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North Korea Holds Military Parade; North Korea Vows "Merciless Response" to Provocation; Trump Sends Message through U.S. Military Might; Trump's Foreign Policy Shifts; Turks Divided ahead of Sunday's Vote. Aired 4-5a ET

Aired April 15, 2017 - 04:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[04:00:00]

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GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): A show of military might, North Korea displaying what may be its latest missile technology as tensions mount on the Korean Peninsula.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): U.S. President Trump serves up tough talk on North Korea and a military strike on Syria. We'll have an in-depth look at Mr. Trump's evolving foreign policy.

HOWELL: And a critical vote in Turkey, a vote that could boost the powers of the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

ALLEN: It's all ahead here. Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Natalie Allen.

HOWELL: And I'm George Howell from CNN World Headquarters. NEWSROOM starts right now.

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ALLEN: Our top story, experts believe North Korea put on display new military technology, in particular, possible intercontinental ballistic missiles.

HOWELL: The large canisters were paraded through the streets of Pyongyang during a military parade marking that nation's biggest holiday. But analysts warn that they were probably just mock-ups and there was no way of knowing exactly if North Korea has actually developed that technology yet.

ALLEN: The show of force came with strong words to match, North Korea issued another threat to the United States, saying it would respond to all-out war with an all-out war. China is trying to avert a full- blown crisis. Here is the Chinese foreign minister.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WANG YI, CHINESE FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): On the Korean Peninsula issue, it is not who uses harsher words or raising bigger fists that will win. If a war breaks out, everyone will be a loser and there will be no winners.

Therefore, we urge all parties to refrain from provoking and threatening each other either with rhetoric or actions, so as to avoid getting the situation out of hand and into an irreversible dead end.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HOWELL: CNN's Will Ripley is following the story for us in Pyongyang and he witnessed firsthand that nation's display of force. Here is a look at his report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So far no nuclear test on the Day of the Sun, North Korea's most important holiday but you have seen a show of force of a very different kind.

You can see North Korean citizens are out here right now. These women are holding up a North Korean flag. Earlier, we saw North Korea's full arsenal on display. There were Scud missiles. There were submarine-launched ballistic missiles. There were land-based missiles that could be launched from a mobile launcher.

And at the very end, we saw North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles. We know that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's goal is to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead capable of reaching the mainland United States.

And while analysts say they may not be there just yet, parades like this are certainly evidence that they continue to make progress. (INAUDIBLE) progress that many experts have predicted.

A lot of people thought there might be a nuclear test today on this important holiday or in the lead-up to it. However, it seems as if the North Koreans are holding off on the nuclear tests for now.

But I have received information that a special operations exercise, a military exercise earlier this week, when commandos were jumping out of airplanes, that was in direct response to tweets from President Trump talking about North Korea and urging China to solve the North Korea problem, as he put it.

We also know that there's the U.S.S. Carl Vinson carrier striker, 60 planes, submarines equipped with nuclear missiles and a 97,000-ton aircraft carrier, all designed to send a message of deterrence to the North Koreans, telling them not to engage in provocative behavior such as another missile launch or a nuclear test.

But the atmosphere out here, as the North Koreans would put it, is a single-hearted determination to fight, to fight against the United States, because their country has told them all of their lives that they're under the imminent threat of invasion.

So you have a lot of these civilians out here, perhaps not many of these women but you have a lot of the men in the crowd here, who have a military background, who have told us repeatedly that if there were to be a war with the United States, they would leave their jobs, put their uniforms back on and fight.

So this is what North Korea is saying, that they are being underestimated by the world and they put on these supersized displays to try to prove to the world that they are here to stay and they're going to move forward on the road of their choosing, even if that road is a path to nuclearization that many others, including the United States, feel is a dangerous and destructive path -- Will Ripley, CNN, Pyongyang.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HOWELL: Will Ripley, thank you.

At this time of rising tensions with North Korea, the Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, heads to South Korea. He's set to leave Washington shortly and travel to Seoul, South Korea, stops in Hawaii, Japan, Indonesia and Australia are also planned on his --

[04:05:00]

HOWELL: -- Asia Pacific tour.

