Category Archives: politics

Turkey’s Lira Crisis: How Dangerous?

Just published on Impakter, my take on the Turkish Lira crisis currently roiling the markets:

Turkey’s Lira crisis: Is it a strictly Turkish problem or is there a risk of contagion? The answer to that question is complex and requires taking a close look at what happened and at Erdogan’s role which is central. Including looking at his past, considering the whole arc of his career, from Istanbul mayor to autocratic president.

The Lira, weak since the start of the year, went into freefall by August 13, following two hostile American policy moves. One was sanctions hitting two Turkish government officials, the Justice and Interior ministers, on August 1. The other was a Trump tweet announcing steep tariffs on steel and aluminum on August 10:

Both moves surprised international investors. They hit an important NATO ally like Turkey that is host to a major American base and put at risk other areas of U.S.-Turkey cooperation like the war in Syria, drug fighting or anti-terrorism. They arose from a dispute over the release of an American evangelical pastor, Andrew Brunson, whose cause is championed by Vice President Pence. Turkey is accusing pastor Brunson of espionage and terrorism in relation to the failed 2016 coup attempt.

This is not the first time that Turkey is impatient with the United States. In 2017, the Turks sent seven requests for extradition of Fetullah Gullen who presently lives in the United States. A one-time Erdogan ally, he has turned into his foe. As head of FETO, he is accused of orchestrating the 2016 coup.

By August 13, at the close of markets, the Lira had lost an unprecedented total 40% of its value since January. The already fragile economy looked ready to collapse, with inflation poised to surge. On August 14, the Lira marked a short gain while the rupee collapsed further. The US continued to demand the release of pastor Brunson from house arrests but Erdogan speaking in Ankara today threatened to boycott American electronic goods: “If they have iPhones, there is Samsung on the other side, and we have our own Vestel here.”

Turkey’s Lira crisis is a currency crisis like no other, with a strange twist: The Turkish Central Bank is unwilling to face the problem head on with a raise in interest rates – the classic way to defend a currency under attack.

It seems the Central Bank is under pressure from President Erdogan not to raise rates that would hurt his voters, particularly small businessmen. Capital controls are also ruled out.

Over the weekend, Erdogan has gone a step further. He’s announced he wouldn’t accept an international bailout, something Germany had intimated might be possible if Turkey agreed to restore independence to its Central Bank.

Instead, at the time of writing (August 14), the Central Bank had only pursued relatively modest liquidity measures to buffer the Lira. Things like asking Turkish citizens to sell their dollars and buy the Lira and easing bank rules. It has vowed to provide banks with all the liquidity they need – whether it can effectively do so remains to be seen.

As a result, the Lira keeps falling with President Erdogan remaining defiant, calling it an “economic war” unleashed by America:

The Lira crisis is rippling across the world. Emerging markets are roiled, India’s rupee, the South African rand, the Argentina peso, the Russian were all hit, and Europe is threatened, starting with its weakest member, Italy, with the largest debt burden (over 130% of GDP). Some observers warn of a domino effect. Italian treasury bonds took an immediate hit, the spread with the German bonds widening again. Add to the mix major European banks excessively exposed to the Turkish Lira, particular Spanish banks.

To understand what happened, one needs to take a step back in History. Turkey has come a long way since the times of Ataturk and Erdogan at first was a positive force, until he wasn’t, as explained in this excellent video:

See the video and read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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Dangerous Times for Democracy: Italy in the Eye of the Storm

Just published on Impakter the article of a friend of mine, currently visiting Italy. I think that what she says is important and I wanted to share it with you.

