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Kim Jong-un Invites South Korean President to North Korea; Israeli Fighter Jet Crashes amid Syrian Anti-Aircraft Fire; Trump Blocks Release of Democratic Memo; Number Three at U.S. Justice Department Stepping Down; U.S. Special Ops Forces Fight Ever-Changing War in Syria; PyeongChang Olympics 2018. Aired 5-6a ET

Aired February 10, 2018 - 05:00   ET




GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): History in the making. High- ranking North and South Korean leaders meet for the first time in years but an even bigger meeting, it is now soon expected.

Also ahead, Democrats lash out at the U.S. president. Why they're saying the latest action should be counted as obstruction of justice.

Later, the first gold medal is awarded at the PyeongChang Olympics. A lot to tell you about there.

Live from CNN World Headquarters in Atlanta, we want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and all around the world. I'm George Howell and CNN NEWSROOM starts right now.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): This is CNN breaking news.

HOWELL: At 5:00 am here on the U.S. East Coast, we start with the breaking news this hour. An invitation for North Korea for the president of South Korea to visit Pyongyang.

Could this be a key turning point after years of tense relations between these two countries?

Let's start with the facts. Kim Jong-un has officially invited South Korean president Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang. This invitation delivered by the North Korean leader's sister, Kim Yo-jong.

She and a high-level delegation met with the president Moon Jae-in earlier on Saturday. Kim Yo-jong is the first member of North Korea's ruling family to visit the South since 1953.

During the meeting, you can see her here. You can see her carrying this blue folder, that folder containing a personal letter from Kim Jong-un himself to President Moon. In it, he expresses his hope for better relations between the two nations. President Moon responded to that invitation by suggesting that the

talks between North Korea should also involve the United States, talks needed there as well. Let's get the very latest on this story with our two correspondents following this story, Paula Hancocks live in PyeongChang, South Korea, where the games are taking place, and Paula Newton standing by live in Seoul, South Korea.

Paula Hancocks, let's start with you. Typically when you and I speak about North Korea, we're talking about rhetoric and provocation; we're talking about North Korea firing a missile, South Korea, the United States and others responding. But this story quite different on this day. Talk to us about the significance of this meeting.

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, George. Just the very fact that a few months ago we were talking about the possibility of a military strike against North Korea, we had the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, publicly speaking and giving the reasons why there could never be a second Korean War.

You could not get further away from that now. You have this official invitation from the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, to the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, to come and visit him in Pyongyang. The date is unknown at this point. It just says at his earliest convenience.

So it's certainly a remarkable change of events. Now it is interesting that it was hand delivered. It was hand signed by the North Korean leader. It was delivered by his sister, who is here for the PyeongChang Olympics.

We know that in the coming hours there will a dinner for the North Korean delegation, Kim Jong-un's sister and Kim Jong-nam, the head of state, with the ceremonial head of state with the South Korean unification minister.

And then after that, tonight, there is going to be that women's ice hockey team. The North and South Korean athletes join together for that joint Korean team. They will be competing for the first time in the Olympics tonight. They will be playing against Switzerland.

And we are expecting the South Korean president and the North Korean ceremonial head of state to be spectators at that event. So really, the symbolism is extremely strong and, of course, the question is, what sort of substance can come from this now.

But that invitation from the North Korean leader to the South Korean president, very significant. It's something that CNN had sources alerting us to over the past few days. But, certainly, something significant and something that I don't think many people would expect the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, to say no to.

He has said he wants dialogue and engagement with North Korea.

HOWELL: All right and, to your point, what type of substance could come out of this?

Paula Newton, now to you. This triangle between the United States, between North and South Korea, ever shifting and fully complicated.

With this invitation, though, we are seeing President Moon suggesting that there should also be talks with the United States at some point.

PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think he was very clear, at least from the Blue House statement after the meeting, very clear to say that he is encouraging North Korea to have that dialogue with the United States.

That has not been something that has been possible at all in the last few months. In fact, the rhetoric is something we haven't seen in years and that kind of continued. We do have a statement --


NEWTON: -- now from Vice President Mike Pence.

