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Morning News Brief: Tillerson Tries To Tame Tensions, Guamanians React


The threat from North Korea seems to be growing, but at a time when the Trump administration seems to be sending out some mixed messages.


That's right. President Trump has talked about unleashing fire and fury on North Korea. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, however, played down that tough talk.


REX TILLERSON: I think Americans should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days.

CHANG: And he emphasized diplomacy and engagement with China and Russia - North Korea's neighbors.

GREENE: Well, let's bring in someone who is used to trying to navigate diplomatic speak. It's NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, who's with us. Hey, Michele.


GREENE: So are these really mixed messages here? What's happening?

KELEMEN: Well, Tillerson spokesperson Heather Nauert is insisting that the two are actually on the same page.

GREENE: He and Trump?

KELEMEN: Yes. She says that Tillerson and Trump spoke for about an hour by phone when he was heading back from a trip to Asia. And they were talking about the strategy, which is keep up the pressure on North Korea, including through new U.N. sanctions, with the goal of getting back to the negotiating table.

But look, David, these are two very different men with different styles. Tillerson is a former Exxon Mobil CEO who likes to work quietly behind the scenes. And Trump is, well, brash and blunt...

GREENE: Right.

KELEMEN: ...And seems to be more eager to tell people what he thinks.

GREENE: Is it possible the Trump administration is taking advantage of those two styles and designing deliberately, like, a good cop, bad cop kind of strategy?

KELEMEN: I don't know how deliberate it is, but I guess you could certainly look at it that way. You know, Tillerson says that Trump was just speaking in a way that the North Koreans understand. So that's the way he explains the comments - the fire and fury comments. Arms control experts, on the other hand, are really worried about this war of words and want to make sure it doesn't get to, you know, a shooting war, especially since the U.S. and North Korea aren't really talking to each other - not in a diplomatic setting. They're really just shouting at each other in this very public way.

GREENE: Well, I...

CHANG: But you got to wonder, who is North Korea listening to more closely? Is it this brash bombastic language of Trump or Tillerson's more nuanced diplomatic tone?

GREENE: Yeah, which message is landing?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, and that's hard to say. And it's really hard to say how Tillerson's voice fits into this - this whole administration. I think this is a problem that not only North Korea is dealing with but also U.S. allies. Who should they be listening to?

GREENE: Yeah. I mean, you cover a State Department that, obviously, there are a lot of people who focus on diplomacy, but you have top people on this national security team. I mean, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and James Mattis, the defense secretary, and White House chief of staff John Kelly. I mean, are people within the State Department worried that diplomacy might not play as large a role as they'd like in crises like this?

KELEMEN: Well, I mean, Tillerson talks about how he's building up this relationship with Trump. Remember, you know, he's a guy who was always in the private sector. He doesn't have government service. And he didn't have a relationship with Trump beforehand. I'd also say that this is not a president who seems to worry much about the, you know, nuanced language of diplomacy. He seems to appreciate the more blunt talk of military advisers. So it's not clear, really, who has his ear on that.

So for example, Jim Mattis put out a statement warning North Korea to stand down in its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and these were his words in his statement. He said - he said North Korea should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people. It wasn't quite the fire and fury of President Trump, but it was...

GREENE: Still pretty fiery.

KELEMEN: ...Pretty close.

GREENE: Yeah. All right. NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Michele, thanks as always.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

GREENE: And, of course, caught in the middle of all of this tough talk we're hearing right now between the United States and North Korea is the tiny U.S. territory of Guam.

CHANG: Early this morning, North Korea said it is putting together a plan to test launch four ballistic missiles into the waters around Guam. The U.S. territory has a naval base and an Air Force base and a weapons stockpile the military calls the largest in the world. Yesterday, the governor of Guam played down North Korea's threats.


EDDIE CALVO: This is not a time to panic. These are many statements that are being made out there by a very bellicose leader. But at this point, there has been no change in the security situation here in Guam.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Elise Hu has traveled to Guam and has just arrived in the last few hours. And she's on the line. Hey, Elise.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hey there.

GREENE: So the governor there trying to play down that there's anything to worry about. What does it feel like right now?

HU: You know, overall, I'd say life goes on here in Guam. I just went to a very crowded Thursday night happy hour at a local bar. They said enjoy the sunset. Lots of folks were just drinking and enjoying themselves.

