Return to Transcripts main page


International Red Cross Evacuating Critically Ill People from Besieged Syrian Town; Olympic Torch Winds Through South Korea; 2017 May be the Hottest Year on Record. Aired 12-1a ET

Aired December 28, 2017 - 12:00   ET


ISHA SESAY, CNN HOST: This is CNN Newsroom live from Los Angeles. Ahead this hour, urgent medical evacuations expected to resume any time now from the besieged Syrian town. The deal of Damascus that made it possible. Plus Vladimir Putin in the election race of 2018 but the vocal critic is calling for nationwide protests.

And, the Olympic torch winds through South Korea, how the north maybe planning to disrupt the game. Hello and welcome to our viewers around the world. I'm Isha Sesay. Newsroom L.A. starts right now.

The International Red Cross is evacuating critically ill people from a besieged Syrian town but time is running out. The Assad regime had cut off life saving medical care to Eastern Ghouta and blocked evacuations for more than four years but four people were taken to Damascus Wednesday for treatment.

More than two dozen more evacuations are expected in the coming days. One of the patients on the list was a six month old baby who died weeks ago. Another patient refuses to leave because he's afraid the government will arrest him.

Well, we're learning new details about the deal between the Syrian government and a rebel faction that is making these evacuations possible. CNN's Arwa Damon reports now from Istanbul.


ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: At this stage it's been very slow progress as only a fraction of the people mostly children on a list of 29 have actually been allowed to leave Eastern Ghouta. This did not come about because of any sort of widespread international pressure but rather because of a deal that was brokered between the regime and one of the leading rebel groups in the area.

The drafted a list of 29 names. They did not have any control over whose names were on that. That was determined by medical teams on the ground but they are deemed to be the most desperate of the desperate. In exchange for allowing them to leave Eastern Ghouta and seek medical assistance the rebels agreed to then release 29 individuals whom the regime had asked for.

This is however but a fraction of the people who are actually in such desperate need within Eastern Ghouta. There are around 640 people who need urgent medical assistant or else they do risk dying, not necessarily because of injuries that were brought on directly by the war or the violence but because they have chronic illness, diabetes, heart disease.

Children are still suffering severely of malnutrition. Food prices are astronomical. One can only hope that in the future the regime and the other parties that are involved will perhaps find a shred of their humanity and lift the seizure. At the very least allow those that need medical assistance to access it. Arwa Damon, CNN, Istanbul.


SESAY: Well, Dr. Ghassan Aziz joins me now from Amman, Jordan. He's a Health Surveillance Programme Manager with the Middle East unit with (inaudible). Dr. Aziz, thank you for being with us. The fact that a couple dozen of individuals are being evacuated from Ghouta to Damascus for treatment is indeed welcome news.

But it does speak to the desperate plight facing so many. Help our viewers understand the gaps that have opened up in healthcare provision in Syria since the conflict started.

GHASSAN AZIZ, HEALTH SURVEILLANCE PROGRAMME MANAGER: Good morning, Isha. So, the gaps are huge. They are getting bigger and bigger over time. So far we are witnessing or are guarding (ph) cases in which our loss of patients in south of Syria in a position (ph) controlled area who are unable to receive the healthcare that they need in they're relatively safe areas in the south.

Lots of people with malignant conditions, with cancer with lots of different types of health conditions who are kind of have to leave and go to travel all the way to Damascus to receive the healthcare for their conditions and in too many other cases that was a impossible because those patients or their relatives were unable to go there for security concerns.

SESAY: I would imagine it puts people in a situation where things as basic as vaccinating your child or child birth become real hazards and potentially could cause loss of life.


AZIZ: It is. Actually in doctors orders embassy (ph) managed to come to large scale root to date (ph) assessments. In south Syrian this region where it is regarded as one of the safest areas effected by the conflict and those two assessments took place - the last one was last summer and we found some very significant and worrying findings in those particular aspects among others so health and humanitarian(ph) conditions were in very bad condition.