ALLEN: U.S. officials say his primary goal will be to reinforce U.S. alliances in Seoul, North Korea, its nuclear and missile ambitions will likely be on the agenda. Our Alexandra Field joins us live from Seoul now and likely, with the heat that's coming from North Korea, vis-a-vis President Trump, the folks there would like to see the vice president reassure them.

ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, certainly they're looking for that kind of reassurance. You did hear the Chinese foreign ministry calling for cooler heads to prevail.

The reality here on the peninsula is everyone knows that a misstep could cause misunderstanding and potentially quite serious problems. That's the kind of outcome here that everyone here is trying to stave off.

We know from analysts in the U.S. who have been closely watching satellite images coming from -- on top of North Korea and officials in Washington that it does seem North Korea is primed and ready to conduct its sixth nuclear test at any moment. They could also take another provocative action like a ballistic missile launch.

That's the reason that the U.S.S. Carl Vinson, that aircraft carrier, was sent to the waters off of the Korean Peninsula. It's meant to be a deteriorate but it has also served to ratchet up the tensions in the region. It has been perceived by Pyongyang as a threat and a provocative measure in and of itself.

State news out of North Korea calling these nuclear strategic assets delivered by the United States a threat to global peace, a threat to global security that could push the region to the brink of thermonuclear war. They're putting those words out there really right as Vice President Mike Pence is set to arrive in the region, coming here to Seoul, South Korea, and then traveling onward to Tokyo, Japan, where he will be meeting with the allies and they will be talking about all the options that Washington has been considering when it comes to dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat.

We do know that that does mean some discussion of some kind of military option. What people here in South Korea expressly want here is a commitment from the U.S. that they will be working closely with South Korea before making any kinds of decisions, before ordering any kind of action.

South Korea wants to know very much that they'll be working together with the U.S. and that is the message that's been given from the acting president here in South Korea to the public during these tense times.

ALLEN: All right, we know that you'll be coverage the vice president's trip there. We'll wait and see what he has to say and see how that goes. Thank you, Alexandra Field, there in Seoul.

For more now on the story, let's go to George.

HOWELL: Thank you.

And to get some context now, let's bring in Robert Kelly, an associate professor of political science at Tucson National University.

It's good to have you with us this hour.

This concept of sending a message through military might, the display of tanks, the display of soldiers and missiles on the streets of Pyongyang, put it into context for us, the size and the strength of the North Korean army compared to other nations.

ROBERT KELLY, TUCSON NATIONAL UNIVERSITY: North Korea is a military in just quantitative terms, it's quite large. The real issue I think is qualitative. Many people think that the North Koreans have developed nuclear weapons because the North Korean conventional military is now increasingly obsolete. Its equipment is old. A lot of it's from the Soviet days and things like that.

But certainly North Korea is a barracks (ph) state. It's really not a Marxist state anymore. It's more aptly described as a national security state. Every male has to go through military training. And so they have been training and preparing for this conflict with the United States for decades.

This is one of the reasons why a lot of analysts think that a military strike on North Korea would be so risky because the North Koreans have been drilling for this for decades, since literally since the first Korean War in the '50s.

HOWELL: Our Will Ripley just reported about that, the fact that people will take off their work clothes, put on their uniforms. They are prepared to fight. That is how they have been trained to live in that nation.

He also reported about this military drill, the situation with commandos in North Korea, jumping out of planes as a direct response to the president's tweets.

What's your take on that, the fact that this is happening due to Twitter?

KELLY: That's very new. (INAUDIBLE) in the analyst community are wondering if this is going to become the method of operation in the Trump administration (INAUDIBLE) foreign policy through Twitter. I would argue that that's not a very good idea, that foreign policy (INAUDIBLE) complex than that and the president should move away from that as soon as possible.

But I'm just an analyst. To the commandos, the North Koreans have been practicing special operating -- have been drilling special operations forces for a long time. There's a lot of fear that they have drilled tunnels under the demilitarized zone and (INAUDIBLE) war to break out these special forces which are flooded into South Korea and blow up bridges and tear down power lines and things like that.

The North Koreans have been pushing that idea for a while. It doesn't surprise me that when (INAUDIBLE) pushed North Korea hard, North Korea pushed back. Tension is important (INAUDIBLE) explain to its own citizens why they're living in privation, why they can't have unity, potentially with --

[04:10:00]

KELLY: -- the United States is sort of essential for the regime's reason to exist. And so when Trump pushes, I think most of us expect the North Koreans just to push right back and that's what they've been doing.