You’ll see that her reaction to the situation in Italy (and Europe) is very different from Thomas Friedman’s, the New York Times brilliant columnist who also happens to be visiting Italy these days. And from my standpoint – and I think it matters, after all, I live in Italy, I’ve been here over 40 years, I read the Italian papers every day, interacting with my Italian friends and overhearing people in the street and at the bar where I go for my daily espresso –  well, in the light of what I know of Italy, I honestly think my friend got it right and Friedman didn’t quite get it. Yes, his analysis is excellent, spot on, but his conclusion is a tad too negative…

Judge for yourself, here’s the beginning:

Writing from Italy, New York Times foreign affairs Op Ed columnist and Pulitzer winner Thomas L. Friedman claims in a new not-to-be-missed piece that he will “ruin your breakfast, lunch and dinner “ and he certainly does. He argues that if Putin, Trump and Bannon (presently roaming across Europe to raise trouble) succeed in breaking up our “community of democracies”, we are toast. There will be a power vacuum. Who will defend human rights and democracy? You certainly can’t count on China or Russia to save our Western values.

Italy seems to have inspired him, or perhaps helped clear his vision of what are the true challenges we are facing in Europe. And, as I too write from Italy, I can only agree with him. Up to a point. Let me clarify.

First, of all, he is right, it’s not only Brexit. Or the rise of populism. Or Putin’s interferences with elections in Europe. Or immigrant waves driven by “the environmental and political disorder from the south”, the war in Syria, the political mess in Libya, the poverty across Africa. Or the lack of cooperation within the European Union, with East European members (the Visegrad Group) most at fault, preventing any solution to the immigration problem. Or, because of Trump, an isolationist U.S.  It’s all of them, a perfect storm. And the eye of the storm is in Italy.

Read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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Trump Fatigue? Here’s How to Cope With It

Last week I told you I was suffering from Trump fatigue. That spurred me to think some more about it and about what can be done. So I wrote a short piece for Impakter, this is the opening. Please note the featured image, I really think those three monkeys can teach us a lot – Great picture from Alison Curtis Flickr, many thanks Alison!

Is Trump fatigue inevitable? Can something be done to alleviate it – apart from not reading his tweets and not listening to his speeches?

This is very similar to another well-known psychological problem: Compassion fatigue. That is the clinical name for what we are increasingly suffering from in this age of 24-hour news that makes us constantly aware of all the appalling events around the world. When we are saturated with pleas for attention, we grow numb.

Numb is the operative word here. And the one Susan Sontag used in her short work about pain, called Regarding the Pain of Others, published in 2003:

“Flooded with images of the sort that once used to shock and arouse indignation, we are losing our capacity to react. Compassion, stretched to its limits, is going numb.”

This week, the UK Guardian has an excellent piece of long journalism on the subject, written by poet and essayist Elisa Gabbert who’s written a book about disasters (soon to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux). She presents us with psychologist Charles Figley’s definition for compassion fatigue:

“A state of exhaustion and dysfunction, biologically, physiologically and emotionally, as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress”.

A nice definition that conceals with abstract words what really happens: too much “proximity to trauma” can itself be damaging “like second-hand smoke”. Figley knows what he’s talking about: He has served in Vietnam and has observed what happens to caregivers attending to veterans affected by PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder): They themselves become anxious and start exhibiting similar symptoms.

That’s what has happened to me – and possibly to others in the United States. Prolonged exposure to Trumpian stress is causing Trump fatigue, biologically, psychologically and emotionally.

It is now well established that compassion fatigue in healthcare workers can lead to increased clinical errors and high employee turnover. And here’s what needs to be done to avoid the worst, as Elisa Gabbert notes:

“Caregivers are coached to follow various established guidelines of self-care in order to ward off compassion fatigue, or to recover if it has already struck. These include physical, psychological and social commitments such as maintaining healthy eating and sleeping habits, making time for relaxation and meditation, and building a social support network, including at least two people who can be counted on to be ‘highly supportive’.”

It even looks like Trump’s own administration is suffering from Trump fatigue and stress. The New York Times reported that there is a rising dissonance between what the President says and what his administration does.

Trump is friendly with the world’s worst autocrats while Congress and his administration are not. This week it became clear that  “be it Russia, NATO, Iran or North Korea, Mr. Trump’s staff and his party projected a radically different message than the president himself.”

Incidentally, this plays in the hands of U.S. adversaries – not a good thing. Trump is viewed as “weak”, for example, North Koreans much prefer to deal with Trump than with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

So who is right, Trump or his staff and the GOP? Is the administration prone to more “errors”? From Trump’s standpoint, the answer is yes. Look at how angry he is with Attorney General Jeff Sessions because he recused himself from the Russian investigation. And it certainly looks like we are witnessing “high employee turnover” at Trump’s White House.