Remember, he was at the Olympics. Came back here to Seoul. Was actually in Seoul when this meeting was going on. He's now back at the Olympic sites, taking in some events before he heads back to the United States.

We've gotten what was a statement-nonstatement from his press secretary, saying the vice president is grateful that President Moon reaffirmed his strong commitment to the global maximum pressure campaign for his support for continued sanctions.

The vice president's office just trying to say, invitation or no invitation, as far as we're concerned, this is business as usual. But it is still a bit of an odd statement, meaning they disagreed in terms of actually directly responding to this invitation.

You know, George, the United States has been pretty unequivocal. They are saying that North Korea needs to be denuclearized. And that is something where North Korea says we're not ever going to engage in that. We are a nuclear state and we intend to remain so.

This is what is going to make a Pyongyang meeting, if it happens in the near future, so difficult for South Korea. They could not possibly go there without extraction concessions from North Korea, knowing that those are on the table before they go for this visit.

And it will be a very delicate balancing act for Moon Jae-in, who has said over and over again, that he believes dialogue with North Korea is the way to go.

HOWELL: That is some important context.

Paula Hancocks, now to you, this question, given your extensive reporting there in South Korea, the question to you, is there a sense, the optics here, that the U.S. is being sidelined in this process?

And what is the perception among people with this new invitation?

HANCOCKS: George, I think there's no doubt that North Korea is making an effort to sideline the United States ever since January 1st, when the leader, Kim Jong-un, gave his New Year's Day address. He said it was important for North and South Korea to work together to try and resolve the Korean issue on the Korean Peninsula.

He said you do not need external interference, clearly talking about the United States. So, yes, I think in some respects, there are fears that the U.S. is being sidelined. Certainly in the public statements we're hearing that the alliance is just as strong as it's always been and it's certainly stronger than just the two leaders, who happen to be in power at the moment, we're hearing, officially.

But it is interesting. As Paula was mentioning, that statement from the U.S. vice president Mike Pence didn't really address what is going on at this exact moment. It was just going back to the statement of more sanctions, more pressure, which is what we have been hearing from him consistently throughout this process.

So, I mean, the headlines at the moment are about North Korea and South Korea, are about the two Koreas working together to try and resolve the issue. There are concerns, of course, that North Korea is not actually having to give anything up in order to get these kinds of concessions, that they're not having to give anything up before they came to the Olympics.

They've made it abundantly clear they have no intention of giving up their nuclear and missile program. The fact that they're a nuclear state has been written into their constitution.

So I don't think there's many people in this country that believe that Kim Jong-un would voluntarily give up his nuclear missile program. But, certainly, it is an interesting dynamic at this point also because, obviously, China and Russia are of the opinion that there should be more dialogue with North Korea and the U.S. and Japan, of the opinion there should be more sanctions and more pressure.

Interestingly, we did hear from a Blue House spokesperson that, at the summit meeting between the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Moon, Shinzo Abe said that in fact they should be carrying out these U.S.-South Korean military drills and not postponing them for the Olympics.

And the statement really from the Blue House was that Moon thought it was inappropriate for Mr. Abe to be making that kind of remark. So you're really seeing a shift for South Korea, almost closer to the idea of what China and Russia want to do with North Korea, and away from what the U.S. and Japan want to do.

HOWELL: And, Paula, before we leave you guys, just very quickly, if we could show that image of the U.S. vice president also beside Kim Yo-jong. Now this very important image, certainly interesting seating arrangement there at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics. Thank you both for your reporting, Paula Newton and Paula Hancocks, live for us and we'll continue to stay in touch with you both.

Moving on now to the other breaking story we're following this hour. We're following, in the Middle East, Israel says that one of its F-16 warplanes has crashed amid massive Syrian anti-aircraft fire. So far, it's not clear what caused this jet to go down. Israel says

that its military has been going after Iranian targets inside Syria. But the jet crashed in Israeli territory. Both pilots survived but one was severely injured. Israel says its strikes in Syria --


HOWELL: -- came after an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle entered Israeli airspace from Syria.

We're covering this story from all angles. Our senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman live in Beirut, Lebanon. But let's start with CNN correspondent Ian Lee following events from the Golan Heights.

