Korea

Xi and Trump summit In Singapore

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On May 25th, CM wrote after the spat between Trump & Kim, “It will be China sending Kim back to the meeting table with Trump because it will ultimately be managing the protectorate after any peace is signed for its own geopolitical aims. China does NOT want US friendly forces on its border. Best keep the buffer by getting Kim to accept a lesser deal where he gets to keep his life. For a man in his early 30s he can either choose to go down fighting or see out his days with the embezzled billions and bevy of beauties in his concubine.

Shouldn’t the fact that China provided Kim Jong Un with a “private” jet to get to the summit speak volumes about who his interests represent? While the US State Dept might quibble over minibar expenses at his hotel in Singapore, President Xi is showing he’s truly behind the outcomes from North Korea’s side. The Chairman is but a puppet.

China only wants reunification if that means US Forces leave the South. That is unlikely to be on the cards so Kim can de-nuclearise and clutch to the bosom of Xi.

As CM wrote back in August 2017, China will turn North Korea into a puppet state. Kim knows it is best to hitch his wagon to the world’s most ruthless regional power in coming decades. He only needs to bear 6.5 years of Trump. President Xi will be around for decades.

Who will get the Nobel Peace Prize for helping end the Korean War – Kim, Moon & Xi or Trump?

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Will President Donald Trump be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for getting Kim & Moon to the peace table? It is unlikely in so far as the Norwegian Nobel Committee would fear the full weight of international opinion (aka mainstream media) for doing so. Surely they wouldn’t risk making a mockery of such a coveted award? Then again a one Barack Obama was handed one less than 9 months into his first term on the stated basis of a noble quest for the Holy Grail of world peace rather than anything actually achieved. In 2016 alone, the Obama administration dropped 26,171 bombs on enemies. Not bad for a serial appeaser. A Nobel prize has even been awarded to a multi billion dollar embezzling terrorist of a self appointed authority, so Kim Jong-un is in with a shot.

Will Trump receive any credit (even without a Nobel) for pushing ‘Rocketman/The Fat Kid’ to the negotiating table? Probably not. How come no other administrations were able to achieve something that was relatively easier when the state of the North’s arsenal was considerably less lethal? Kim threatened Guam less than half a year ago. Trump didn’t back down and the North Korean dictator clearly realized from Twitter that the most powerful man in the world wasn’t all bluster. President Xi may well have played a solid hand in pushing Kim to sue for peace negotiations. In the interests of President-for-life Xi, his foe Trump has a maximum 7 years left to meddle. If Korea gets a peace deal, Xi can play hardball on the peninsula if a softer President enters the White House thereafter. Then he can take a stab at Taiwan. Xi can afford to wait.

We should not forget that Kim Jong-Un travelled to China on his first ‘overseas’ visit earlier this year. Best get the approval of a real dictator before progressing. Kim was there to get Beijing’s blessing to ensure North Korean sovereignty come what may so as to maintain the desired geographical buffer to pro-US nations.

Noone said peace isn’t desirable. The question is what price must one pay to get it? There are too many incidents in the past where signing peace treaties with dictatorial regimes have ended in disaster. Hitler/Chamberlain (Munich Agreement), Hitler/Stalin (Pact of Steel), Putin/Merkel/Macron (suggestion of UN in Ukraine), Le Duc Tho/Kissinger (Paris Peace Accords over Vietnam), Xerxes II/Leonidas (Greece) etc.

Will part of the denuclearization ‘deal’ call upon a withdrawal of US Forces from the Korean Peninsula? Would the US go for that? Highly unlikely. Would Moon be so gullible as to suggest a (slow) withdrawal? Of course he has the right to demand a foreign garrison pack up and go home. Trump may have pushed China and NK to act but he’d prefer the status quo than to roll over and vacate the premises. China wins in either scenario. America certainly doesn’t want to pay for the same real estate twice. Some quarters in South Korea must surely want the US military to stay as an insurance policy. Afterall how can one trust someone who comes from a dynasty that kills its own people and assassinates family members? Worryingly Moon looks to have a certain ring of Chamberlain about him.

It was clear that North Korea was dictating the moves at the Winter Olympics. It was South Korea who funded the $3mn in travel costs for the cheer squad. Anything that looked to mock the North Koreans was swiftly dealt with. It spoke volumes about which Korea was calling the shots. Anyone impersonating any other world leader could do so with reckless aplomb. Anything resembling Kim Jong-un  was quickly removed from sight. Tyrannies rarely do humour and sadly not enough democracies defend it. Still it is hardly an encouraging sign for even handed peace talks when one side looks to appease in this way.