HOWELL: Robert Kelly, we appreciate your insight. We're having some sound issues but it's always good to have you here.

And just on a side note from the serious news we're covering, good to see that that door is closed there on the other side.

(LAUGHTER)

HOWELL: Robert, thank you so much for being with us.

ALLEN: Yes, his kids (INAUDIBLE).

(LAUGHTER)

ALLEN: Back to the seriousness of this newsday.

A bombing in Afghanistan, military strikes in Syria and ramping up threats to North Korea. Donald Trump isn't taking a soft approach on foreign policy. We'll take a look at all these drastic changes coming up next here.

HOWELL: Plus, Turkey is one day away from a vote that could overhaul its political system. Why Germany's finance minister is issuing a stark warning. That story ahead as CNN NEWSROOM continues.

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ALLEN: And welcome back to CNN NEWSROOM.

Donald Trump has not been president for even 100 days but his recent foreign policy decisions have shocked many.

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HOWELL: That's right. It's sending a message that Washington is willing to flex its military muscle across the world. Our Elise Labott breaks down some of the big gestures of late.

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ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): New warnings from China: as tensions rise with North Korea, the Chinese foreign minister warning that, if war breaks out, quote, "There will be losses on all sides."

Russia, Iran and Syria also issue warnings to the U.S. against new strikes in Syria.

The threats follow President Trump's decision to launch two major military strikes in Afghanistan and Syria.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have the greatest military in the world and they've done a job, as usual. So we have given them total authorization. And that's what they are doing. And, frankly, that's why they've been so successful lately.

LABOTT (voice-over): The display of military might, a message to U.S. enemies and their supporters in what is quickly becoming a hallmark of Trump's emerging foreign policy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: President Trump has given much more leeway to his military commanders to strike and they are striking. And I think that does send a message around the world that America's back.

TRUMP: Unbelievable.

LABOTT (voice-over): It's an about-face from the candidate who promised a national security strategy that put America first.

TRUMP: I want to help all of our allies. But we are losing billions and billions of dollars. We cannot be the policeman of the world.

LABOTT (voice-over): But as commander in chief, Trump acknowledged the mages of last week's gas attacks in Syria had a deep impact.

TRUMP: I now have responsibility and I will have that responsibility and carry it very proudly.

LABOTT (voice-over): In the span of a week, Trump has also changed his mind on the NATO alliance, now viewing it as a tool to counter Russian aggression in Europe...

TRUMP: I said it was obsolete. It's no longer obsolete.

LABOTT (voice-over): -- and abandoning his hard-line stance on China, now calling President Xi Jinping a partner to counter North Korea's nuclear threats.

TRUMP: President Xi wants to do the right thing. We had a very good bonding. I think we had a very good chemistry together. I think he wants to help us with North Korea.

LABOTT (voice-over): If a Trump foreign policy is emerging, it would be, "don't have a doctrine."

TRUMP: I like to think of myself as a very flexible person. I don't have to have one specific way. And, if the world changes, I go the same way. I don't change. Well, I do change.

LABOTT (voice-over): Trump says he trusts his commanders pressing him to flex U.S. military muscle. In Yemen, where the U.S. is stepping up airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, where Trump has sent hundreds of additional troops to fight ISIS since taking office and in Afghanistan, where his national security adviser General H.R. McMaster is traveling soon to plot the future of the U.S. military presence.

Trump now learning to trust the expertise of his generals he once boasted about knowing more than.

TRUMP: I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me.

LABOTT: Military experts are pointing to a popular saying in the military, you can delegate authority but you cannot delegate responsibility.

And as commander in chief, President Trump still owns the consequences of the decisions taken by the military on his behalf. While he may be glad to take credit when the mission is successful, the question is, will he be willing to share accountability when things go wrong, including civilian casualties? Elise Labott, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ALLEN: Let's take a closer look at all of this with Brian Klaas. He joins us now live in London. He's a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics.

Brian, nice to see you. One of the analysts in Elise's story says that this does send a message, the actions of Donald Trump around the world, that America is back.

What do you think about that? BRIAN KLAAS, LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS: Well, I think it's good that there is reengagement. I think that Trump has moved in a positive way in the last week. It's a mirror image of a lot of the statements that he made during the campaign.