Just for example almost 60 percent of children under five years old, they were - they did not receive all of the needed vaccines for their age. And almost 24 percent of women - I'm sorry 30 percent of women who gave birth over the last two years, they had to give birth through home deliveries because they were afraid of going into health facilities because health facilities used to be targeted one or two years ago. So it's really, really worrying. Really, really, very worrying to

us(ph). And this is from an area that's regarded to be kind of safe compared to others areas inside of Syria.

DAMON: And so as you say that, can you give us a fuller picture. I mean which areas of the country are of greatest concern to you?

AZIZ: So far we've managed to receive a very good overview about the condition in the south and we were expecting that those conditions in the south, the living conditions, the health conditions in south Syria should one of the best among the areas in the opposition controlled areas. So we are expecting even worse conditions in the North and Aleppo and (inaudible) and other opposition controlled areas.

It's - that is a huge problem in terms of population mobilization, (inaudible) living in those opposition controlled areas are displaced people and they are living usually- a good percentage of them, of those households that live in severely damaged or uncompleted dwellings. Very poor supplies for winter, they don't have enough blankets, they don't have enough mattresses, they don't have enough winter clothing, so it's really concerning conditions.

DAMON: And so what level of access does MSF have to civilian populations in Syria? I believe if I'm correct, you're not able to access areas that are under government control, but give us an overview of the areas you are able to access and how well you are able to meet the need in those places.

AZIZ: So even for the opposition controlled areas, and most of the countries surrounding Syria, we were unable, over the past few years, to have direct access, especially in the north after the issue of ISIS. In south and in the west of Jordan(ph), we can provide support across border, but direct help presence of MSF was always challenging, it was always difficult because of the conditions of surrounding country.

So we are trying our best to keep providing support, sending medical supplies non-food items, a lot of different supplies are needed by people in health facilities and we are trying to provide medical support with alternative ways while using tele(ph) medicine networks in some of those facilities, bigger ones, to provide direct live-time medical consultations. So a live network of experts who Syrian doctors and surgeons taking patients inside.

So access itself is very, very challenging and inside Syria and all opposition controlled areas, there is a huge human resources program, so they don't have enough medical staff to keep providing the healthcare need by this large number of people.

DAMON: Yes. It is a desperate situation and so many thoughts to Syria. Dr. Aziz thank you so much for joining us to provide a fuller picture of what's happening on the ground. Thank you.

AZIZ: Thank you.

DAMON: All right, away from Syria for a moment, Russian Opposition leader Alexei Navalny is calling for nationwide protests urging supports to "agitate with all our might" ahead of March's presidential elections. Navalny was banned from running against incumbent Vladimir Putin and has already called for boycott of the elections. Now we wants Russians to protest on January 28th. All this comes as Mr. Putin officially launched his bid for a fourth term. Cameras captured him submitting his registration documents to the election commission.

And that move came as no surprise, Mr. Putin has given no indication that he intends to leave office anytime soon. Our own Fred Pleitgen reports from Moscow.



PLEITGEN: It was broadcast live on Russian television as Vladimir Putin officially handed in his documents to run in the upcoming presidential election here in Russia. Now the electoral commission told Vladimir Putin that it would take a few days for them to look into his paperwork and then they would come back and tell him whether or not he is eligible, however of course, no one here in Russia really believes that the electoral commission might bar Vladimir Putin from running a fourth term in office.

But of course, one of the people, who is barred here, in this country from running, is opposition activist, Alexei Navalny. And he today, once again, voiced his anger at all of this. He put out a video where he is calling for a day of protest on January 28th and he is calling for that day of protest to be nation wide across Russia.

Now of course, this is a vast and large country but one of the things that Alexei Navalny has managed in the past on the platform of campaigning against corruption here in this country is that he has managed to mobilize people in cities across this very large country.

And, Navalny was very clear about what he wants to achieve with day of protest. He wants to make sure that if he can't run in this election, that if he can't challenge Vladimir Putin at the poles, at least he wants to try to bring voter turn out down because he believes that is the thing that the authorities here fear most.

So far, we haven't heard any reaction from the Russian authorities to this, however in general, they have said that if he is calling for a boycott of the election, that that is something they believe the authorities here need to look into as well so that could mean some legal trouble for Navalny.

