Koreans, and the United States just a few days ago where they actually flew a coordinated air mission and dropping bombs on the target ranges in South Korea. That was a show force directed at North Korea showing American, Japanese, Korean coordinated combined capabilities. And I think the Koreans are reacting to that by saying, well, we have a deterrent now.

When you look at what North Korea is trying to do, they're not building a weapon to use it. They're building a weapon to deter the United States. If you look at this from their perspective, they believe the United States is the aggressor nation and they believe that acquiring a nuclear deterrent is the only thing that guarantees the survival of the Kim Jong-un regime.

SESAY: OK. This is, as you say, this is placed in the context of engaging with the United States. Let's flip it and look it from the U.S. perspective.

President Trump had been very clear in the last couple of weeks about drawing red lines, talking about fire and fury in event of North Korea proceeding with threats and with action. Well, this is a pretty big action if indeed this is as thought, a nuclear test. One --

FRANCONA: Yes, and --

SESAY: -- I mean, where does this leave the U.S. administration?

FRANCONA: Yes. Well, and this is a key thing. We're assuming that what this -- the North Koreans are saying is true, that they actually have a hydrogen weapon and they can mount on ICBM. We don't know that yet. But assuming that that is true, they may have achieved their goal of a strategic -- deterrent against United States.

[00:10:12] So the question now is what does the United States do in return? What will be the U.S. administration's reaction to this announcement? And of course, right now, you have to air on the side that they actually do have this capability.

Are we going to now threaten North Korea with military action or are we going to create some sort of a deterrent? (INAUDIBLE) we do with the Russians and the Chinese, a mutual assured destruction protocol. And these are questions that are probably being asked right now at the Pentagon at the White House.

SESAY: Colonel Francona, you know, it is always sad when we discuss North Korea, which we have done for many, many years, that there are just no good options when it comes to constraining or dialing back the actions in this realm.

The U.N. Security Council sanctions when -- recently imposed on North Korea was the toughest yet? And many had placed much faith that those words, you know, would reign in Kim Jong-un. Those haven't worked. So diplomatically speaking, what's left?

FRANCONA: Well, that's a really good question and I don't know the answer. I know that Secretary of Defense, Mattis, has talked about there are still diplomatic options they could try. And if we believe that economic sanctions are going to reign in Kim Jong-un, I think we're making a mistake.

It appears to me that this regime has dedicated whatever resources they need to accomplish this goal. This is their Manhattan project. They put almost their entire national economy behind this. And they're willing to accept the sanctions but still get -- developed this capability. Because once they have that capability, that gives them bargaining leverage. So what they're doing is they're playing the long game against our short game.

SESAY: Colonel Francona, it is great to have you. Do stay with us. We want to keep the conversation going.

For a moment, I want to bring in Will Ripley who joins me now on the line from Tokyo. Will, your thoughts as we get this word of the seismic activity, which according to the U.S. Geological Survey and officials in South Korea, was man-made. And the assumption being that North Korea could have indeed launched some kind of nuclear test. Your thoughts?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, I said certainly not a surprising development given that it was last year, around this time that North Korea conducted their fifth nuclear test, just one week after those joint military drills ended between the U.S. and South Korea. Those joint drills this year just ended this past Thursday.

But yesterday, I woke up in Pyongyang. I just landed back from North Korea. Here in Tokyo last night. And we were talking about the North Korean rhetoric and they were talking about diplomacy. They were saying that if the United States were to change its strategic position and recognize North Korea as a nuclear power, which is something they've had written into their constitution since 2013, the North Korea was hinting that there could be discussions, there could be progress made.

And I thought it was noteworthy in the past couple of days after that, that bomber and fighter jet fly over on the Korean peninsula, that show force from the United States, North Korea didn't put out statements immediately threatening a retaliation in terms of another missile test that they talked about, that the United States flyover was a rush act. That the United States have been caught off guard by North Korea's missile launch over Japan and their intercontinental ballistic missile launch, two of them that happened in July.

But what we didn't hear for North Korea was the threat of imminent action. And it seems, at that time when I was in North Korea and even in my discussions with government officials, that well, there was a lot of tension that perhaps things were going to deescalate for the time being. And we might go back into a holding pattern.

