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News brief: North Korean missile tests; Ethiopian cease fire; Biden on democracy

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In the final days of the midterm election season, President Biden is warning about the state of democracy. In a speech last night near the U.S. Capitol, Biden said there were about 300 candidates running this year who say that they do not accept the fact that Donald Trump lost the election in 2020.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The president also talked about political violence. He referred to a man who broke into the home of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week. The man attacked her husband, Paul Pelosi, and later told police he had a plan to send a message to Democrats.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We don't settle our differences, America with a riot, a mob or a bullet or a hammer. We settle them peaceably at the ballot box.

MARTIN: NPR political reporter Deepa Shivaram joins us to talk through all these things. Good morning, Deepa.

DEEPA SHIVARAM, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So the White House had billed this speech by the president as an address on democracy. It was interesting to me that of all the places he could have chose to begin, he started the address by recounting that attack on Nancy Pelosi's husband.

SHIVARAM: Yeah, that is how the president started off his speech. And he didn't shy away from going into the details. He talked about how this man who broke into Nancy Pelosi's home and attacked her husband with a hammer was asking, where's Nancy? And he compared it to the January 6 insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol in 2021 and asked the same question. Biden talked about how there's been a rise in political violence against Democrats and Republicans and nonpartisan election workers in the aftermath of the 2020 election. And it's put democracy in a really fragile state.

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BIDEN: We must, with one overwhelming unified voice, speak as a country and say there's no place - no place - for voter intimidation or political violence in America, whether it's directed at Democrats or Republicans. No place, period. No place ever.

MARTIN: So there's less than a week of voting before voting wraps up. Millions of Americans have already done so. So if he was trying to gin up support from his base, was this a little late in the game?

SHIVARAM: Yeah, that's a fair question. You know, Biden made it clear in his speech that he was trying to reach all Americans. But you have to keep in mind that this was a political speech. It was an event with the Democratic National Committee, not an address from the White House or on Capitol Hill, though the location was near the U.S. Capitol. And with voting ending on Tuesday, there's definitely a push needed from Democrats to try and motivate some of their voters who haven't been engaged yet with the election or were not planning to get engaged. A number of polls show that voters are concerned about inflation and abortion, but there is also a high concern among Democratic voters about the state of democracy, especially when it comes to protecting the right to vote. But the level of enthusiasm among Democratic voters is far below their Republican counterparts. And according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll that we released yesterday, that came up. And in this final push towards Tuesday, Democrats need to ramp up their base, especially in these states where some of these election deniers are running for office, like Nevada, Arizona and Wisconsin.

MARTIN: So President Biden gave this address near the U.S. Capitol, of course, the site of the January 6 insurrection. Did Biden go so far as to bring up the name of former President Trump in his remarks?

SHIVARAM: So he didn't mention Trump by name, but he did say that the former president and his big lie have fueled more election deniers, like, he mentioned, the hundreds who are running for office this year.

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BIDEN: American democracy is under attack because the defeated former president of the United States refuses to accept the results of the 2020 election. He refuses to accept the will of the people. He refuses to accept the fact that he lost.

SHIVARAM: And Biden went beyond Trump too. He said that these MAGA Republicans have emboldened violence and intimidation of voters and election officials. He called it corrosive and destructive. And he did say that he thinks these Republicans are the minority of the party. But he said they were a driving force, and he called them loud and determined.

MARTIN: Deepa Shivaram, thank you so much for your reporting.

SHIVARAM: Thank you.

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MARTIN: North Korea conducted three ballistic missile tests today, including a suspected intercontinental ballistic missile.

INSKEEP: That follows 23 missiles yesterday, which is the most the North has ever launched in one day. This time, the show of aggression triggered evacuation warnings in two countries - South Korea and Japan.

MARTIN: NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us now from Seoul. Anthony, good morning.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Can you explain more about the weapons North Korea launched over the last couple of days and their significance?

KUHN: Yes, today's tests included that suspected ICBM and also two short-range missiles. Japan thought that the ICBM was going to fly over its main island, so it issued warnings for people to seek cover in three prefectures. The missile did not fly over the island. Yesterday, it launched 23 missiles, which appear all to be short-range ballistic missiles. And last month, North Korea rehearsed using these missiles to hit U.S. and South Korean military targets with tactical nuclear weapons. I spoke to Kim Jeong-dae about this. He's a former South Korean defense official and a visiting professor at Yonsei University. Let's hear him speak.