On the flip side of this, one of the big issues in the election is going to be the ongoing conflict in the Ukraine and at least on that part, there seems to be some light in the negotiations trying to ease that conflict. A major prisoner swap that took place, the largest one since the conflict began in 2014 and the first one in many, many months that saw the Ukrainians side released some 300 people from custody and the pro-Russian rebel side, released more than 70 people from custody Western leaders are saying, they believe, is a positive first step. Fred Pleitgen, CNN, Moscow.


ZAIN ASHER, CNN NEWS ANCHOR: We see (ph) President Trump spending another day of his working vacation working on his golf swing. Hales (ph) at practice some would consider another time on his golfing tradition, exaggeration. Our Sara Murray is with the President in Florida.


SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It was another flying (ph) day for President Trump on Wednesday on his vacation tomorrow (ph), Mar-a-Largo here in Florida. The President did make one surprise stop though, visiting a local fire house, to greet firefighters and tell his legislative accomplishments.

DONALD TRUMP, UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: On either side (ph) for legislation than anybody who broke the record of Harry Truman and it was saying that if we get this big mess if it was up to me (ph), legislation of all legislation (ph), that's the biggest there is but that included (ph) Angwar (ph) which you know. And, it included the repeal of the individual (inaudible) that's where you have the privilege of paying a lot money so that we don't have to buy (inaudible), all right. The most unpopular thing that most people can (inaudible) unconstitutionally.

MURRAY: The President is obviously riding a wave of victory after shepherding through that sweeping tax reform overhaul before he left Washington. But, I'm for the notion that he's been more productive in his first year in the White House than previous occupants, that one doesn't really hold up to a fact check. In fact, President Trump has signed fewer bills in his first year in office than any administration dating back to Eisenhower. Now, before he visited that fire house, the President took part in one of his favorite vacation pass (ph), hitting the link for a round of golf. Now, in previous days, CNN has been able to get an image of President Trump on the golf course. On Wednesday, that was a little bit tougher.

A big white box truck suddenly appeared to block the shot. It's not clear who was driving it or who commissioned that truck, clearly, they didn't want to be seen and this is a White House that seems particularly sensitive for whatever reason of images of President Trump on the golf course.

Sara Murray, CNN, West Palm Beach, Florida.


ASHER: Well, for many years (ph), President Barack Obama has given his first major interview since leaving office. And, it was Britain's Prince Harry that was asking the questions. The interview was actually conducted back in September and it aired Wednesday without mentioning the current president by name, of (inaudible) against the irresponsible use of social media by those in leadership commissions (ph).

CNN's Melissa Bell, reports.


MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It was Prince Harry and Megan Markle first official public appearance together as a couple. But behind the scenes, the invictus (ph) game of held in Toronto in September, also provided a rare opportunity. The interview of former president by a prince.

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: OK, who do I give the British accent? (ph).

BELL: The 14 minute interview of Barack Obama by Prince Harry was aired on British radio on Wednesday. Among the topics discussed the role of social media.

OBAMA: All of us in leadership have to find ways in which we can recreate a common space on the Internet. One of the dangers of the Internet is that people can have entirely different realities.


They can be just cocooned in information that reinforces their current biases.

MELISSA BELL: President Trump who is known to Tweet regularly was never mentioned and with politics largely avoided, the interview allowed an insight not only in Barrack Obama's mind, but also the mind of the man who is fifth in line to the British Throne, behind his brother William and William's children.

PRINCE HARRY: Harry or William?

OBAMA: William right now.

PRINCE HARRY: Titanic or the Body Guard?

OBAMA: Titanic.

PRINCE HARRY: Suits or the Good Wife?

OBAMA: Suits obviously.

PRINCE HARRY: Great grills (ph). Cigarettes or gum?

OBAMA: Gum now baby.

PRINCE HARRY: Gum. White House or Buckingham Palace?

OBAMA: White House just because Buckingham Palace looks like it would take a really long time to mow.

PRINCE HARRY: OK fair enough.