Ian, first of all, what more can you tell us?

The details of what you're learning, exactly what happened here.

And what are the responses to it?

IAN LEE, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Let me give you a timeline, George. We just got off the phone with an Israeli military official and he kind of laid it out. He said in the early morning hours, in the 4:00 am, that they were tracking this Iranian drone.

They said that it was moving inside Israeli territory. They say that this wasn't an accident, that this was a drone that was on a mission. They said, at a certain point, they decided to engage it with a helicopter. They were also able to take it down and capture the remains of this drone.

In retaliation, they said they went after the command and control center of this drone. They say that Iran has a command and control center near Palmyra inside Syria. They said they had eight jets go after that command center. They came under heavy anti-aircraft fire from the Syrians.

On the way back, one of those planes did go down. Now they haven't said what caused the plane to go down but they said there was significant anti-aircraft fire. That likely was the cause of it although they said they will release the cause later.

Also, in retaliation, they say for that they went after 12 targets inside Syria, eight of them Syrian, four of them Iranian. One of those targets was the 4th Division of the Syrian army, which is on the outskirts of Damascus.

Damascus is just about 50 kilometers behind me. They say that right now the ball is in Syria and Iran's court. They say they do not want to escalate this any further. We're also hearing from Syrian state media, saying that multiple Israeli aircraft were brought down. Israeli military says that only one plane has crashed. Syrians also calling this Israeli aggression -- George.

HOWELL: Ian Lee live for us. So Israeli concerns about Iran inside Syria along the border there. Now let's bring in CNN senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman to give some background here. A little context on this.

The Israeli military, Ben, has been quite active for a long time on its border with Syria.

What more are you hearing?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we're hearing is that, in fact, a little while ago, minutes ago, there was a second wave of Israeli airstrikes in the Damascus area. We don't know at this point what the targets were.

But certainly, for the past few years, there have been regular Israeli airstrikes on targets in Syria. Oftentimes those targets, even though the Israelis are very coy about it and don't confirm or deny reports of airstrikes by Israel within Syrian territory. By and large their focus has been on what the Israelis say are arms shipments from Syria in to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

This time they have been quite honest and open. They're talking about Iranian and Syria targets that they are striking. Now what's interesting, in March of last year, Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli defense minister, did say that Israel would strike and destroy Syria's air defense system if Israeli planes came under fire from Syrian forces.

Now that's what we've seen has happened today. These Syrians, it does appear -- I don't think there is any point in playing, pussyfooting around it, the Syrians did bring down an Israeli F-16. And this is a real game changer.

This is the first time in decades that the Syrians have been able to bring down an Israeli warplane. And this is going to change the entire dynamic of how Israeli planes operate over Syria.

Clearly, the Syrians now have much more sophisticated missile or air defense systems that they've put into play. The Israelis are going to have to fly higher and fly more carefully as they often do over Syria, as well as Lebanon. Frequently there are Israeli violations of Lebanon's airspace and they may have to change the way they operate -- George.

HOWELL: Ben Wedeman, pointing to the significance, the military significance of what we're seeing here. Thank you, Ben.

And Ian Lee, live for us in the Golan Heights.


HOWELL: Gentlemen, thank you, both for the reporting. And we'll stay in touch with you.

Still ahead here on CNN NEWSROOM, Democrats in the United States respond to the Republican memo with their own memo.

So why is the White House saying that it can't be made public?

We'll dig into that for you -- ahead.

Plus, speculation grows that the chief of staff, John Kelly, might be falling out of favor with the U.S. president, Donald Trump. We've heard that story before. Amid the fallout over now the former White House staffer accused of spousal abuse. We'll have details, as NEWSROOM pushes on.




HOWELL: Welcome back to CNN NEWSROOM. I'm George Howell.

Here in the United States, Democratic leaders are lashing out at the U.S. president after he blocked the release of an intelligence memo that was written by House Democrat Adam Schiff. The House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, says that it shows the release of the earlier Nunes memo was a blatant political move and asked on Twitter what the president had to hide. CNN's Jim Sciutto has more on this story.