The pace of turnover is dizzying. 40 percent of the staff that worked for Trump a year ago is gone.

Read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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Trump Putin Meeting in Helsinki: A Non-Summit

The most charitable thing that can be said of the Trump-Putin Summit Meeting in Helsinki yesterday, 16 July, is that it was the celebration of a non-summit, just like Alice in Wonderland’s non-birthdays.

Watch the highlights of this incredible moment in History, a “non-Summit” that sees an American President raging against his own country’s institutions while standing next to the leader of America’s historic enemy, Russia, whose avowed goal is to bring down Western democracies:

In the Video – As reported by the UK Guardian: Trump refused to back US intelligence agencies on their findings on Russian interference in the US presidential election. Trump declared the US and Russia’s relationship to be strong, while Putin dodged questions on rumored compromising material he held on Trump, and gave him a commemorative football . Trump condemned as treasonous after press conference with Putin. Most papers saw the Summit as a win for Putin: Trump portrayed as a “traitor” and  “Putin’s poodle”.The full text of the transcript is here.

Trump is putty in Putin’s hands. He wanted Putin to vow that he never meddled in American elections. Putin happily complied. That’s exactly what he wanted to say and has been saying all along. What a win for Putin!

The non-Summit had all the elements of fantasy: lots of handshakes, pats on the back and smiles; a two-hour, behind-doors, closed meeting, eye-to-eye with no interference from any Minister of Foreign Affairs (who needs them in the age of Trump?); a friendly lunch with all the aides ranked according to a strict protocol around a well-laid table (no tea kettles like in Alice’s world but close); long, serious discourses about peace and friendship prepared by each leader’s attendants to open the press conference that was to tell the world all the wonderful things they had agreed to.

Can a Non-Summit have a Positive Result?

The show fell apart when reporters asked questions. Trump began acting as if he were on Twitter, venting his usual obsessions, the Mueller probe, a witch hunt, no collusion, Hillary Clinton’s emails, where are they? Once again, he was on the defensive: “I beat Hillary Clinton easily … We won that race. And it’s a shame that there can even be a little bit of a cloud over it … We ran a brilliant campaign and that’s why I’m president.”

This is the kind of thing you say privately, but surely not on the world stage. With Putin smiling and shaking his head, giving him support, offering him a football, saying “the ball is in your court”. As it indeed was. An own goal. With Trump, way over his head, ranting against some of America’s founding institutions, the Department of Justice and the FBI.

It is interesting to see how this happened.

Read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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Trump’s Visit to Europe: War!

Trump’s one week tour to Europe, starting 11 July in Brussels, marks a watershed in Trump’s attack on the liberal world order. It is now clear that Trump is at war with Europe. The tour could have been a victory lap for the US President and that is how other US Presidents in the past (including Obama) played it.

Not Trump.

The trip started with a 2-day NATO meeting followed by a “working visit” in the UK – not an official trip as usual, London was not included.  The weekend was spent in Scotland, presumably to relax in the golf properties he owns. And the trip is to culminate with a one-on-one meeting with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s autocratic leader that Trump has often supported. Before joining the G7 meeting in Canada last month – a meeting that turned into a disaster -, he called for Russia’s return to the G7.

To assess Trump’s trip to Europe, one needs to remember that Putin is a man determined to bring down NATO and destroy the European Union. He sees them both as the enemy and the Kremlin constantly pushed that propaganda line at home and abroad.

NATO Meeting: Chaos

The moment he  arrived in Brussels , he lost no time in dressing down NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg over breakfast:

Extraordinary outburst. “Germany is totally controlled by Russia”, this is “not appropriate”, he thunders.  Note Stoltenberg’s reply, trying to argue that with NATO “we stand together” – an argument that gets nowhere with Trump who has no appreciation for either collaboration or allies. Trump sees nothing beyond what he calls the “energy” issue that has turned it a “captive of Russia”: Seventy percent of Germany’s energy comes from Russia now that it has given up its traditional sources (coal and nuclear). And, he points out, the German-Russian gas pipeline consortium is headed by a former German Chancellor.

