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World Brief: North Korea Speculation, Turkey's Constitutional Referendum

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're examining dramatic events on both ends of Asia. In the Far East, many nations are preparing for a possible North Korean nuclear test this weekend. In the Near East, Turkey votes this weekend on constitutional changes that would make the president even more powerful, an event that would be in its way as seismic as a nuclear test. We have correspondents on both ends of the continent, starting with NPR's Peter Kenyon, who's in Istanbul, Turkey. Hi, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's the point of the referendum?

KENYON: Well, a yes vote is going to mean 18 changes to Turkey's Constitution, pretty big ones. And I've been out talking to voters out on the streets, lots of yes signs. Pretty quiet on the no side, I have to say. But the one thing that really struck me is how many voters I talked to who don't really understand what's in these changes. So for you, here are the highlights. Up until now, Erdogan has been pretty much nonpartisan.

But under this new system, that's going to end. He can rejoin his party. And he gets all the powers that the prime minister has now. He's going to get more influence over judges, selection of judges and legislative oversight gets limited. He's been both prime minister and president, Erdogan has. And now he's on the brink of basically turning him into a single power center for governing the country.

INSKEEP: And this is something that we can well understand in the United States because we learn early on about the separation of powers in the United States and how important it is to have a balance of different power centers. You're saying that this would concentrate ever more power in the hands of one person who was already making himself quite powerful informally. Isn't that correct?

KENYON: Well, that is right. There will still be other power centers, but they will be weakened. So yes, the checks and balances really won't be there. And Erdogan basically has been behaving like a strong president all along. He's the first popularly elected president here.

And then there was the state of emergency after last summer's failed coup. The government's been using that to rule by decree, rounding up over 125,000 public workers, some 40,000 facing charges. More than a hundred journalists are in jail. NGOs are having their contracts ended with no reason given. Turks tell me it's a very chilly mood right here now.

INSKEEP: Well, help us understand this, Peter, because you point out he was popularly elected. And this is an election. It is a vote of the people this weekend. But it's a circumstance, as you've reported over the months and years, where media organizations are being shut down or taken over by the government. There's more and more of a monopoly of power by his party. Is this country still - this NATO ally - still going to be a democracy if Erdogan's side wins this referendum?

KENYON: That is the no campaign's basic motto here - this is the death knell for democracy. The pro side says no, this is just stability. This is more economic growth. We're going to, you know, defeat terrorism, et cetera. But people tell me out on the street it's remarkable to remember that when Erdogan came to power, he was promising European-style reforms, which he delivered. And everybody loved him for it. But now the party has become much more of a Turkish nationalist kind of a party, except it doesn't trust the military.

And secular Turks are very worried. They think they're threatened by this government led by pious Muslims. They think that will get worse if the referendum passes. And there are some - they're holding out hope for a kind of a secret no vote, like Brexit or the U.S. race, where the no voters will be afraid to tell pollsters what they're really going to do. But right now, we just have a lot of undecided voters. And people are eyeing them nervously.

INSKEEP: OK, dramatic moment at the edge of Europe, the edge of Asia. Now let's go the other side of Asia, where NPR's Rob Schmitz is in Shanghai and tracking the signs of a possible North Korean nuclear test. Hi, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's the evidence that North Korea might take that step this weekend?

SCHMITZ: Well, in the past several weeks, commercial satellite images show a significant amount of activity at North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear testing site. And this is the same site where North Korea completed its past five nuclear tests. And all this recent activity shows that the North is getting ready for another test, which is a clear breach of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Now, the timing of this is also interesting because tomorrow, April 15, is a major holiday in North Korea. It's the 105th anniversary of the birth of North Korea's founder, Kim Il-Sung, grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un. And it's a day that in previous years, North Korea has staged big parades and weapons tests, though no nuclear tests have ever been conducted on that holiday.

INSKEEP: But let me ask the other thing about timing. Vice President Mike Pence is on his way into the region. President Trump has been talking about North Korea, talking tough. The secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, effectively warned North Korea to cut it out and said we're going to stop talking about North Korea. How tense is the situation here?

SCHMITZ: Oh, it's tenser than it's been in years. And many here are on pins and needles wondering what's going to happen tomorrow. Will North Korea conduct a nuclear test? Will we see a preemptive military strike by the U.S.? You know, we should mention that Trump has called the - an aircraft carrier fleet into the region. They're off the Korean Peninsula right now.

Or will we see a test and then a U.S. retaliatory strike? Perhaps neither, and all of this is just tough talk and tough tweeting. But, you know, tensions are high. And many in the - people here in this region are very worried.

INSKEEP: We should mention NBC News did report that U.S. officials were preparing some kind of preemptive strike. But our own reporting at NPR News, officials have downplayed that possibility and said, well, we're always prepared for anything but not necessarily are they expecting that.

With that said though, Rob, this is an administration that's sending all sorts of signals about using force. Just yesterday in Afghanistan, they dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb the U.S. has ever used. How much do people pay attention to events like that in East Asia?

SCHMITZ: Well, I think they're paying a lot of attention to this and not only North Korea but China, too. And, you know, I think we've got, as you mentioned, Rex Tillerson, who's called for a policy of patience on North Korea.

And for its part, you know, North Korea's talking pretty tough, too. The vice foreign minister told reporters today that North Korea is ready for war with the U.S. if that's what the U.S. wants, and that North Korea will test weapons whenever it feels like it.

INSKEEP: OK. That's NPR's Rob Schmitz in Shanghai and Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Thanks to both of you for setting us up for a dramatic weekend, appreciate it.

KENYON: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.