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF U.S. SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, one week after the president celebrated the release of a Republican memo, known as the Nunes memo, given a Republican view of FBI or alleged FBI abuse of surveillance, one week later, the president blocking, in effect, the release of a Democratic version of events and referring it back to the committee for redactions that the president, that the White House says were recommended by the Department of Justice and the FBI.

The president, in his letter, the letter from his lawyer, Don McGahn, saying the department, that is the Department of Justice, has identified portions of the February 5th memorandum, the disclosure of which it believes would create especially significant concerns for the national security and law enforcement interests.

Now it is interesting for the president to cite that opposition from the FBI and the Department of Justice one week after he ignored similar guidance from the FBI, saying that it opposed the release of the Nunes memo at the time.

The FBI says, as expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo's accuracy. That referring to the Republican memo which the president did allow declassification without any redactions.

Of course, Democrats, including Adam Schiff, who drafted this memo, very much upset with this, saying that they predicted this, calling this --

[05:20:00] SCIUTTO (voice-over): -- a double standard. The question now is what happens. It is going back to the Intelligence Committee to decide what is redacted. But of course that Intelligence Committee has a majority of Republicans. They are the ones who drafted that initial memo.

The question is what version of the Democratic version of events comes out of this process in the end -- Jim Sciutto, CNN, Washington.


HOWELL: All right, Jim, thank you so much.

Another story we're following. A second White House official has resigned over allegations of domestic abuse. This time, it's speech writer David Sorenson. Sorenson denies the accusations but stepped down anyway.

This resignation comes just days after White House staff secretary Rob Porter also quit. This after his ex-wife published a photo of herself with a black eye. Yet, when asked about it on Friday, President Trump seemed to give Porter the benefit of the doubt.


TRUMP: Well, we wish him well. He worked very hard. Found out about it recently and I was surprised by it. But we certainly wish him well. It's, obviously, a tough time for him. He did a very good job when he was in the White House. And we hope he has a wonderful career and hopefully he will have a great career ahead of him.


HOWELL: Sources familiar with the situation say the president blames chief of staff John Kelly for letting the Porter scandal get out of hand. But the White House denies that Kelly offered to resign.

And another story, the U.S. Justice Department. It's losing another high-ranking, seasoned official. Rachel Brand is the number three at the department, serving under deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein.

She has been at the Justice Department since the administration of George W. Bush and was promoted to her current position in May. She's leaving to take a senior executive job at Walmart.

Let's talk more about all of this with Leslie Vinjamuri. Leslie teaches international relations at SOAS University of London, live for us at our London bureau this hour.

Always a pleasure to have you on the show, Leslie. Let's talk about this Democratic memo. The optics of the U.S. president blocking it and the why behind it.

What are your thoughts?

LESLIE VINJAMURI, SOAS UNIVERSITY OF LONDON: It looks very much like it's politically motivated. There was a vote on the House Committee, too, that this should now be released. We have been wondering I think for a good week about whether it would be.

And what we've heard about the memo is that it gives context as to whether or not, you know, there was -- one thing is whether or not there was a full evidence, full information given when that request was made to surveil Carter Page.

And but the president, initially, you know, indicated that he was supportive of the release and now has, of course, blocked it. So it looks like it's politically motivated, like he doesn't want the American public to have a balanced view.

But, of course, it's very difficult to ascertain and now that information will not see the light of day or at least anytime soon, which I think is very upsetting for many people.

HOWELL: Does seem, though, the Democrats will keep pushing on that issue.

The other story that is in play this day, the White House on the defensive in this resignation of the speech writer, David Sorenson. This after staff secretary Rob Porter also resigned. We're talking, Leslie, about two departures related to the same issue all within a week.

Is this coincidence or are we starting to see the dam break here?

VINJAMURI: Well, the allegations of domestic abuse. I think the big question here is who was aware of this. There's a real question about for how long John Kelly was aware of this and what Donald Trump was aware of.

I think one concern in the context of a very significant period in the United States and beyond, when people are being asked to really take very seriously any allegations of sexual abuse, certainly of domestic abuse, that it doesn't -- it doesn't look like there is, like the chief of staff or the president are coming out and saying, we must look into this. We must take these allegations seriously.