Well, obviously, that wasn't the case. North Korea clearly sending a very strong message here by an apparent detonation of a yet another nuclear device at their Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site. That they are in this full on in terms of this showdown with the United States, not backing down whatsoever.

The seventh round of U.N. Security Council sanction has been passed. They -- the discussions with officials in North Korea, they said they are not concerned about the sanctions. They have lived under sanctions for so many decades. And they also think that the United States and South Korea and Japan are surely mistaken. Even if they were to convince China to cut off this government economically, if they were -- if China were to just cut off trade with North Korea, stop the flow blow into North Korea, the North Koreans say they would handle it. And they would still launch missiles and they would still test nuclear devices.

And they point, as an example, to the great famine of the late 1990s, when the country had hundreds of thousands of people dying of starvation and yet the regime stayed firmly in control. And they still launched missiles during that time.

[00:15:00] This is a country that had survived very difficult times and they feel that these weapons are their leverage. Nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them are the leverage that will eventually give them a seat at the table and respect from the international community and legitimacy.

But, wow, I mean what a development that North Korea has now upped the ante even after -- initially, after that bomber flyover, they did not have a strong response or threaten retaliation. But they certainly have delivered an action if not words.

SESAY: Yes. I mean, it is indeed a stunning development in light of the sanctions, in light of the very strong, very clear rhetoric coming from the United States.

What are your thoughts now in terms of regional response? You know, you're there in Tokyo, what are you anticipating? We know that South Korea will be holding a National Security Council meeting in less than 20 minutes from now. Do you expect any tangible action to come out of that?

RIPLEY: Well here's what I can tell you from my perspective, both as someone who visits North Korea frequently and who travels frequently to China, South Korea and Japan. You know in Japan, there is an increasing amount of fear about North Korea. That this missile that flew over Hokkaido really hit home for a lot of people.

People woke up to air raid sirens for the first time since World War II. Children are being raised and being told what to do in the event of a nuclear attack for the first time since the Cold War. You know, Japan lives through Hiroshima. They live through Nagasaki.

I received a letter here in my apartment building with a list of emergency precautions to take in the event of a North Korean missile strike. One of the suggested pieces of advice is to run to the nearest subway station. Get as far belowground as you can. So that's the reality of life for people here in Japan, increasing fear in the region.

South Korea, they live with this threat of war, imminent war for many years. So actually that's probably one of the more relaxed places where people -- people are nervous about the heightened tension because this is escalating to a w hole new level and yet they lived through this their whole lives. Life goes on. Life also goes on in North Korea where people have also lived with the imminent threat of war their whole lives.

From the Chinese perspective, they don't feel that North Korea is necessarily a military threat to them. But for the Chinese government, it is being made increasingly clear that Chinese money trade with North Korea is being tied to this nuclear program. So every time that North Korea does something, Chinese President Xi Jinping's name is brought up. And this is very bad timing for him because just next month, the major party Congress where he expected (INAUDIBLE) further. And he doesn't want this kind of -- he doesn't want this kind of distraction.

And so --

SESAY: Yes, it --


SESAY: Go ahead. Sorry, Will.

RIPLEY: Yes, yes. So obviously, every country interprets this differently. But this is not a good development for anyone in this region, with the exception in North Korea.

SESAY: Yes. Will, I just want to update our viewers so they can see it on our screens. We're getting new information about the magnitude of that seismic activity, that explosion in northeastern North Korea.

We're now hearing according to the U.S. Geological Survey that it was of a magnitude 6.3. That is an upgrade of the initial number of 5.2. We're now hearing that indeed it was a massive explosion of 6.3 on the Richter scale.

We're, of course, working to get more details. But we can tell you that the South Koreans and the USGS have all said that this was a man- made development, man-made explosion. So in the past, when we've seen this, these earthquakes, this kind of seismic activity, it has been tied to nuclear test.

Let me just run through for you the five previous nuclear tests we've seen take place in North Korea. The first, in 2006, was estimated to be about a kiloton, just a fraction of the size of the bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima during World War II.

The second test in 2009 was bigger, 2 to 6 kilotons according to the Arms Control Association. A third test followed in 2013. That was the first one carried out under lead of Kim Jong-un.