Kim Jong-un is smart enough to realize at such a youthful stage in his life that he probably has another 40-50 years left in him. Reunification only works if he is given sanctuary. Idi Amin saw the beauty of a life in exile in Saudi Arabia. If Kim Jong-un can relax in Sichuan Province it maybe a dignified way out. One can bet his ‘some are more equal than others’ inner sanctum would rather the two stay separated. They would stand to lose way more than Kim.  It would be ridiculous to assume that Kim could be a major cog driving a reunification process with such an abysmal human rights record. Name a despot who would willing cede authoritarian rule much less without a deal which would exonerate him from any international criminal court that he would be held accountable for under a functioning democracy?

The South Koreans have had a think tank in Berlin researching the effect of reunification in Germany. The former West is still heavily subsidizing the former East. Depopulation (-15% between 1989 & 2013), unemployment rates (higher today that 1989) and inferior GDP per capita (27% less) are all a feature of the former communist state vs the federal republic over the last three decades.

How easily could South Korea absorb the North? West Germany had a population of 63mn in 1989 vs 16mn in East Germany or 4:1. South Korea has 53mn vs North Korea’s 24mn or 2:1. West Germany had a 2.3x GDP/capita ratio to the East in 1989. South Korea has a 52x GDP/capita ratio to the North. Reunification for Korea isn’t an apples to apples comparison with Germany. While Samsung might relish the prospects of tapping a cheap labour pool to build washing machines, the South would likely face far higher integration costs than the Germans. Even 30 years ago East Germany had a GDP/capita 17x that of North Korea.

In any event the only sure outcome of peace on the Korea Peninsula is that President Trump will get next to zero credit in the media. Wailing about the reckless diplomacy of an unhinged dictator will be the main with a few conceding it was at best a fluke.

Gold Coin vs Bitcoin – just go on a crypto blog and invite a fatwah by criticizing it

The Bitcoin debate rages again. I’ve been asked more times by friends about whether to buy Bitcoin in the last 3 months than I care to remember. This video is about as telling as it gets about understanding raw value. At the moment Bitcoin pricing is as random as a Lotto ball dispenser although only higher numbers are being drawn for now (despite the 20% flash crash yesterday, shows panic is a server outage away). My answer to them is I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole but everyone’s risk is their own. I answered along the lines below.

As a contrarian investor, this video warms my heart. When everyone seems to love something it tends to be a sign that ‘greater fool theory’ is alive and kicking. The video shows a woman unwilling to trade a stick of gum for a 1oz gold coin. If there was ever a better example of mean reversion, this must be it. Mark Dice did a similar video with people asking if they wanted a Hershey’s chocolate bar or a silver bar. Everyone chose the Hershey’s! While I am sure the response on Wall Street would elicit a different response it shows how few people understand the value of barbarous old relics.

The biggest issue with Bitcoin or any other crypto is that it is mined in cyber space. Do you ever wonder why you need to update your Norton anti-virus software every other day? Yes because some criminals are phishing/hacking your data trying to rob you blind. That’s just the amateur cowboy stuff by the way.

Gold needs to be dug out of the ground with considerable effort. The thing that spooks me about crypto (without trying to sound conspiracy theorist) is that state actors (most top end computer science grads in China end up working in the country’s cyber warfare teams), hackers or criminal minds (did you know 70% of top end computer science grads in Russia end up working for the mob (directly or indirectly) the value of coins in the system could be instantaneously wiped out at the stroke of a key. We’ve had small hiccups ($280m) only last week. So as much as the ‘security’ of these crypto currencies is often sold as bulletproof, none of them are ‘cyberproof’. Just like your home software, crypto at every stage has to constantly update its protection to prevent vulnerabilities and it is naive to think it can keep a 100% safety record.

It only takes one serious hack to bring most if not all the crypto down as vulnerable. In order for Auric Goldfinger to crush prices in Gold he’d need to smelt lead bars and paint them, were any left over from the pail and brush used on Jill Masterson. Gold is one currency that governments often threaten to confiscate (India springs to mind). Imagine if North Korea turns Bitcoin into the state currency?

I have just been on a Bitcoin forum and the insults being hurled at disbelievers has all the hallmarks of Tesla share ownership. It is a religion. Not an investment. I was accused of having no idea on crypto to which I argued 90%+ of those that own it probably don’t either. So having owners in Bitcoin or other cryptos knowing a tiny fraction of the risks means they’ll stampede faster than the servers can process data should ‘bit hit the fan’. One crypto ‘expert’ tried to tell me that artwork has no value as it is not tradable. It is tradable, just illiquid. I argued that the latest sale of DaVinci’s artwork fetched $450mn or 45,000 bitcoin. Storage costs aside over the long run I’ll have a Leonardo thank you!