But there is always a sense of trying to protect and cover up. And I think that's tremendously damaging for the United States, certainly for the White House. And it certainly looks like things are, once again, being handled very poorly internally.

And it's creating a level of dysfunctionality that we've seen throughout the last 13 months now.

HOWELL: And the question certainly as to whether people in the White House knew about these allegations. The feeling among many people, people saying that they probably did know and the question now, are they just starting to handle these issues because people did know about these allegations all along?

The other thing, the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, a source telling CNN that he didn't offer to resign exactly but he did say that he would do so, if the president wanted --


HOWELL: -- him to do so.

How important is it, now that we see John Kelly under the microscope, a very important fixture there in the White House?

VINJAMURI: Yes, I think this has been an ongoing question whether or not what to make of this and whether or not this will lead to John Kelly's resignation. A lot of people don't think so.

But there is a sort of sense that he said quietly and privately. It has not been confirmed that he would resign. If he does go, a question of how many other people will go. And there's also a question right now of how many people he has there supporting him as we're seeing a number of people leave.

He's only been in that post for just over six months. If he does go, it will be, of course, lead to further breakdown in terms of the internal management at a time when there has been a lot of chaos.

But I'm not -- I just don't think we know right now which way it will go. But there's certainly considerable shadow now over a man who's at the forefront of American politics and doesn't seem to be taking these allegations as seriously as they need to be taken.

HOWELL: Leslie Vinjamuri, live for us, thank you so much. And we'll stay in touch with you.

VINJAMURI: Thank you.

HOWELL: Certainly a lot of hope, a lot of people looking at this Olympic diplomacy between North and South Korea but some are saying, wait, remember who you're dealing with. That is the message the U.S. and these protesters are sending to the president of South Korea. The very latest after the break.

Plus, on the ground with elite U.S. forces inside Syria. CNN gains rare access -- ahead.




HOWELL: From coast to coast across the United States and live around the world this hour, you're watching --


HOWELL: -- CNN NEWSROOM, thank you so much for being with us. I'm George Howell with the headlines we're following for you.

(HEADLINES) HOWELL: Back now to the Olympic diplomacy that has been playing out. The South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, now has a very fine line to walk. As we've been reporting, he has been invited to visit Pyongyang and has expressed hope for bringing the Koreas closer together.

However, South Korea remains a strong ally of the United States, which is fiercely skeptical of North Korea's motives. Vice President Mike Pence is in South Korea, and was within a very close view of Kim Jong- un's sister at the opening ceremony.

He says that he's carrying the message to Seoul: don't trust North Korea's overtures, the Kim regime is still a brutal regime.

Let's bring in CNN's Will Ripley, who has reported extensively from North Korea, joining now live from PyeongChang, South Korea.

Will, it's always a pleasure to have you here on the show for your reporting and perspective on this.

First of all, the direct question here, what do you make of this invitation from the North Korean leader to the president of South Korea to visit?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I learned about this on Friday morning local time, George, before the North Korean military parade, which my sources tell me was scaled down at the last minute.

And during the parade, Kim Jong-un never mentioned the word "nuclear." He referred to the North Koreans as "a military power." That was one thing that sources told me that was noteworthy, that the parade was made smaller and Kim Jong-un's rhetoric was toned down.

And they also told me on Friday -- so this is before the opening ceremony of the Olympics -- that it would be very likely at the lunch on Saturday that in fact Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un's sister, would either deliver a note from Kim Jong-un or a personal invitation to travel to North Korea.

And of course as we found out several hours ago that is precisely what happened. The lunch was an opportunity for more informal discussions. Kim Jong-nam, the higher-ranking member of the delegation, was also present there.

But Kim Jong-un's sister, even though technically lower ranking is obviously far more influential. She's been a rising star within the North Korean government. She's a high-ranking member of the Workers' Party of Korea and she was sent here to South Korea as a special envoy, with a mission, a diplomatic mission, to warm relations with the South.