If you take what he said during the campaign and what he said previously on Twitter, it's basically the exact opposite, which is good because many of those statements were very stupid during the campaign.

On the other hand, what worries me is twofold. One is that the lack of strategy, given that there's such an abrupt shift, means Trump doesn't have a consistent world view on foreign policy and that's a problem. The second aspect is remember that Trump's budget proposed to slash American diplomacy funding by 29 percent and that's a much bigger problem because you cannot solve all these problems just by military might. You also need American diplomacy to be engaged.

HOWELL: Here is the question. So at least explain the landscape of this recent U.S. military action that we've seen around the world. The Tomahawk missiles in Syria, the mother of all bombs in Afghanistan, this is a president who is highly sensitive to optics and these actions have played into that image of strength that he aims to portray.

But the question, beyond the rhetorical bombast and beyond the bombs that have dropped, is there a sense that there is a basic plan behind the actions and how is the world reacting to that?

KLAAS: I think that the two are interlinked. So I don't think there is a strategy and I think that the world is very worried about that. So I think even though the allies to America around the world are pleased to see that the --

[04:20:00]

KLAAS: U.S. is taking action finally on Syria, which I think was something that Obama really will have a stain on his foreign policy for, nonetheless, I think there's a lot of questions that need to be answered about what happens next.

And I don't think that Trump has thought through what happens after the MOAB bomb is dropped in Afghanistan.

What happens after the chemical weapons airstrike in Syria?

And also what happens if there is an escalation in North Korea?

And that's really where foreign policy is made, is what happens when a situation slides out of control, how does the president respond and that's where planning is really important and I'm worried that President Trump doesn't have a plan currently.

ALLEN: Someone said he's kind of learning on the job. We've heard him say things on the campaign trail. Things are different once you get in the White House and doesn't have a clear doctrine. You say you're concerned about that.

Does he necessarily have to have one?

KLAAS: Well, in some ways, unpredictability in foreign policy can be an asset. And Trump supporters would certainly say that this is one of his strongest assets. He's able to keep adversaries and allies on their toes.

On the other hand, I think that when you don't think things through and when you don't have a consistent world view, like Trump doesn't, because he basically did an about-face on Syria in the span of 24 hours based on something he saw on TV, I think that that really sends difficult signals to allies because they don't know how to back the United States.

They don't know where the United States is heading. Adversaries can miscalculate.

What if North Korea thinks that the Trump doctrine is this but it turns out to be that?

Well, if they unleash a nuclear weapon as a result of that and they're basing their statements on 140 characters that Trump makes on Twitter, that's a really big problem. And that's where consistency actually can be a major, major weapon in American foreign policy, even if it's spliced in with a bit with of unpredictability here and there.

HOWELL: So the other issue here -- and this is a very important one -- we're talking about the lives of men and women who serve in the U.S. military, these are men and women who signed up to put their lives on the line to defend the United States anywhere around the world.

The question here, what's the danger here?

Is the president making these decisions?

Or is he leaving it up to his generals, to his commanders, to make those decisions?

And, if that's the case, is this a uniform strategy?

Or is there a danger of having a very mixed messaging?

KLAAS: Well, he is delegating quite a lot more. So the military has a lot more authority and latitude to do what it wants to do and it seems the MOAB strike was authorized not by Trump but by one of his generals.

The question here is whether that's a good long-term strategy. Overall, the United States needs to have civilian control of the military. It's a democracy. And the democracy is the military doesn't get to do exactly what it wants to do.

But on the day today, it may be good that Trump is not being -- deciding on every single drone strike. So there's a balance to be struck. And I think the question is, if there's an absolute shift in U.S. policy, as there has been in the last week, I do think that Trump needs to be involved in those decisions because, ultimately, that's where the buck stops, with the president.

And the generals carry out tactics, they carry out the actual strikes but they don't carry out or shape foreign policy themselves and they should not be allowed to do so.

HOWELL: It is interesting; Elise Labott even pointed out in the conclusion of her story that you can delegate authority but you can't delegate responsibility. Thank you so much for being with us. We'll stay in touch with you for context.

ALLEN: Thanks, Brian.

KLAAS: Thank you.