That last part is true, of course. He is referring to former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder who is a top executive at the Russian-government controlled company (Gazprom) that is currently building Nord Stream 2 Pipeline under the Baltic sea to bring Russian gas to Germany.

But it’s not going just to Germany, as he implies.

Read the rest on Impakter, and the stunning strings of insults Trump managed to throw at UK Prime Minister Theresa May, click here.

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Trump’s Trade Wars: The End of American Supremacy?

Today Trump opened another battlefront in his trade wars, with duties slammed on Chinese goods worth $34 billion. Expect China to retaliate with counter tariffs on US imports. China’s commerce minister was quick to announce: “China promised to not fire the first shot, but to defend national core interests and the interests of the people, it has no choice but to strike back as necessary”. A few hours later, China filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization, its second one.

Conventional wisdom has it that nobody wins from a trade war. Is it wise to ignore it? Trump has no doubts, he is convinced his trade wars will Make America Great Again.

This reminds me of the Italian captain who sank his own boat out of bravado. Remember Captain Francesco Schettino who famously sank the Costa Concordia cruise ship off the Italian island of Giglio in January 2012? He did this serenading a pretty lady in the dead of night, showing off his ability to sail close to the rocks. The ship hit the shore, capsized and 32 passengers and crew died.

Think of that beautiful cruise ship as a metaphor for the international order that America built after World War II, ensuring peace and prosperity through, inter alia, global trade. Now, Trump, like Captain Schettino, is steering the world ship towards the rocks while serenading his base:

Extraordinary. Watch how Trump’s audience looks enraptured, captivated by his show. And the numbers Trump throws around are totally out of context. Consider what he says of Canada, referring in a tone of outrage to a 275% tariff barrier. As if US farmers don’t have access to Canada’s markets because of it.

Is that the case? The fact is that 275% tariff barrier (which is indeed outrageous) only concerns a very small section of the market, milk and milk products. On average, trade barriers with Canada, as with all other advanced countries, are very low, around 2% to 5%. Not really enough to drive imbalances in trade.

The Real Causes of US Trade Deficits

US trade deficits have other causes, and they are nothing new. They’ve been going on since the 1960s, arising mainly from:

The rest on Impakter, click here and let me know what you think!

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Europe’s Migration Problem: Why it is hard to solve

At the recent European Council meeting, the highest level venue in the European Union with all 28 leaders in attendance (including the UK), it looked like the EU was about to break down over its migration problem.

No doubt to Trump’s delight. He’s been actively fighting the European Union which he has always seen as a threat to MAGA. On Twitter, he has regularly attacked Germany, most recently with fake data, claiming that migrants are the source for a rise in crime (that hasn’t happened – crime rates are at the lowest level ever as Der Spiegel was quick to note). Also, according to a recent Washington Post reconstruction of events, Trump even tried to convince Macron to take France out of the EU for a “substantial bilateral trade deal”.

It is in this context of America’s abrupt withdrawal of support to Europe and its institutions that the Europe’s migration problem must be placed. Fueled by European populist parties aligned on Trumpian anti-immigration and euro-skeptic policies, there is violent disagreement within the EU on how to address the problem.

Italy has always been, along with Greece and Spain, on the forefront of the migrant invasion, and for decades it has addressed the migrant challenge alone, with no help from Europe. With the new government in place, this has changed.

The vice-premier and interior minister, populist strongman Matteo Salvini, has made it clear to all EU members, declaring that Italy would “no longer be Europe’s refugee camp”. Migrant rescue ships run by NGOs are no longer allowed to dock in Italian ports:

This led to a spat with France two weeks ago, but eventually France and Germany (after a conciliatory call from Angela Merkel) agreed with Italy that there was a need to share the burden.

Salvini’s populist friends in Eastern Europe have also made it very clear that they won’t play the game. Austria and the Visegrad group of countries (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia) led by Orban, Hungary’s autocratic Prime Minister – have steadfastly refused to cooperate with EU members and will not accept any migrants sent their way.