And it appears, at this stage, George, that things went exactly as Kim Jong-un planned. President Moon almost immediately accepted the invitation in principle. Obviously there are a lot of details to be worked out. My sources ahead of the confirmation of this told me that one possible date that could be thrown around is August 15th. That's because it's a holiday that is celebrated in both North and

South Korea. It's the day that the Korean Peninsula was liberated from the Japanese. So as they look at possible times and dates for this trip, obviously, this really does sideline the United States because, as this diplomacy was happening, you had Vice President Mike Pence, visiting with North Korean defectors, speaking very strongly against North Korea, calling it depraved, saying that the North Korean people were prisoners who yearned for freedom and, of course, he was blasted in North Korean media today for doing that.

They accused him of violating the Olympic spirit. And then at the opening ceremonies, that really awkward moment, when Vice President Pence was initially supposed to be sitting directly in front of the North Korean delegation, he actually switched seats so that he could move farther away.

But if the seating chart had been followed correctly, the optics would have been more awkward and bizarre than they turned out to be with all of the photos that we saw from the opening ceremonies.

So if you're somebody in Vice President Pence's camp right now, you can't be too happy with how this is going down because Vice President Pence came here to tell the South Koreans that, once the Olympics are over, diplomacy should be over.


RIPLEY: They should disengage. They should join the United States with upping the pressure, the maximum pressure campaign that the U.S. is pushing for. But, instead, what South Korea's President Moon has done is really the exact opposite. He is open to further engagement with the North Koreans.

In fact, tonight, they're going to be having the inter-Korean women's ice hockey game and President Moon of South Korea will be attending that game with Kim Jong-un's sister, Kim Yo-jong and with Kim Jong- nam, the ceremonial head of state of North Korea.

So they'll be sitting there, cheering on the team together, not the optics that the United States certainly was hoping for -- George.

HOWELL: Certainly interesting optics. And that image, as well, certainly would be weird if there were chips to be passed down the aisle with the North Korean leader's sister there and the Vice President of the United States.

But, again, a very historic moment as we're seeing these two Koreas, possibly, meeting, the presidents in Pyongyang. Thank you so much, Will, for your reporting. We'll, of course, stay in touch with you.

A lot to talk about here for the president of South Korea, Moon Jae- in, when it comes to the talks with North Korea. I want to take a closer look at this now. Let's bring in Duyeon Kim. Duyeon is a visiting senior research fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum, live from Seoul, South Korea. Thank you so much, again, for taking time with us this day to talk

about what is happening because there's a lot of nuance here. North Korea did not really have to offer much to be part of these games. Some would say that it was a matter of security to have them present there.

But South Korea, the president of South Korea, as he's invited to North Korea, what will he have to bring home substantive to make this worthwhile?

DUYEON KIM, KOREAN PENINSULA FUTURE FORUM: Thanks for having me back. So on the substantive side, the South Korean public, which has grown used to seeing this movie several times for the past decades, actually, would want to see him bring back some sort of promise and commitment to denuclearize, to give up the North's nuclear programs and weapons.

Now that is going to be a complicated and tricky thing to do. But that is ultimately what it is going to come down to. That piece on the Korean Peninsula for the South Korean public means no nuclear weapons.

And so the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, he really has his work cut out for him. He is going to have to try to convince Washington to essentially come on board with this vision and this game plan of inter-Korean reconciliation leading to some sort of U.S.- North Korea nuclear dialogue and eventual negotiations to solve the nuclear problem.

But we've heard Vice President Pence say reportedly that he would like to see all doors shut after the Olympics, to go back to a maximum pressure campaign. And that's going to be difficult for President Moon.

The North really has tempted President Moon with this invitation to the North and a summit, which President Moon has wanted, as early as possible. President Moon will be tempted to want to try and delay U.S.-South Korean military exercises once again for months further, until after the summit.

And how will that fare in the eyes of Washington?

For Washington, these exercises, sure, you know, during the Olympics truce, we've had a reduction of tensions and that's certainly preferred and needed, compared to last year's dangerous situation.

But if you map it out and if you think about how this all plays out on the ground, what this means is the U.S. and South Korea will have to put down their guard. Their military exercises are defensive in nature. They'll have to put down their guard.

While the North has its sword, so to speak, pointed at South Korea and the U.S., it still has its nuclear weapons in hand. So that's a practical, immediate challenge that President Moon will have to think about.