It's not that Guamanians haven't paid attention to the headlines. They certainly have. And they - many of them that I spoke to say that they realize this is quite serious, especially because North Korea was so specific in naming Guam as the place that they want to test missiles - test-fly missiles toward, I should say. But Guamanians generally say, and that's both local - those who have been here, you know, since birth, but also those who've lived here for a long time - say that, you know, they've been through this kind of threat before. And there's not a lot of control that they have over a situation like this, so life goes on. They have to just kind of go about their daily lives.

GREENE: You know, it's so interesting. I mean, you mentioned that Guam has been threatened by North Korea before. You're using some of the same language you sometimes use when we're talking to you from Seoul. I mean, a place that has also become very accustomed to the threat from North Korea. Is that the situation for Guam? Is this just a reality that they're going to begin to accept more and more?

HU: Yeah, I think you're right. You know, one parallel is that something that ex-pats living in Korea and folks who live in Guam both say is that people on the mainland of the U.S. seem a lot more concerned than those who actually live out here in the Pacific. They're hearing a lot of - getting a lot of freaked-out texts and things like that, but they say that they're actually doing fine and taking this threat seriously. But, you know, what choice do we have but to just kind of go about our daily lives?

GREENE: NPR's Elise Hu speaking to us from the U.S. territory of Guam. Elise, thanks.

HU: You bet.


GREENE: All right, we're going to turn now to Kenya, where what started as a peaceful presidential election has now turned pretty violent.

CHANG: Kenyans went to the polls on Tuesday to choose between the incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya's first president, and Raila Odinga, the son of Kenya's first vice president. Everything appeared to go down peacefully. Early results yesterday showed Kenyatta with a significant lead. But then, opposition candidate Odinga made an explosive accusation. He claimed there was massive voter fraud.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We don't want someone to tell us about peace, peace, peace. Peace will come after Raila is president. And that is final. That is why we are waiting here.

CHANG: As you can hear, those allegations ignited protests. And now, at least two people have been killed in the violence.

GREENE: NPR's East Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta is in Nairobi and joins us. Hi, Eyder.


GREENE: So what exactly is this allegation of fraud here?

PERALTA: It sounds like a Hollywood movie. I mean, you probably remember a couple of weeks ago, a top elections official was tortured and murdered.


PERALTA: So Raila Odinga is saying that hackers used his credentials to infect the vote reporting system with an algorithm that systematically gave Uhuru Kenyatta more votes.

GREENE: Wait, this does sound like a movie. Is this an opposition candidate suggesting someone killed an election official so allies of the president could steal the credentials and change the result? This is extraordinary.

PERALTA: Yeah. And remember, he was tortured before he was killed. So, you know, that - that bolsters his claims. But, you know, the elections board says that someone did try to hack into their system, but that they were not successful. And Odinga did release about 50 pages of server logs.

Matt Bernhard, a computer scientist at the University of Michigan, kindly took a look at them for me, and he told me he didn't find a smoking gun. First of all, he said, who knows if these logs are legitimate? And second, he says the logs only show unsuccessful logins. So we don't know if hackers truly got into the system using the murdered official's credentials.

Now, there are paper forms that were filled out at each polling station. And basically, this might be able to verify whether the system - the reporting system - was hacked or not as they compare the digital results compared to the paper results.

GREENE: OK, so no winner has been declared. We'll get official results at some point. But now, we have this violence. And it's worth - it's worth remembering, I mean, Kenya experienced pretty devastating violence after a disputed election a decade ago. More than a thousand Kenyans died. Could this get that big?

PERALTA: It's hard to tell. But, you know, as you heard at the top, there's - I heard a lot of serious anger here when I was out and about yesterday. I was in Kibera, which is Nairobi's biggest slum, and people - they took to the streets. They set tires on fire. And I heard a lot of tribal grievances. But it's hard to tell where this is going to go. I think we have to keep an eye on Raila Odinga. He will set the tone today.

GREENE: OK. And when exactly might we expect official results? Could it be soon?

PERALTA: Maybe. They have about - they have a week, by law, to give us results. And, you know, they're counting.

GREENE: All right. The votes continue to be counted, even as violence seems to begin to erupt in Kenya. Eyder Peralta is there reporting for us. Thanks, Eyder.

PERALTA: Thanks, David.


Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.