That was the situation before the European Council meeting: gridlock.

Angela Merkel was panic-stricken: Her own interior minister, Horst Seehofer of the Bavaria-based Christian Social Union (CSU), a major ally in the government coalition, sounded like his Italian friend Salvini, determined to turn away migrants at the border. This is understandable: the CSU faces elections in October and is aligning itself on anti-immigration lines in an attempt to draw votes away from the anti-migrants, rightist-populist Alternative for Germany, a rising rival, currently the third party in Germany.

Either Merkel would find a solution at the European Council, or Seehofer would dissolve the coalition and she would probably have to resign as Chancellor.

In the end, after two days of harrowing discussions (27-28 June), the breakdown didn’t happen, there was a “minimal” agreement that probably saved Merkel’s political career.

No doubt Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, played a role in the relatively positive result. But, as he says, this is “not a success yet”, much will depend on what happens next…

Read the rest on Impakter, click here. And let me know what you think! Are slamming doors shut really the only way to solve the migration problem?

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Trade War with China: Who Wins?

We are now facing an escalating trade war between the US and China – started by the US. The question is: can the US win? And what will it cost the world?

It is worth listening to Carlos Gutierrez, co-chairman at Albright Stonebridge Group, a major global corporation and former U.S. Commerce Secretary who spoke on 18 June on “Bloomberg Daybreak: Americas”:

He reminds us that the free-trade agreements that have been brokered since the 1980s are not as bad as Trump would have it: they have consistently given the US a surplus. The point is: There never was a similar agreement with China. And he doesn’t mince words in describing the dangers for the whole world. He urges restraint.

Clearly Trump is not listening. A few hours after Gutierrez talked to Bloomberg, Trump had threatened an additional 10% tariffs on another $200 billions worth of goods:

Trying to answer the question of “who wins a trade war”, Bloomberg has rounded some major experts asking them what they thought. While the answers are interesting, they all focus on the short term and unfortunately don’t go beyond are the framework of classical economic analysis which overlooks geo-political factors:

  • China has limited room to retaliate in a trade war escalation: It only buys $130 billion worth of American goods while the US deficit with China runs to $375 billion; this is a “high stakes game of poker” and “China will run out of U.S. imports that it can hit with tariff countermeasures long before the U.S. does” (Rajiv Biswas, IHS Markit Singapore);
  • China needs to open up to global innovation and investment: “both China and the U.S. and other countries can really benefit from this Made-in-China 2025 strategy” (William Zarit, chairman of American Chamber of Commerce in China);
  • This is creating a “perfect storm” for China’s export Industry: it’s not just Trump’s tariff war but also the probable US Senate ban on ZTE, the Chinese electronic producer that Trump wanted to save; such a ban would  stop it from importing the American chips it needs for its phones and other products, hitting at the very heart of Made-in-China 2025 strategy;
  • There will be winners and losers, for example, China will need to buy agricultural goods from other sources than the US and that will benefit countries like Australia and Brazil; many Asian countries that are part of the China value chain will be hit.

Instead, to evaluate the dangers from a trade war, we need to look at the longer term and more broadly to geo-political factors. And here, the picture is not so reassuring.

The trade war with the US is but a battle in a much larger war. A battle that surely hurts in the short run, but will leave China victorious in the long run. Because China has acquired the “soft power” weapons to win.

Forget the Trade War: China’s Soft Power is Poised to Conquer the World

What has been happening since Trump took over the White House is this: A political void has been created, a void in world leadership that China is eager to fill, and most likely will.

Consider the facts.

Read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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Trump Watch: Trade Wars to “Make America Great Again”

June 15 was a special day for Trump – good old television unexpectedly displaced his tweets. Two televised events gave him ample room to rant about fake news and push for his favorite justification for trade wars: resentment at “unfair treatment” of America by the rest of the world, allies included.

