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Morning News Brief


Reporters in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea are getting a chance to see something rare.


Yeah. North and South Korea are holding direct talks in a village there - the first time they're doing this since 2015. And this round has actually been partly open to the press. OK. So here's the news. The two sides have agreed on one thing - North Korea will send athletes, government leaders, maybe even a cheering squad, to the Winter Olympics in South Korea next month.

INSKEEP: We've got spirit, yes, we do. We've got - so on and so forth.

GREENE: There you go.

INSKEEP: Something like that. NPR's Elise Hu joins us now from Seoul. Hi, Elise.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So what are these talks like?

HU: Well, only the first part of the dialogue was open to the press, but from what the reporters and the cameras caught, both sides - folks on both sides were in upbeat moods. They seemed earnest about getting started and making a deal at the outset. To get to the meeting itself, the lead North Korean negotiator actually just had to walk right over the border. He was in a black suit, no coat, flanked by other North Korean officials and just surrounded by cameras. And he continued being trailed by all those cameras as he walked about - I don't know - a football field's length to the building where the South Korean negotiators were waiting for him. And once the delegation got inside, the opening conversation was about the weather...

INSKEEP: Naturally.

HU: ...Which you'd expect (laughter).

GREENE: A topic that always brings them all together.


HU: Talk for a while, so you kind of need an icebreaker there. But North Korea's negotiator actually talked about how inter-Korean relations were more frozen than normal - used a metaphor - and that the will of the people is that those relations thaw.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK. So what kind of thawing did they manage to do?

HU: Well, so far already, that main question of whether North Korea would take part in the Olympics is resolved. North Korea said it would indeed send a delegation to the games. That's likely to include a figure skating pair that recently qualified and has been getting a lot of attention. For South Korea, the interest is to use these talks as groundwork for more talks in the future. South Korea is proposing another meeting next month to discuss family reunions for the families separated by the Korean War. South Korea also did bring up the need for dialogue to discuss peace and denuclearization. The North heard the South but didn't respond specifically to that point.

INSKEEP: OK. So they're getting on to family reunions. That's actually going to affect, you know, real people's lives in a divided country. But what about that fundamental nuclear question that is transfixing the world?

HU: Well, North Korea is extremely practiced in posturing on this issue. Now, we know, of course, the American leader, his Twitter messages - Donald Trump's Twitter messages are also seen as posturing. The substantive work here, though, on the relationship is being done not by the U.S. and North Korea but by Seoul and Pyongyang. The U.S. so far isn't a party to these discussions, but to the extent tensions can be dialed down by South Korea's diplomacy here, they dial down tensions for the U.S. and the rest of the globe, too. So that is happening despite the rhetoric that we're hearing from North Korea and Washington.

INSKEEP: OK. Those are our talks with NPR's Elise Hu. Elise, always a pleasure having a discussion with you.

HU: You bet.

INSKEEP: All right. And we should remember that in spite of those talks, it was only a week ago that President Trump and Kim Jong Un of North Korea were going back and forth about who had the bigger nuclear button.

GREENE: Right. So those conversations about the nuclear button going back and forth even as members of the president's Cabinet have been insisting that they are pursuing diplomacy. That doesn't mean that the U.S. military is not preparing for a darker scenario, though. Here's Defense Secretary James Mattis speaking last fall.


JIM MATTIS: You have got to be ready to ensure that we have military options that our president can employ if needed.

INSKEEP: Options? NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman learned something about one of the options and some of the planning. Hi there, Tom.


INSKEEP: What are you looking into?

BOWMAN: Well, one of the options is tunnel warfare, and the U.S. Army is training thousands more soldiers in tunnel warfare because North Korea basically is honeycombed with tunnels. They hold troops. They could hold artillery, chemical, biological weapons, nuclear weapons. So they're training more American soldiers in the event of a military conflict to go into these tunnels.

INSKEEP: I'm just thinking about the fact that the demilitarized zone is basically a battle line. It's where the battle lines were in 1953.

BOWMAN: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Are you telling me that North Korea's had since 1953 to prepare its side of the battle zone in case it gets invaded?

BOWMAN: Absolutely. And some of these tunnels go under the DMZ and some of them were actually near Seoul. Some have been discovered, and one is actually a tourist site.

INSKEEP: They go under to the South Korean side.

BOWMAN: That's right.

INSKEEP: And some of them have become tourist sites, but some of them are exceedingly - exceedingly dangerous.