ALLEN: Large-scale evacuations are underway in Syria as civilians and rebels from some besieged towns are now allowed to leave.

HOWELL: Thousands of people from the two Shiite towns that remain loyal to the government are being sent to Aleppo. And Sunni rebel fighters, who have been under siege and are being relocated to Idlib province. Iran brokered the swap with Russia's support.

ALLEN: And in Moscow, the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Syria met in a show of unity against the U.S. missile strikes. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov says Washington should have respected Syria's sovereignty instead of undermining the peace process.

HOWELL: Also following the situation in Turkey, that nation laying what could be a major shift in its political landscape, voters on Sunday will decide on sweeping changes to that country's constitution.

ALLEN: A yes vote would boost the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, abolish the office of prime minister and establish the president as the head of the executive branch. Supporters say the measures would bring more stability.

HOWELL: But anti-Erdogan protesters in Turkey, they are worried about their democracy.

And in Berlin, the German finance minister warns there is a risk of Erdogan becoming a dictator, a dictatorship. CNN caught up with a man who knows the Turkish president personally.

ALLEN: As Ian Lee explains, he made some cutting remarks.

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IAN LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They say nobody knows you better than your barber.

So what happens when your client is Recep Tayyip Erdogan?

Yasher Ihem (ph) has known the Turkish president for decades. To learn more, I first have to sit in the hot seat for a trim.

[04:25:00]

LEE (voice-over): While chatting, he tells me, "Erdogan hasn't changed much. He has lost his hair but he's still a charismatic and handsome man," adding that, "right now, he is stronger than Putin and Trump," and that Turkey needs him.

Like a good barber, Ihem (ph) won't divulge too many secrets, like if he tips. But almost everyone here has a story about the local boy done good.

"Yes, he has worked very hard for us. If he's in power, we're relaxed. If he isn't in power, then we're screwed."

The barbershop enter leads (ph) no doubt where the patrons' loyalties lie.

Mustafa (ph) tells me, "Anyone who looks at the issues and thinks rationally will vote yes. Turkey was in a crisis before. I'm a working man and now I have a house and car."

LEE (voice-over): But step outside the barbershop and into the neighborhood, not everyone is this enthusiastic.

"What gives me concern is will it only be him in power?" this lady, who's still undecided, tells me.

"What will happen to the parliament and will the people really have a voice?"

It's the nagging question for Turks. No campaign sees this as a struggle, not only for Turkey's democracy but also the country's soul, hoping to trim Erdogan's power with a single vote -- Ian Lee, CNN, Istanbul.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HOWELL: Still ahead here on CNN NEWSROOM, is North Korea's embassy in Moscow a front for Pyongyang's dark arts?

ALLEN: And does Russia know?

We'll take you to Moscow for that coming up here.

HOWELL: CNN is live from Atlanta, Georgia, on both our networks in the United States and around the world this hour. You're watching CNN.

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NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Welcome back to our viewers here in the U.S. and around the world. We're coming to you live from Atlanta. This is CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Natalie Allen. GEORGE HOWELL, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): And I'm George Howell with the headlines we're following for you this hour.

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ALLEN: Back now to North Korea. At a military parade Saturday, Pyongyang showed off two canisters that were about the right size to hold intercontinental ballistic missiles. One analyst says these would be bigger than anything North Korea has ever produced.

HOWELL: Another weapons expert told CNN they were likely just mock- ups but a fully developed ICBM could hit targets in the mainland U.S. and Europe. CNN's Brian Todd has the very latest assessments of where North Korea's nuclear technology stands presently.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): CNN has learned Kim Jong- un's nuclear weapons build-up is advancing rapidly. North Korea's now estimated to have produced between 13 and 30 nuclear warheads.

That's according to a new report from former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright, whose firm examined the regime's plutonium and uranium production.

Albright stresses North Korea's nuclear program is so secretive that completely accurate figures are difficult to get. But based what he's found, the former inspector has an ominous projection for the number of warheads Kim could soon produce.

DAVID ALBRIGHT, INSTITUTE FOR SCIENCE AND INTERNATIONAL SECURITY: By the end of 2020, the numbers could go up to 25 to 50 and, in the worst case, could go up to 60.

TODD (voice-over): With a stockpile that large, analysts say, Kim's regime could make it harder for the U.S. to track his nuclear weapons.