OBAMA: A lot of upkeep.

PRINCE HARRY: Queen or The Queen.

OBAMA: The Queen.

BELL: The Queen's grandson was then interviewed himself and asked about his forthcoming wedding. Would the man he had clearly enjoyed interviewing be invited?

PRINCE HARRY: Well that's -- we haven't put the invites or the guest list together yet so who knows whether they're going to invite him or not, wouldn't want to ruin that surprise.

BELL: Which means the British will continue to wonder whether the former American President will be invited to the U.K. for a Royal Wedding before the current American President has had a chance to make his first visit to the country since taking power. Melissa Bell, CNN London.


SESAY: Palace intrigue, well a quick break here and then paying it forward for desperate people, a Rohingya man who found a home in Chicago, now reaches out to help new refugees settle in the American community. Plus a dangerous mission under cover of darkness, CNN tags along with Turkish police trying to shut down an ISIS cell, stay with us.


SESAY: Well a CNN team went with Turkish police on a tense and dangerous mission, raiding a suspected ISIS cell, Arwa Damon was there as hundreds of officers moved in on three dozen suspects in Istanbul. Take a look.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (Turkish language).

ARWA DAMON: If we are ready, we are moving the officer radio calls to his men. It's just past midnight a few days before New Year's Eve and across Istanbul, the police force is getting ready for a massive raid. The cell they want to bust is larger than most of their previous ISIS targets. And we are briefed, is deemed (ph) to have the capacity to carry out an attack.

Turks are wary and anxious this holiday season following the pain and shock of last year's New Year's Eve terror attack when a gunman opened fire on revelers at the Reina Nightclub in Istanbul and the security apparatus cannot afford to take any chances. They're trying to move in as quietly as possible.


This is part of a sweeping operation that is involving around three dozen targets and hundreds of police officers. Residents peer down but stay well indoors. This is as far as we're

being permitted to go at this stage. There have been instances in the past over the course of the last year where the targets have actually exploded suicide vests or attack the officers with grenades and guns.

No one is authorized to go on camera and the information disclosed to us is skipped. The unit we are with is targeting a couple believed to be the head of the cell that is also responsible for moving and housing fighters, ideological training and recruitment.

The search is still ongoing. The couple has been apprehended and it is believed, at this stage, that they are the ones that are the head of the entire cell.

There are no casualties on this night or any clashes. Video later released by the police force shows other targets. Their homes searched and tossed for any grain of information. And all 28 people were detained and there have been regular crack downs throughout the country.

Over the last year, hundreds of Isis suspects have been taken into custody but the threat level remains high and casts a looming shadow over what should be a festive time.

Arwa Damon, CNN, Istanbul.


SESAY: It's one of the most devastating humanitarian crises in the world. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims forced from their communities in Myanmar into squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh. Thousands of others have been killed or raped in what the United Nations and the U.S. is calling ethnic cleansing. This is just the latest wave of violence by Myanmar authorities because, sadly, the plight of the Rohingya is decades old.

In fact, many have resettled far, far from home. Fifteen hundred Rohingya now live in Chicago, one of the largest populations in the United States. Even in America though, many Rohingya's say, they carry the scars and anxiety of violence with them.

Nasir Bin Zakaria started the Rohingya Cultural Center in Chicago and he joins us now. Nasir, thank you for being with us. Tell me...


SESAY: Tell me about the Rohingya community there in Chicago and critically how you are all doing at a time like this.

ZAKARIA: Yes, Rohingya Cultural Center is fine by confirmation(ph) of (inaudible). So we -- this is wall of the country, first one in United States. Rohingya Cultural Center of Chicago, so this is amazing for us so we can do our new life in Chicago. So, we do activities like English(ph) class or tutoring, kids homework. So other activities like teaching law about United States, about citizenship class, (inaudible) class.

SESAY: And how are you doing now? How is the community coping right now given everything that is happening back home in Myanmar?

ZAKARIA: Yes, it's -- if I can say, we can sleep all day all night. I mean it's every time people crying, send voice mail to me, send picture to me all the time. So, day night it's -- Rohingya people in Burma, when I saw picture, my heart broke.