In January of last year, a fourth nuclear test. This time, the regime claiming it successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb.

And then September 9th, 2016, a fifth nuclear test and the most powerful one yet, estimated at 10 kilotons. Of course, right now, we -- we don't have confirmation as to what exactly took place in northeastern North Korea. But the working assumption right now is that it was a nuclear test. We don't know the size of it. We don't know what kind of device may have been tested.

Let's go to our Ian Lee. He joins me now from Seoul, South Korea.

[00:20:02] Ian, this is a remarkable moment for everyone in the region, given all that has been done to try and reign in North Korea. Talk to me about what this moment means for South Korea's relatively new leader, Kim Jong-un, who really campaigned on engaging North Korea, bringing them back to the table and leaning to some kind of diplomatic breakthrough.

Where does he stand now at this moment in time?

LEE: Well, Isha, South Korean President Moon had campaigned on dialogue, diplomacy thinking that was the best way forward. But really, he has been cornered into -- after these recent tests and also what the rhetoric coming from North Korea.

And now we have this, what appears to be a nuclear test. I need to point out that we are now hearing that it is 6.3 and that appears to be, if it is a nuclear test, the largest one that they have carried out. So that is quite significant in itself. But it really looks like diplomacy is going to be tough to do right now. You do have the United States.

President Donald Trump just spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Abe, they reiterated that the efforts need to be diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea to get them to abandon their nuclear program. But as we've heard from Will Ripley's reporting in North Korea, that doesn't look like it's going to be the case. That has only encouraged them, galvanized their nuclear program.

So you really do have -- what you're seeing right now is the Americans, their allies, the South Koreans, the Japanese saying that what needs to happen right now is for pressure to be placed on the North Koreans. The North Koreans are saying, that's just having the opposite effect, so really not coming to the conclusion that they want right now.

But when it comes to diplomacy, you know, the South Koreans have said that they are willing to sit down without preconditions to talk about what they need to do to resolve the crisis between the two countries. Although the United States have said that they won't sit down with the North Koreans unless they abandoned their nuclear program, Isha.

SESAY: Does the South Korea hold that same line about deneutralize (ph) North Korea before engagement?

LEE: You know, North Korea says that this is their right to have a nuclear program. As Will said, it's in their Constitution. So it is unlikely that they are going to abandon their nuclear program. So you're really at a rock, between a rock and a hard place. If you're President Trump, you know, how do you deal with this? You know, there are options but it seems like the options they're pursuing right now are having an -- the alternative effect. So really, what it seems like they're going to have to do is just to try to put more pressure on China. That seems to be one of the only leverages they have right now, Isha.

SESAY: And at that point and not to cut you off, but I just want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and everyone watching this from around the world. You are joining us to the Breaking News out of North Korea. Speaking to our Ian Lee there who's in Seoul, South Korea.

Let's bring you up to speed with what we know right now. There are reports of an earthquake in North Korea not long after Pyongyang claimed to have a nuclear weapon. And the U.S. Geological Survey said it was 6.3 magnitude explosion.

It is unclear yet if this was actually a nuclear test. We want to be very clear on that. We do not know this. As a fact, it has not been confirmed yet. But what we can tell you is that South Korean officials say they believe the tremor was man-made.

North Korean state media said earlier it had a hydrogen bond that could be put on an intercontinental ballistic missile. And they ran these images that you're looking at right now on your screens. They put these out, reporting to show North Korean leader Kim Jong-un inspecting the device.

Let's go now to Will Ripley who joins me now on the line from Tokyo. Will, you are just back from North Korea. As you say, you're just waking up in Tokyo now. But you were in North Korea the last couple of days. When you were there, was there any indication that there was a nuclear test on the horizon?

RIPLEY: Well, all last week when we were reporting from North Korea, Isha, we reiterated that it was around this time last year that they conducted their fifth nuclear test. That nuclear test happened shortly after the end of the joint military drills between the U.S. and South Korea, which always infuriates the North Korean government. And this is something that has infuriated them for a long time.

So last year, a week after the drills ended, they conducted their fifth nuclear test. The drills this year just ended on Thursday. And well, we saw that highly provocative launch over Japan.