BOWMAN: Right. And the U.S. Army is also buying specialized equipment, night vision goggles, specialized radios, acetylene torches, bolt cutters and the like that would be used by these soldiers, and South Korean soldiers of course, in the event of war going into these tunnels.

INSKEEP: You know, anytime I've read about a scenario of another conflict between the Koreas, it sounds like an utter nightmare. The North Koreans have massive artillery. You'd have utter destruction in the opening minutes perhaps. And when you tell me about tunnel training, it doesn't sound like things would get any better after those opening minutes.

BOWMAN: No, absolutely not. And Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who told the Army you have to get ready, has also said, listen, the number of casualties in the event of war with North Korea would be worse than in anyone's memory. So everyone's concerned about this. But again, Defense Secretary Mattis wants the Army to be ready in the event of any sort of military conflict, and this is part of that.

INSKEEP: OK. Let's keep it in perspective. They'd be training regardless of the level of tensions.

BOWMAN: Well, they would. You know, generally, the Army has some soldiers training in tunnel warfare. There are, of course, tunnels in Afghanistan. But now they're doubling, if not tripling, the number of soldiers that would be used for this kind of tunnel warfare.

INSKEEP: Wow. That's getting to the question that's on my mind. They would be training regardless, but I'm wondering how tense the military is at this moment. It sounds, like, pretty tense.

BOWMAN: It is tense. And the chief of staff of the Army, General Mark Milley, in particular wants his soldiers to be ready. He's really pushing this hard.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much for the reporting, really appreciate it.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.


INSKEEP: OK. Last night, there was a VIP at college football's national championship game in Atlanta. President Trump was there and stood for the national anthem. Then he dipped out at halftime.

GREENE: This was part of a pretty busy day for the president, which included more headlines about that special counsel Russia investigation. News reports are saying now that Robert Mueller could soon interview the president himself. It is not clear when that might happen, but the White House has been saying all along that it is cooperating.

INSKEEP: OK. NPR's Mara Liasson has been traveling with the president this past day. She joins us now. Mara, good morning.


INSKEEP: What would you make - what would it mean if, as NBC News is reporting, the special counsel ends up wanting to interview the president himself?

LIASSON: If the special counsel is ready to interview the president - we don't know that for sure because the White House lawyers have only confirmed that they're cooperating - it would mean that the special counsel is getting ready to finish up the investigation. Generally, you would interview the president at the end. And White House lawyers have been predicting that he would finish up his investigation soon for quite some time. But that would be one thing it would predict. It's not unusual for a president to be interviewed in a special counsel investigation.

INSKEEP: What would be quite high tension, I would think though, is the fact that he's then talking to federal investigators, which would mean, for the president or anyone else, it would be a crime if he told a lie. Is that right?

LIASSON: That's right. And there would be a lot of negotiations about exactly how the interview would be conducted. Would it be in writing? How long would it last? Would he meet with them in person? A lot of - a lot of negotiations.

INSKEEP: So that's happening behind the scenes or that's at least being discussed behind the scenes so far as we know. And then out in public, the president is out giving almost campaign-style speeches, talking to the American Farm Bureau Federation and then talking about tax cuts that he recently signed into law and talking about immigration. Let's listen to some of that.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We are going to end chain migration. We are going to end the lottery system. And we are going to build the wall.

INSKEEP: One promise after another that will get a lot of people talking.

LIASSON: Yes. And we know that a bipartisan group of senators are going to meet with the president at the White House today to discuss immigration policy. And what you just heard the president do at that Farm Bureau Federation meeting was he laid out his negotiating terms for an immigration deal that would legalize the DREAMers, those young people who were brought here in some cases illegally by their parents. Democrats and Republicans both say there is a compromise to be had, a way for the president to say he got a wall and for Democrats to say he didn't get a wall. But the question is, what does a wall mean? Does it mean more than just border security?

And I found it really interesting that yesterday Oklahoma Senator James Lankford, a Republican who was at that meeting last week at the White House for Republicans only to discuss immigration, tweeted that the wall is not necessarily a big, physical barrier. It could just be fencing. In other places, he says, drones and surveillance could be more effective. And these are things that Democrats have voted for in the past. So in other words, he's saying it doesn't necessarily have to be a big wall. What we don't know...

INSKEEP: It depends on what the meaning of the word wall is.

LIASSON: We don't know what the president requires politically in terms of a wall to agree to a deal on the DREAMers.

INSKEEP: OK. Mara, always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you very much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

(SOUNDBITE OF B-SIDE'S "BADLANDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.