HOWELL: Why do you surmise this is happening right now?

Do you think it's because of the sanctions?

Is it due to the president -- the U.S. president's ratcheted-up rhetoric, the freeze that has taken place on North Korea?

KIM: Well, I think there are several factors combined and drivers in place. Fundamentally, it could be, first, that we've heard reports that sanctions are taking effect and Pyongyang obviously has calculated for it and will realize that future sanctions or the current sanctions regime in place will bite eventually.

But also the North realizes that this progressive South Korean administration is the administration that would be inclined to accept North Korea's demands and this current South Korean administration has constituents whose thinking, fundamental thinking about a One Korean people working together to fend off a big power influence, which is the United States and even China in some respects, they align --


KIM: -- in terms of that thinking and those interests with North Korea. And also this is also Pyongyang's ploy, to try to pull South Korea further away from the U.S. and so far it's dangling enough bait to try to make it very tempting for the South.

HOWELL: Duyeon Kim, live for us in Seoul, South Korea. Thank you so much for the perspective today.

Still ahead, ISIS is on the run but civilians are still caught in the middle of a very brutal civil war taking place in Syria. We look at some of the many factions locked up in this conflict -- still ahead.

Plus, the unified Korean women's ice hockey team is preparing for its Olympic debut in just a few hours' time. The very latest from PyeongChang, South Korea, as NEWSROOM rolls on.




HOWELL: Welcome back to NEWSROOM. I'm George Howell.

The U.S. military role inside Syria is growing more complicated and ever more dangerous. U.S. Special Operations Forces have to watch for attacks from pro-government forces while watching for attacks from ISIS. Our Nick Paton Walsh gained exclusive access after a recent pro-regime assault. Here's the report that he filed.


NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SR. INTL. CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The main reason America says it's still in Syria is out there in the cold dust that hides the remnants of ISIS. Over the years, berms like these have slowly pinned ISIS down into smaller and smaller territory, the last sliver of desert there on the Syrian-Iraqi border where possibly their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, could be hiding out.

But in this last stage of the fight, the problems and, indeed, the enemies, the Syrian Kurds here and their American allies face --


WALSH (voice-over): -- continue to mount.

Last night another new enemy emerged near here. Tanks and 500 militants loyal to the Syrian regime advanced on and shelled American commandos and their Syrian Kurdish allies not far west of here.

And as these U.S. drone pictures help show, U.S. warplanes and gunships killed 100 of them. This artillery crew were also hit. Many others then fled.

What on Earth just happened the night before and why haunts the U.S. Special Operations Forces commander.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I guess I am a little bit surprised. Whoever that was, knew that the SDF were in defensible positions and knows that they're a fierce opponent.

WALSH: Does your head begin to spin occasionally when you just look around going, where do the enemy stop and where does the good news begin?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It can be complex out here if you try to take into all those factors. The good thing about being in the military is that we usually have a military mission and our military mission out here is to defeat ISIS.

WALSH (voice-over): When that attack began, this Kurdish commander rang a Russian military monitor meant to keep the peace here to ask what was happening.

"He told me there were no movements," he said. "And then they were happening without their permission."

An hour later he rang and asked for a cease-fire.

"It's strange. Russia is a great power and knows not any move from the regime. They bear responsibility for yesterday."

Kicking ISIS out of Syria and Raqqa below has left a vacuum but also devastation. No nobody knows how many are buried under the rubble below. Yet the U.S. is trying to help rebuild, to clear the endless mines ISIS hit, leaving toys or refrigerators decaying. The new local police are lining the streets.

WALSH: That's one of the contradictions you're dealing with. You want people to come back but you also have to accept that it may not be safe for them to do so. You want to help but at the same time you know you can't stay here forever. You worry, too, if people end up blaming the U.S. if this place isn't

rebuilt in a heartbeat.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've learned lessons, the wrong way to do this. And I think we are doing a very good job of making sure that everything we're doing here is through the Raqqa civil council, the governing body here that is dictating and providing the guidance for whatever we are doing to try to help.

WALSH (voice-over): ISIS surely never expected to have U.S. commandos touring their execution amphitheater or even ordering 20 chicken kabobs on the streets here. A message to the outside world: it is safe enough to come and help to rebuild.