SESAY: Yes, it's truly, truly very, very distressing. Nasir, I understand that you still have family in Myanmar. What can you share with us about how they're doing?

ZAKARIA: So, I have contact -- yesterday I contact my family, but I'm all the time concerned about my family, also other our people. Today, they are alive, tomorrow I don't know if they're alive or not because there's no guarantee, no safety, no future in Burma.

SESAY: What are they telling you about the situation now in Northern Rakhine State? Is the violence still happening?

ZAKARIA: Yes, violence still happening. Also, they're burning housing. Also, there are people -- I mean, they told me in jail people dying -- they don't know how many people dying.

SESAY: And your family, they're still there in Rakhine State, is there a reason they haven't tried to get to Bangladesh?


ZAKARIA: They can't -- they're blocked. They tried to. Security forces, they put most of Rohingya people, they can't allow to go anywhere, they stay home. Only give one hour by foot but is no one is safe.

SESAY: So what are they doing for food? What are they doing in terms being able to get something to eat and drink and just have some kind of normalcy? Have they been able to get any of the aid that they've been trying to get into Raqqa (ph) and state (ph)?

ZAKARIA: No, no. No premiere (ph) service, no food. So back (ph) they -- only they find rice only. Sometimes some family hungry, dying, so many people. They are sick, they can't go to hospital. So this kind of problem right now.

SESAY: It's a desperate situation. The Nasir Bin Zakaria, thank you so much for speaking to us. And our thoughts and prayers are with your family and everyone caught up in this violence in Myanmar. Thank you for speaking to us.

ZAKARIA: You're welcome. Thank you so much for having me. So thank you so much.

SESAY: We're going to pause for a quick break here. And the earth is rapidly warmer. It will likely keep getting hotter. Coming up, my conversation with retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly who says the dramatic changes here on earth are even more alarming when viewed from space.


SESAY: Brought (ph) you (ph) CNN live from Los Angeles, I'm Isha Sesay, the headlines this hour. The Syrian government and a rebel group struck a deal to allow four critically ill people to evacuate the seed (ph) Syrian town.

Twenty (ph) five (ph) people will be taken to Damascus for treatment in the coming days. The rebel group will swap 29 prisoners for the 29 people who need urgent care. (Inaudible) military reporting that it has killed more than 100 rebels in the democratic republic of Congo in a joint operation with Congolese soldiers.

The raids against terrorists camps for in (ph) retaliation for (ph) militant attacks earlier this month that killed more than a dozen U.N. peace keepers. News officials say they have early indications North Korea is moving equipment which could be in preparation for another missile launch.

Kim Jong-un's last test was about a month ago when they debuted a new missile apparently of capable of hitting nearly anywhere in the world. U.S. President Donald Trump visiting a fire station in Florida on Wednesday to thank first responders. He repeated a claim that he signed more legislation than any other president since Harry Truman. He has not.

Mr. Trump has signed 96 bills into law, the fewest of any president since Eisenhower. More worrying news about the planet, 2017 is said to become one of the hottest years on record according to the World Meteorological Organization.

On top of that, a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association says climate change is causing severe weather events like heat waves and extreme sea temperatures.


Mark Kelly is a retired NASA astronaut and co-founder of Americans for Responsible Solutions. He's just written about his concerns of climate change in the new piece on I'm pleased to say Mark Kelly joins me now from Tucson, Arizona.

Mark Kelly, welcome.

CAPT. MARK KELLY, FORMER ASTRONAUT: Hello, thank you. Thanks for having me on, Isha.

SESAY: You're most welcome.

Having been an astronaut, your perspective on the changes that are occurring to our planet is truly unique. I want to quote from the piece that you wrote.

You said, "In 2001, I flew my first flight into space aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour. Roughly a decade later, I commanded that same space shuttle on its final flight. That trip was my fourth journey and, at least for now, my final one from this planet into space."

Mark Kelly, four flights to space.

Can you share us with the changes you observed during that time?