One was a surprise half-hour long  interview with Fox & Friends. A short video released by The Washington Post focuses on the main points he made:

The other was an 18 minute Q&A session with reporters outside the White House:

Significantly, Trump did not discuss trade at any point in either televised sessions, although on that same day he had just slapped steep (25%) new tariffs covering $50 billion in trade with China. Watching Trump make all his pet points, one is struck by the fact that he covered the same old topics. Those he’s been constantly and obsessively tweeting about.

First, Hillary Clinton and the possibility that his winning the presidency was never a clear-cut victory. He pretended to misunderstand the just released report from the FBI Inspector General – enabling him to claim the report “exonerates” him. The report does nothing of the sort, it reviews the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. It finds some faults with the then FBI Director James B. Comey for not adhering closely to protocol, along with others in his team, notably Peter Strzok and Lisa Page who were having an affair and exchanged over-the-top bragging emails.

Yet Trump calls the report a “horror show”, not because of what’s in it, he says, but because of the conclusion that there was no political bias in the FBI investigation.  Trump cannot accept that. For him, there was “total bias”; the FBI was a “den of thieves”; Comey is a “criminal”; the top FBI management is “scum”; if you “polled the FBI, the real FBI”, you’d find they all “love” him.

In short, there never was any collusion between his campaign and Russia. We’ve all heard that before, over and over.

Second point, on national security. America’s military, built up to the tune of $700 billion a year, will be bigger than ever. The wall is needed, borders must be secured, a “compromise immigration bill” cannot be supported. The separation of immigrant children from their parents at the border is regrettable but it’s the Dem’s fault.

Third point, the whole world and America’s closest allies especially, Europe, Japan and Canada, took “horrible”, “unfair” advantage of America both on trade and military aid. The only ally that got a nod of approval was Giuseppe Conte, the new Prime Minister of Italy, because they shared a common anti-immigration stand. This conveniently overlooks the massive differences in their stand: Italy, in spite of the recent spat with France over immigration – now resolved – is still receiving immigrants and does not separate children from parents.

For Trump, all will change now. We need to realize, he tells us, that President Obama “lost” Crimea, he “gave it away”. And that happened because Putin “had no respect for Obama”. With him at the helm, disrespect like that can never happen again. He is making friends with the right people, he can call up North Korea dictator Kim Jong-un anytime. And Putin, he feels, should be back in the G7.

What next: A Series of Trade Wars?

The mass of falsehoods was bewildering. Some American journalists wondered whether the Republican party would finally react, for example, Chuck Todd, NBC News political director tweeted:

Read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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Trump Watch: A “Historic” Summit with North Korea?

Just published on Impakter – I try to dissect what really happened in Singapore and what it means:

Predictably, Trump gushed over his “historic summit” with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, making a string of optimistic declarations to reporters in Singapore. “I think both sides are going to be impressed with the result,” he said. “We’re going to take care of a very big and very dangerous problem for the world.” He claimed Kim’s commitment to denuclearization was “unwavering” and he added he would “absolutely” invite Kim to the White House to continue the talks.

No tweets yet, but plenty of videos of the event, here is the signing of the agreement – without releasing in advance the text to  journalists:

At the follow-up news conference, it became apparent that, with the signing of the so-called “Singapore agreement”,  the only thing of substance Trump obtained was that “working level talks” would now take place.

The point is this: They would have to take place within the framework of the agreement Trump and Kim Jong-un signed, just four points:

  1. to establish new U.S.-North Korean relations “in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity;”
  2. to join “efforts to build a lasting and stable peace” on the peninsula;”
  3. to reaffirm the declaration Kim signed at his summit with South Korea’s president on 27 April 2018; and
  4. to recover the remains of Americans lost or killed during the Korean War.

Good intents and vague words. But that’s OK, it allows for total flexibility. The game will now be played at the diplomatic “working level” – and that means it’s in the hands of Mike Pompeo. And Trump was quick to reaffirm in a news conference following the meeting that sanctions on North Korea would continue.

Not a bad result. Trump looks like he’s achieve some kind of victory, and Kim Jong-un likewise. But it’s a meagre win for Trump – not much more than face-saving.

Read the rest on Impakter, click here.

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