GORDON CHANG, AUTHOR: That means they can disperse them. Most of them I suspect will be underground and that ultimately means the U.S. does not have a first strike capability because we can't be assured of taking out all of their weapons.

TODD (voice-over): U.S. intelligence officials and independent weapons experts tell CNN, Kim Jong-un's been more aggressive with nuclear and missile tests over the past year and a half than he's ever been.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies says the regime's tested missiles more than 20 times since the beginning of 2016 and tested nuclear warheads twice in that span. Albright says with each nuclear test, the young dictator gets closer to producing a more powerful nuclear bomb.

ALBRIGHT: They can break into kind of thermonuclear weapons if they continue to test. And that would give them the ability to make a much larger explosion. It would give them ability to actually miniaturize their warheads better.

TODD (voice-over): Experts with the monitoring group 38 North believe Kim already has the ability to test a nuclear warhead 16 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, the calculations made even more menacing by the unpredictable nature of the young man with his finger on that nuclear trigger.

CHANG: I believe Kim Jong-un is even more dangerous than he appears. And the reason is that I don't think his regime is stable. And that means Kim Jong-un could have a much lower threshold of risk than we think. It means he could do something that could surprise us because, from his perspective, he may think he has little to lose.

TODD: Analysts say if Kim Jong-un conducts another nuclear test in the coming days or weeks, it's going to mean China likely was not able to use its leverage and influence over Kim Jong-un and that, they say, is a very dangerous sign -- Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ALLEN: As we've been (INAUDIBLE) U.S. warships have been sent to the waters off the Korean Peninsula. That is making some wonder whether the U.S. is edging closer to conflict with Pyongyang. We've heard the drumbeat of war in this region before.

HOWELL: But some say this time it feels different. Mike Chinoy, a senior fellow at the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California, spoke with CNN --

[04:35:00]

HOWELL: -- earlier and had this to say.

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MIKE CHINOY, SENIOR FELLOW, U.S. CHINA INSTITUTE, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA: I think it's different on a number of levels. I think that one very crucial point is that you're getting very, very mixed messages from the Trump administration in the sense that there's a lot of muscle flexing, there's a lot of posturing. There's a lot of threats that have really raised the temperature.

And this comes when the North Koreans are repeatedly saying, if we feel we are about to be attacked, we are prepared to undertake a preemptive strike and that we'll use our nuclear weapons if we have to.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HOWELL: North Korea's arsenal isn't all that's growing. The United Nations says the North Korean embassy in Moscow is also gaining in sophistication.

ALLEN: And the U.N. says Pyongyang may be outmaneuvering some sanctions. Paula Newton reports from the Russian capital.

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PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): North Korea's embassy in Moscow, singled out in a U.N. report as diplomatic cover for Kim Jong-un's illicit activities, now described as increasing in scale, scope and sophistication.

The March report draws several lines of evidence to Russia, specifically, the Korea Kumsan Trading Corporation. It's controlled by the North Korean government's atomic energy bureau and is a so- called cash route to Pyongyang.

Kumsan already sanctioned by the U.S. and U.N. deals in prohibited minerals. According to the U.N. report, Kumsan sales' address is advertised as the North Korean embassy in Moscow.

NEWTON: This embassy is at the heart of allegations into how North Korea uses its diplomatic missions as a front to skirt U.N. sanctions.

NEWTON (voice-over): Hugh Griffiths (ph) is the coordinator for the U.N. expert panel.

HUGH GRIFFITHS, U.N.: What the Kumsan investigation based at the North Korea's Russian embassy shows again is that the North Koreans continue to use their embassies a as a focus for illicit activities.

NEWTON (voice-over): The U.N. panel informed the Russian government of the activities and was told in part that Kumsan was not a registered company in Russia. The report draws no conclusions about whether Russia has given tacit approval of such activity to the North Korean regime.

But Russia makes no mention of any efforts to stop it. The Russian government told CNN it had no response to the U.N. report and referred us to the North Korean policy statement on its website.

Phone calls to the North Korean embassy went unanswered.

At issue now, how seriously Russia takes these alleged sanctions violations.

For Oxford academics, Samuel Ramani, who has been watching the relationship closely, Russia's motives are clear.