KELLY: Well, you know, it is interesting. You know, that's a decade in time and when you think of the age of our planet at, you know, over 4 billion years old, it is really just a sliver of time.

And for an astronaut to see, you know, the change and the deforestation of the Amazon, as an example, or the increase in pollution over large parts of Asia, you know, it gets a little bit concerning.

SESAY: The data is in and the pictures emerge of 2016 and it is not a pretty one. Talk to me about how scientists are explaining the severe weather events that have occurred in recent months.

What are they saying?

KELLY: Well, you know, it's interesting that, you know, the science and the research and the data supports the, you know, the conclusion that the climate is and the temperature of the planet will continue to warm. We are looking at temperatures maybe in excess of 6 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century.

You know?

In 83 years or so. And if that happens, if that comes to pass, which is the more likely event now, we're going to see increased incidents of extreme climate events.

SESAY: You wrote this in the piece and let's share this with our viewers.

"This year has been an unequivocal disaster for the future of the planet. President Donald Trump has managed to take a wrecking ball to years' worth of hard work and painstaking negotiations.

"If not undone, our retreat from the Paris climate accords and the EPA's clean power plan alone mean our planet's temperature will rise at a greater rate and our citizens' health will degrade."

What do you make of the fact that the U.S. finds itself with a president and an administration that remain skeptical of climate change in the face of all the data, all the science?

Everything we know, what do you make of that?

KELLY: Well, it's not only skeptical of climate science, I mean, we have members of Congress that fundamentally don't believe in any science. We have people that serve in one of our most important legislative body in this country that believe the planet is 5,000 years old because it says so in the Bible. And that is not reality.

So this issue with accepting reality is a problem. And it results in making poor decisions and to, you know, take ourselves out of the Paris climate accord, to cancel the EPA's clean power plan, I mean, these are just dumb, just dumb choices.

I mean, to be the only country on the planet that is not part of an agreement that we, you know, largely orchestrated ourselves to back away from this, you know, it's an isolationist move. I mean, it really is.

I mean, are we trying to make this, you know, a us versus them?

I mean, when you think about it and when you look at the Earth from space, it's pretty obvious that we all live literally on an island in our solar system and, you know, really have no place else to go. So we're really in this together.

And for the United States to stand alone as a country, you know, that is not part of an effort to try to reduce emissions, it's a really sad state of affairs.

SESAY: So you know, toward the end of your piece you wrote this, regarding the whole issue of leadership, "As you pass over the United States in space at night, you can see with your own naked eye the bright light to prove we lead the world in energy consumption.

"It is very obvious. What's not obvious is whether our country will adequately respond to this reality. As the largest consumer of energy, we must lead the way in --


SESAY: -- "solving this problem. If we don't do this, who will?"

So picking up on the point you made about leadership and its necessity, if the U.S. doesn't, I mean, you have given us a timeframe of about 10 years, if the U.S. doesn't lead the way, who can step up and do enough to kind of turn, you know, turn the tide if you will?

KELLY: Well, I mean, you know, China uses a lot of energy, as well. There's now over -- well over 1.2, I think, Indians on the -- the Asian subcontinent of India. These are people that, like the United States, you know, use a lot of energy.

So what happens in China, what happens in India, what happens in Europe, you know, Africa, as some of these countries move from undeveloped, you know, more third world countries to more developed economies, it is going to be critical that they make good choices.

But, you know, there's a reason why we have been the leaders on this issue and so many others when they're really challenging things to do, whether it's an engineering challenge or a political challenge.

The reason why we, the United States, have led on these issues is because we're generally pretty good at it. And, you know, it worries me to see, is there another country that's going to step up and fill the vacuum of our leadership? And I would contend that that's probably not going to happen. And if we don't lead, you know, this planet in the right direction on this issue and others, we're just, you know, making a big mess for our children and our grandchildren through the next century.

SESAY: Yes. Well, a lot to think about heading towards 2018. Mark Kelly, thank you so much. Thank you for joining us and just sharing your thoughts. Appreciate it.

KELLY: So thank you for having me on.

SESAY: All right. Question for you: how would you like to get stuck on the Disneyland ride, It's a Small World, and be forced to listen to its theme song over and over and over again?