As Mark Twain said, ”It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

My assessment is that the fascination of those around me about Bitcoin suggests that many of the fan base are punters trading on the greed of others. It has no underlying core value other than those prepared to pay more for it. That indeed is the tenet of all investment but like most manias, the risk/reward ratio can turn on a dime (no pun intended). At some stage the fall out from crypto will be ugly. As financial pundits know

the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent”

Kim sends more firecrackers across Japan that could hit Guam

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This cannot continue. Another missile fired across Japan’s shores. This missile flying 3,700km. Guam is technically in range by that measure. As I said on The Bolt Report, Kim’s technology will get to a point where he can become a serious threat. Taking out the threat before it gets even more capable is the only credible option. Even more biting UN sanctions haven’t stopped his quest to launch more missiles in utter defiance. My key thought is that China will be coerced into forcing regime change. It cannot afford to lose the strategic buffer North Korea provides but it can even less afford US military action on its back door. Unilateral action by China will not be frowned on by the majority of the rest of the world if Kim Jong Un is neutered.

Some discussions have also questioned whether he lobs missiles over Tokyo airspace. The danger here is a failure through dense commercial air traffic lanes. In any event the world community can’t sit by and let this oppressive regime continue a weapons program to use for extortion. Trump was on a morning breakfast program yesterday discussing North Korea where he effectively said for “China to start taking action”.

As I wrote last week, Japan’s entire Aegis destroyer fleet from Maizuru is at sea. They carry the SM-3 anti-ballistic missile system. Japan cannot take North Korea’s actions as anything other than the gravest threat to national security.

This crisis has to have an ending. It can only be Kim Jong Un’s. Watch China’s movements closely from here. They’re reaching breaking point on strategy.

Full interview on Bolt Report on Japan’s regional security conundrum

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The full interview can be found on the August 30 podcast from 21:17-34:30  where I discuss Japan’s Constitution Article 9 and 96 and the changing face of Japan’s Self Defense Force moving from “static deterrence” to “dynamic deterrence”  The wheels to defend herself are already well under way

 

The concern is the risk of Kim Jong Un missing the target

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At 6am this morning North Korea conducted a missile test which flew between Hokkaido and Japan’s main island Honshu. The real question is not so much the capability of his missiles but their short comings. The reality is a reasonable failure rate (c.33% in the past 3 years alone) has a high level of risk attached to it, especially when sending them over Japanese land. While most failures have been at the launch pad stage, the risk is that should the tracking and guidance systems fail mid flight over Japan even without warheads, considerable damage could be inflicted. Japan said it would shoot down such test missiles when Trump was threatening to intervene several months back but clearly swerved first in this game of chicken.

While Kim Jong Un’s technology is undoubtedly improving, the risk is that eventually it will reach a stage where he can be a belligerent imp with real capability. Up til now his armaments have been relatively crude. The sanctions put on the $12bn economy, mostly China, are biting. These missile tests would undoubtedly be costing Kim a relative bomb (no pun intended) to conduct. Still allowing his people to suffer isn’t a priority. The saber rattling is no different to his father and grandfather before him. Fire a few missiles, threaten others and get a cash injection to shut up and then go away.

Unfortunately this game of geopolitical chess gets worse as his capability gets better. He has nothing to lose whereas his neighbours stand to suffer relatively catastrophic downside. Tokyo is 125x larger in GDP terms than NK. Seoul 68x.

Does he intend to point one at Tokyo, Seoul, Guam or even Washington DC when he has the capability? This argument that a pre-emotive strike on North Korea won’t happen is getting weaker. China knows its strategic value as a buffer to the US. Bribing Pyongyang by buying its ginseng and coal is a cheap form of diplomacy. Beijing’s stance last month was telling. If the US preemptively strikes China will defend Kim. If Kim does anything stupid then he’s on his own.

Still if you know your enemy will eventually get to the stage it can physically harm you and threatens to do so it makes perfect sense militarily to eliminate the threat before it eventuates. After the capability is reached  the risks are factorfold higher. So for every argument that says conflict won’t happen (odds favor it not) the smarter bets will begin to ponder the growing chance something does.

Korean 5yr CDS have jumped 4bps to 62 today, still below the 70 during last month and well below Kim Jong Un’s first missile test at 120bps. GFC was around 700bps. So markets aren’t panicked just yet but gold back over $1300/oz is pricing it gets worse.

Don’t rule out a modern day Gulf of Tonkin incident. With each of these tests, electronic interference (cyber attack) could be a factor. To justify a retaliatory attack, guiding these missiles to hit a remote paddyfield in Aomori or inside Japan’s territorial waters is possible. China must be concerned about this. Electronic warfare is getting seriously capable. Remember when the Iranian centrifuges mysteriously blew up due to the Stuxnet virus? The virus told the centrifuge computers to spin the motors well above design tolerance such that they exploded.