KIM JEONG-DAE: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: So he says, "North Korea staged a very threatening provocation at a magnitude we've never seen before. These launched missiles from all around the country - east, west, south, north. This seems intended to negate our strategy of striking the source of the attack." So basically he's saying that North Korea's two days of missile launches have sent a lot of signals about what North Korea can do militarily.

MARTIN: And what is North Korea saying about why it's doing this now?

KUHN: Well, it's portraying its missile launches as insurance against attacks, including nuclear attacks, by the U.S. and South Korea. It points to U.S. and South Korean large scale joint Air Force exercises this week, involving some 240 planes. Last week, it pointed to 12 days of joint large-scale military field exercises. It's also unhappy that the U.S., South Korea and Japan are stepping up trilateral cooperation against it and that the U.S. is deploying aircraft carriers and nuclear power subs to the region, and it especially doesn't like that South Korea openly talks about decapitation strikes against the North's leadership. But even without all these pretexts, North Korea would be testing weapons anyway. They've begun a five-year plan to beef up their nuclear arsenal with the aim of making their military deterrent more credible and eventually extracting concessions from the U.S. And so it's likely to be conducting lots of nuclear and missile tests for years to come, whatever Seoul and Washington do.

MARTIN: Right. And as you alluded to, North Korea does this. I mean, they've conducted tests for many years. Does this feel different, like an actual military conflict between North Korea and one of its neighbors is closer?

KUHN: In some ways. I mean, the missiles flew over the de facto maritime border for the first time, and they appeared to be headed for populated areas. And South Korea considers that tantamount to a violation of its territory. Of course, the U.S. and South Korea are still expecting an even bigger provocation, which is North Korea's seventh test detonation of an atomic bomb. And they could get extra political impact if they staged that around the time of U.S. midterm elections.

MARTIN: NPR's Anthony Kuhn reporting from Seoul. Thanks so much.

KUHN: Thank you.

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INSKEEP: Ethiopia's government has agreed to a cease-fire with leaders of a rebellious region.

MARTIN: The Tigray region has been embroiled in fighting against the central government for the past two years. There's a humanitarian catastrophe there. The war has displaced millions of people in northern Ethiopia. Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed. The fighting has temporarily come to a halt after peace talks mediated by a former president of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo.

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OLUSEGUN OBASANJO: This moment is not the end of peace process, but the beginning of it. Implementation of the peace agreement signed today is critical to the success of the process.

INSKEEP: We're joined now by Fred Harter, who is a Sunday Times journalist based in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. Welcome to the program.

FRED HARTER: Hi, thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Is this a peace deal or merely a halt in the fighting for a moment?

HARTER: So this is the announcement of a formal cessation of hostilities. The parties have agreed in the short, immediate term to stop shooting each other. But they've also agreed to longer-term issues, such as restoring aid access to Tigray and also restoring phone internet services to Tigray, which have mostly been down since the conflict started two years ago. So as Obasanjo emphasized, this is the start of a longer peace process, and there's lots of thorny political issues that have not been touched upon in the deal and will need to be agreed at a date. So this is the start of a longer peace process.

INSKEEP: I should mention there is this underlying dispute between the prime minister and the leaders of this region, members of a party that he was once a member of. It doesn't sound like their underlying disagreement has been addressed at all yet.

HARTER: No. What was at stake was basically a power struggle at the center of government. Abiy came in, the current prime minister came in in 2018, and he was trying to stamp his own mark of authority on the country. He wanted to centralize power, or that's what his critics would say. And the Tigray region and him really fell out when the COVID-19 pandemic suspended elections, and the Tigray People's Liberation Front, Tigray's ruling party, went ahead with elections, leading to the federal government to suspend aid to the region. And that's what eventually led to the conflict breaking out two years ago.

INSKEEP: So as they begin those talks, what shape is the country in?

HARTER: Well, the country is very divided. There's been a lot of damage to infrastructure. When I was there, there was hospitals that had been completely destroyed by both sides, schools that were emptied. And you have a lot of people living in IDP camps across the country, some of them in very hard conditions.

INSKEEP: There must be people who are in desperate need of immediate help.

HARTER: Yes. Millions of people have been displaced. Many more are also needing aid. The U.N. says that of Tigray's 6 million population, about 5.2 million are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. There have been reports of starvation-related deaths in Tigray, and I was recently shared a document by a humanitarian agency from Friday last week which said that roughly a third of children that were screened for malnourishment and three-quarters of lactating mothers were malnourished. So there's a large need to get aid into the region very quickly.

INSKEEP: Fred Harter of The Sunday Times in Ethiopia, thanks so much.

HARTER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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