And over and over again?

That's what happened on Wednesday in Anaheim, California. The ride stopped. The music did not. This is just one of the attractions that malfunctioned due to a power outage. We're told most of the rides in Adventureland, Toon Town and Fantasyland were up and running within an hour but some visitors were scarred.

Dana tweeted that she was stuck for half an hour on It's a Small World with three small kids who would not stop singing along.

Victoria also weighed in calling that her definition of hell.

And Jeff who was there when the lights went out said the song will be in everyone's head for the next year.

Mine included. Yikes.

Well, South Korea is working to keep the upcoming Olympics safe. When we come back, we'll tell you why experts say it would not necessarily take a violent attack from North Korea to disrupt the games.





SESAY: The Olympic torch is winding its way through South Korea ahead of the Winter Games now just a little more than six weeks away. On Wednesday, the flame was lit at a folk village in Dandong (ph). The city is a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its traditional houses.

Later, a ferry carried the torch across the river where it lit up the night sky. The flame arrives in PyeongChang on February the 9th, everyone. Mark your calendars. That's when the Olympics begin.

South Korea has hosted the Olympics before but never with a nuclear threat right on its doorstep. Brian Todd asked security experts if the games will be safe.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: As tensions with Kim Jong-un's regime intensify, U.S. law enforcement and security agencies are ramping up coordination with their South Korean counterparts.

Just weeks before the Winter Olympics, concerns are mounting that North Korea might engage in a violent provocation to disrupt the games, which are being held just 50 miles south of the DMZ.

JAMES GAGLIANO, FORMER FBI SUPERVISORY SPECIAL AGENT: My concern are softer targets and obviously things that North Korea might do to provoke the South Koreans, to attempt to cause either the games being shut down or events being moved or potentially war.

TODD (voice-over): Security experts say soft targets like transportation hubs, schools and shopping areas could be targeted by the North Koreans during the Olympics.

Could athletes from America and elsewhere be in danger?

U.S. ambassador Nikki Haley hinted at it on FOX when asked if America would send its team to the games.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you feel comfortable sending family members if they were athletes on our team?

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: I think it depends on what's going on at the time in the country. We have to watch this closely and it's changing by the day.

TODD (voice-over): But now the White House and U.S. Olympic Committee say America is planning to send its athletes to the Winter Olympics. Still, there is a unique security threat at these games. The location and razor-sharp tensions over Kim's missile tests have the region on edge.

North Korea has used tunnels try to insert commandos and frogmen into Korea for spying and assassinations and the regime has a history of violence surrounding major South Korean sporting events. A South Korean airliner was blown up by two North Korean agents in 1987, with all 115 people on board killed.

One of the agents was captured and said the bombing was ordered by the North's leaders to disrupt the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. And during the 2002 World Cup in South Korea, North Korean patrol boats engaged a skirmish with the South, leaving several service men on both sides dead.

Analysts say Kim has strong motives for disrupting these Winter Olympics.

PATRICK CRONIN, CENTER FOR A NEW AMERICAN SOCIETY: He is facing the prospect of two years of maximum economic strangulation through sanctions and other law enforcement measures to really cripple his economy. He's going to look for ways to fight back.

One way to fight back is to hurt the South Korean economy. The South Korean economy right now is 100 percent focused on a successful international Olympic event. So imagine cyber sabotage.

So you don't kill anybody but you just disrupt the economic flow, the transportation flow. You create a headache for the South Korean government. You make the South Koreans look bad. They lose face.

TODD: Analysts say if the North Koreans don't engage in a violent provocation during the Winter Olympics, they're at least likely to send spies into South Korea during the games.

They say the Olympics will offer the North Koreans an opportunity to gain economic intelligence on South Korea, to place sleeper agents there and to make contact with the North Korean agents they already have in South Korea -- Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.


SESAY: We'll be watching closely six weeks from now.

Thank you for watching CNN NEWSROOM live from Los Angeles. I'm Isha Sesay. Stay tuned for "WORLD SPORT." You're watching CNN.