Conspiracy theory maybe but geopolitics is a dirty game with huge long term implications and the rules are that there are none. Kim’s preemptive strike might not start with his finger on the button.

What is the top worry for each country?

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An interesting table. Some would have you believe that saving the planet is the number one worry on everyone’s mind. However like so many polls taken when the economy is in the dumps people naturally retreat to saving themselves. Nothing even peacenik Canada is scared of Mother Nature. Unemployment is the #1 concern for Candians according to an Ipsos report from Nov 2016 the same as Spain & Italy  (youth unemployment at 58% and 56% respectively), Saudi Arabia, France, and Australia. Poverty tops the worry list in Japan, Germany, Russia and Belgium. South Americans (Peru, Mexico, Argentina) are most worried about crime with peace loving Swedes clearly sharing  the opposite view of their socialist government’s progressive policies. Korea unsurprisingly worries about corruption as does India. As Brexit proved, Brits are worried about immigration control. Americans are concerned about terrorism. The Chinese aren’t worried about climate change but threats to the environment aka pollution. In fact no country listed climate change.

Hang on? Australia? Unemployment? Well actually it makes perfect sense. A recent ME Bank survey in Australia found only 46 per cent of households were able to save each month. Just 32 per cent could raise $3000 in an emergency and 50 per cent aren’t confident of meeting their obligations if unemployed for three months.

In Japan, poverty is a concern and rightly so. As I wrote in my crime series last year, this law abiding country has huge problems. Maybe from very low rates but the relevance is great. Retirees make up 1/3rd of all crime and the government has expanded prison capacity 50% top house all the elderly inmates who are creating another headache – the Ministry of Justice needs to go cap in hand for extra budget to cover the soaring health costs behind bars to look after its guarded nursing homes. Domestic violence is soaring as is child abuse. The Japanese National Police Agency had to create a new category for DV caused by divorced couples living under the same roof because economic hardship prevents them living separately.

Even Germany has a poverty problem despite what Angela Merkel would have you believe,. Yes, the low unemployment masks the fact that her party has doubled the size of the public service top 18% of the entire workforce since 2006.

America cities terrorism as the biggest threat but a Jan 2017 IPSOS poll showed “overall, 58% of Americans believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction, with Republicans (61%) and Democrats (56%) having a fair amount of pessimism. More Independents (67%) believe that the country is off on the wrong track. The economy remains at the top of the list of the most serious problem facing the United States, at 19%. ” Environment is way down the list at 5%. Yes, this is pretty much a carbon copy of the poll I saw at the time of GFC and the tech bubble collapse in 2000. When times are tough people aren’t worries about saving the planet but saving themselves.

The peace loving open minded multi-cultural Swedes are most concerned by its populace. I wrote last month that “the Sweden Democrats seem to be resonating with a public that is fed up with the establishment. Their conservative views are made pretty plain in the campaign posters which cover train stations etc. I have to say full marks for not withholding punches about who is behind the ‘mess’. Sweden’s long standing liberal views on immigration have backfired. In 1975 it opened its borders to actively chase multiculturalism. In recent months though Sweden has asked its neighbours to take refugees off their hands which provoked a response from Denmark’s Immigration Minister, “’The Swedes put themselves in this situation. They have pursued a very lenient immigration policy for years and they are to blame for the swamp they are in.”

Left wing politician Barbro Sörman tweeted the difference with migrants commiting rape is that Swedish men culturally should know better. She tweeted “The Swedish men who rape do it despite the growing gender equality. They make an active choice. It’s worse…” When contacted by a local newspaper for clarification she replied, “Take a picture of Sweden as an equal society, where all are nurtured in equality. Then you can say that if you are brought up in it, you make an active choice to not be equal, rather than if you are brought up in a society that is not equal”

Malmo has been a city often pointed to as a proxy for failed integration in Sweden. Deputy Police Commissioner Mats Karlsson said in response to multiple explosions that occur in the city on a regular basis, “Our dilemma is that we can never guarantee anything for sure. Evidently there are individuals who have hand grenades and they often resort to violence over things that may seem very banal to you or I – a conflict over an ex-girlfriend or a little brother wanting to outperform his big brother…It’s bad enough when they use guns, because they’ve got such poor aim, but grenades are really worrying. They have a 360-degree reach.”

However what ever country you live in, such polls give an underlying view and I would suggest on balance that the majority of governments are not listening once again highlighting the natural lurch to conservative parties who want to broach the mess socialist policies have exacerbated since 2008.