"I was the first person to reopen here," he says. "We need basic services, water, electricity. I had three mines in my own home but the local council removed them."

Life is rushing back here because no one can wait for the rubble to be cleared, for the mines to be gone. So ignored and desperate, these people once let ISIS' horror in. Now they urgently need something better so it never returns -- Nick Paton Walsh, CNN, Northern Syria.


HOWELL: Let's talk more about this now with Anne Barnard. Anne is the Beirut bureau chief for "The New York Times" and has provided extensive coverage on the war on Syria.

Anne, thank you so much for being with us to talk about this.

First of all, look, many people do feel that the war against ISIS is over. But, in fact, you write that many of those militants have gone underground. What we're seeing, the stepped-up attacks now from the Syrian government on rebels that it had initially been targeting, along with what you describe as a separate but intersecting set of conflicts with a rotating cast of combatants. Explain.

ANNE BARNARD, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, that's right. First of all, the sense that the war against Islamic State is over may be premature in the sense that you can't just defeat an insurgent group that goes underground and continues to fight with guerilla tactic.

We've seen groups like that reemerge in many countries over the years and I think it would be premature to have a mission accomplished moment about ISIS. At the same time, long before ISIS was, you know, the most attention-getting facet of the conflict in Syria internationally, the conflict was going on for years between the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, and rebels fighting to unseat him.

And that conflict has not been resolved and continues to flare. In fact, it's reaching a bigger peak this week than it has in months. And at the same time, we have international actors that are also ready to escalate additional conflicts that exist between them and are being played out in Syria. [05:50:00]

HOWELL: Anne, I want to delve just a bit deeper in that. Let's show our viewers, again, the map of Syria. And, again, you know, we kind of indicate some of these major flashpoints just to get a sense of what's happening there, these different areas.

So from what's happening in Afrin, Turkish troops there; Idlib and Eastern Ghouta, help our viewers to understand exactly what is playing out in that nation.

BARNARD: OK. So first of all, in 2011, there were protests against Assad, asking for more political freedom in Syria. That morphed into an armed conflict after the government crackdown on protests and some Syrians began taking up arms.

Foreign players started to fund those groups and there was an array of different rebel groups fighting Assad. Now that conflict has been sort of in the background in terms of international attention while everyone was worried about ISIS and how it might affect them back home.

But it never stops. And now the Syrian government is turning its attention back to trying to defeat the last major rebel-held pockets of the country. The government has been on the march, especially since Russia entered the conflict on the side of the government, and been bombarding not only ISIS but also the other rebel groups, including an Al Qaeda-linked group that has come to nominate some of the rebel-held areas.

At the same time, there's many civilians in those areas and they are bearing the brunt of the attacks. There have been numerous strikes on medical facilities. There's reports and video evidence of many children being affected; women, families being hit by missiles and barrel bombs and other munitions, that are just seen to be targeting civilian areas as well as rebel fighters.

HOWELL: Anne Barnard, thank you so much for your time and your reporting. We certainly invite viewers to check out your article in "The New York Times." Again, the bureau chief for Beirut, for "The New York Times," thank you.

BARNARD: Thank you.

HOWELL: The first medals of the Winter Games have been awarded. We'll tell you who has taken home the gold -- still ahead.





(MUSIC PLAYING) HOWELL: Back to the Winter Games. While diplomacy has been front and

center in PyeongChang, sporting events are certainly under way after Friday's dazzling opening ceremony. The latest medal race, the women's 3,000-meter speed skating is set to start in just a few minutes' time.

Also, a few hours ago, the first medals were awarded for the games. For Sweden, Charlotte Kalla took home the gold in the women's 15- kilometer skiathlon. And of Norway, Marit Bjoergen took home the silver, making her the most decorated woman in the history of the Winter Olympics. Finland won the bronze medal. An exciting time for sure.

Thanks so much for being with us for CNN NEWSROOM. I'm George Howell at the CNN Center in Atlanta. For our viewers in the United States, "NEW DAY" is next and for our viewers around the world, "AMANPOUR" starts in a moment. Thanks for watching CNN, the world's news leader.