SAMUEL RAMANI, OXFORD UNIVERSITY: The Russians are beginning to have a very clear gap between their official rhetoric and their actual policies. So in practice, leading Russian officials have condemned North Korea for their unilateral aggression and for their nuclear tests.

But in practice, they are continuing to back up the North Korean regime and they're very critical of U.S. policy towards North Korea.

NEWTON (voice-over): Russia shares a slim Far Eastern border with North Korea. It has some commercial, financial, educational and even questionable military links to Pyongyang. As pointed out in a U.N. report, North Korean military personnel have

attended international arms affairs in Russia. So far, Russia, unlike China, hasn't taken any further punitive measures against North Korea following its most recent nuclear tests.

Bill Richardson is a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and has negotiate with North Korea.

BILL RICHARDSON, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: I think Russia is trying to have it both ways. They vote for more sanctions in the U.N. Security Council, the P5. So, publicly, they're for restraining North Korea, put more sanctions when North Korea conducts missile tests.

But there are reports that Russia and North Korea have gotten in a tighter relationship.

NEWTON (voice-over): All of this shows it's not just China with leverage in North Korea. Experts note that Russia is shrewdly using its ties to the regime to not only support Kim Jong-un but to try and have more influence on the outcome of any future North Korean negotiations -- Paula Newton, CNN, Moscow.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HOWELL: Still ahead here on NEWSROOM, Syria's leader dismisses images of atrocity in his country.

ALLEN: He's openly questioning if the victims are even dead.

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HOWELL: Welcome back to CNN NEWSROOM.

Right here in Atlanta, Georgia, a tragic incident took place at an iconic hotel tower in the city's downtown district. On the 72nd floor of the Westin Tower, a 5-year-old child died at the rotating Sun Dial Restaurant at the very top of that building.

ALLEN: The boy apparently got stuck between the wall and a table as the entire dining area revolved. He had walked away from the table where his family was sitting. Staff were eventually able to free him but his injuries were too severe and he later died at the hospital.

Terrible, terrible tragedy.

The U.S. military says dropping its most powerful nonnuclear bomb on an ISIS position in Afghanistan was "the right weapon against the right target." Aerial video shows the massive shock wave caused by nine tons of explosives. HOWELL: Afghan officials now say at least 94 ISIS militants died in that attack, including four commanders. Nicknamed the mother of all bombs, MOAB, it struck a network of ISIS tunnels near the Pakistani border. The U.S. military says it found no evidence of civilian casualties.

The shocking carnage we see in Syria is deeply disturbing to just about everyone except the leader of that country, the president there, Bashar al-Assad, openly questions if those scenes are real.

Perhaps the safety of the presidential palace makes it easy to deny atrocities such as the recent poison gas attack on a rebel-held town. CNN's Nick Paton Walsh has our report. We warn you, many of you have seen the images before but the video of the victims is very difficult to watch. Here is Nick's story.

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NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is the world of most Syrians: rubble, bombs, indiscriminate slaughter, even chemical weapons.

Welcome to the world according to Bashar al-Assad, where things that make him look bad simply didn't happen.

BASHAR AL-ASSAD, PRESIDENT OF SYRIA: We don't know whether those dead children, were they killed at Khan Sheikhoun?

Were they dead at all?

Who committed the attack if there was attack?

WALSH: Denial is nothing new for a man who was an eye doctor trained in London --

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WALSH (voice-over): -- yet has found himself a hated dictator. In his 17-year reign, he swung from reformist to murderous. U.S. missile strikes on talk from the Trump administration like this...

REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Our view is that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end.

WALSH: It's unclear whether that's on the verge of happening.

He denied that bombings like this have ever happened.

He's denied being behind this sarin massacre in 2013 before agreeing to give his chemical weapons up under pressure from Russia.

Denial pretty easy if your world is in a palace that you haven't really left for five years. In fact, this may be the only time Assad left war time Damascus in a military plane en route to meet Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin -- a public sign of the Russian support that has turned the war in his favor. The center of Damascus is a lot quieter than the rest of Syria, at least now when the regime on the military front hurt. When a place is damaged, it's often repaired.

The Syrian first lady, British-born Asma al-Assad, once a brief darling of "Glamour" magazine, even dubbed, quote, "a rose in the desert" by "Vogue," can enjoy the charm she flaunts on Instagram, often sharing photos of her with her family.

