North Korean Roulette

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In years gone past, North Korea used to up the ante on its belligerence when it needed a cash injection. Its neighbours tended to see that as the easiest way to put the Hermit Kingdom back in its place. Sure enough the North Koreans went away until the next ‘hit’ was required. China bought coal from North Korea to give it hard currency and prevent 20 million starving refugees trying to cross its border. It is no surprise that China has mobilized 150,000 troops to watch it. China has recently banned coal imports from North Korea to send a message that KJ-U’s antics can’t be tolerated. It may well be that the Trump/Xi dinner at Mar-a-Lago wasn’t clinking champagne but scoffing Red Bull over a chess board.

The chart above shows the extent of Kim Jong-Un’s thirst for missile testing. For a man willing to knock off his own brother, a man who looked as if he had no eyes on usurping Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Un will be an all or nothing trade. Cutting the head off this snake would plunge North Korea into deep crisis. It is highly likely that the many of the adoring generals all hate each other. Although China is likely to have a puppet in waiting.

The other problem is that all the while no action is taken, PyongYang’s arsenal grows more sophisticated. Eventually it will be sufficiently credible. In 1994 then President Bill Clinton came closest to taking action against its nuclear capability but in the end chose diplomacy.

On April 10, China’s special envoy on the North Korean nuclear programme, Wu Dawei, visited Seoul with the idea of pushing a harder UN resolution in case of another nuclear test. In the short term China is hoping a short term halt to coal imports will bring Kim Jong-Un to heel they have not ruled out removing him.entirely. It is the least preferred option but now Trump has dispatched a carrier battle group nearby China is being forced to up the ante.

Let us not forget the strategic benefits of North Korea to China. It provides a buffer to the US friendly South Korea and keeps China the dominant player geopolitically in the peninsula. However China must be thinking Kim Jong-Un is becoming more of a liability than an asset. How does it keep the strategic importance of North Korea in a palatable package that even Trump can tolerate?

North Korea has 3 main nuclear missile launch sites (Musudan-Ri,  Punggye-Ri and Tongchang-Ri) among the fourteen nuclear facilities ranging from R&D, power generation,  mining and refined fissile material production. A surgical strike would be difficult to achieve without North Korea getting away a few missiles itself. Naturally Japan would be a soft target for reprisal given its pacifist nature.

China has no choice but to step up to prevent the US giving it a bigger headache than it already has. Trump has clearly shown he is willing to pull the trigger when nations get out of line. Should he shoot one of Kim Jong-Un’s missile tests down to show he isn’t joking Kim will need to weigh up being a laughing stock by backing down or go down in a blaze of glory. Somehow China will be summoning Sun Tzu before it escalates out of its control.

One interesting take is the reaction on financial markets. South Korean CDS have jumped from 50bps to 57bps in recent days.  When Kim Jong-Il died these rates surged to 240bps from around 100bps. GFC by way of comparison was 700bps. The Korean Won has slid for 6 days running but it hardly looks like a collapse.

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