Assad never knew this lonely, twisted role was coming his way, rushing into the presidency after his older brother's fatal car crash, yet he adapted to it with terrifying speed and strategic patience, the last man standing in his warped reality, whose personal fate influences how much longer his people suffer -- Nick Paton Walsh, CNN.

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ALLEN: It is just creepy how he sits there and calmly denies that this even happened, the chemical attack.

HOWELL: The images are disturbing.

ALLEN: Yes. And he's disturbing, too.

Coming up here, we have an environmental story for you. The Great Barrier Reef isn't as colorful as it should be.

HOWELL: In fact, it's being bleached white. The devastating transformation, still ahead.

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HOWELL: Scientists say the images of the Great Barrier Reef are proof of the devastating effects of climate change. The latest evidence: vast areas of the once-colorful coral reefs off the coast of Australia, they're all now bleached white.

ALLEN: Look at the picture on the right compared to that on the left. Scientists blame rising sea temperatures. That's as President Donald Trump proposes cutting billions of dollars from programs trying to fight the effects of climate change and preserve the environment.

Our Ivan Watson talked with scientists trying to send a warning.

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IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia, a vibrant underwater ecosystem of coral and sea life that's roughly the size of Italy, so huge you can actually see it from space.

(on camera): But scientists are sounding the alarm. They say for the second year in a row, this sprawling underwater treasure is bleaching on a massive scale. A new study by Australia's ARC Centre shows approximately two-thirds of the reef is affected.

SEAN CONNOLLY, ARC CENTRE OF EXCELLENCE FOR CORAL REEF STUDIES: It's quite terrifying actually, the magnitude and severity of the event.

WATSON (voice-over): Sean Connolly is one of a team of scientists who've been surveying the damage.

CONNOLLY: A coral is a partnership between an animal, which is what builds the skeleton and constructs the reefs that you see and the tiny one cell algae or plants that live inside it.

WATSON: His team released footage of barren expanses of coral, bleached bone white -- in some cases, turning a drab, lifeless brown.

Look at the before and after contrast of coral gone from healthy to bleached.

Dr. Nancy Nolton, a coral reef biologist with the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, says the coral is basically suffering from heat stroke.

The Great Barrier Reef is more of not just home of thousands of species of fish, birds, coral, whales and dolphins. It's also a major tourist attraction that earns Australia $3.7 billion a year. To add to the bad news, a big part of the reef that escaped bleaching was pounded by tropical cyclone Debbie last month.

(on camera): Scientists say coral can recover from bleaching. The problem is that recovery can take more than a decade and this is the second straight year that we're seeing bleaching on a mass scale on the Great Barrier Reef. I'm Ivan Watson, CNN, Hong Kong.

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ALLEN: Tough to see.

HOWELL: It is, indeed.

ALLEN: Well, Derek is here with some good news. A large asteroid is hurtling toward Earth but apparently there's no need to duck and cover.

HOWELL: Derek, tell us about it.

DEREK VAN DAM, AMS METEOROLOGIST: That's right. Let's just get this straight with everybody watching. There is no chance that this asteroid will reach us here on planet Earth.

Collective sigh of relief. No chance. But it is interesting for everybody watching. Check this out. We are expecting a very close approach this Wednesday, about 1 million

miles away from us, this asteroid will fly by us. A pretty dull name there. That's 2014 JO25. It's about a little bit larger than the Freedom Tower in New York City. So very, very large but it's about five times the --

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VAN DAM: -- distance of Earth to the moon. That's how close it will get to us.

It seems far to you and I but astronomers call this the galactic equivalent of getting grazed by a bullet. So a close call. And I'm going to play a little bit of science trivia with you.

Did you pay attention in your science classes?

Do you know the difference between an asteroid and a meteor?

Check out this video captured in San Diego earlier this week. You're looking at a meteor. The difference here is that a meteor actually reaches the Earth's atmosphere and burns up before it reaches the ground.

An asteroid is a large rock that navigates around our sun and never really quite reaches us here on the planet. So that's the big difference. You're looking at the two different types of celestial rocks that fly through the sky.

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HOWELL: Derek, thank you.

Thanks for being with us. I'm George Howell.

ALLEN: And I'm Natalie Allen. We'll have more news in just three minutes.