So Trump and Kim Walk Into a Bar...

A direct meeting between Kim Jong-un and President Donald J. Trump would be the greatest moment in the history of international political television (am I kidding if I say I expect Trump to attempt a pay-per-view deal for it?). But it also presents a decent chance of avoiding catastrophe on the Korean Peninsula. No matter what you think of President Trump’s foreign policy, you have to grant that.


If the two men do get together, which remains an open question, here are a few questions to think about.

How do you define denuclearization?

The US position, as of now, is that North Korea must “denuclearize.” If that means “scrap all nuclear weapons” that’s a non-starter. The Kim dynasty has spent decades developing nuclear weapons as a deterrent against regime change, and Pyongyang is now on the cusp of the motherlode — a nuclear-armed ICBM that can hit the United States. To trade all of that away isn’t going to happen.

Now, things get more interesting if the US decides to soften its definition of “denuclearize,” allowing North Korea to keep existing weapons, but forcing them to freeze additional nuclear and ballistic missile tests. There’s a deal Kim might accept for two reasons: it would confirm North Korea’s status as an official nuclear power, giving him room to wriggle out of sanctions, and Kim would still have a gun to point at US allies Japan and South Korea as a deterrent.

But this would understandably infuriate Tokyo and Seoul. If Trump smells a Great Deal here, will that matter?

Can these two trust each other?

If you’re Kim Jong-un, you’ll arrive at the meeting with at least three visual aids: a photograph of Muammar Qaddafi, a watercolor portrait of Saddam Hussein in a spiderhole, and a copy of the Budapest Memorandum, in which the US, UK, and Russia promised to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity after it gave up nuclear weapons in 1994. You’ll point to all three as evidence that giving up nuclear weapons, not having them, or signing away your post-nuclear security to an external guarantor are all bad ideas. In case Trump gets frisky, you have a supercut of him repeatedly trashing the perfectly well-functioning Iran Nuclear accord.

Trump, for his part, will bring to the table a copy of the 1994 agreement under which North Korea committed to ending its nuclear program in exchange for normalized relations with the US. He’ll point out that North Korea never honored that pledge, or subsequent ones, and why should he expect it to now?

What happens if the meeting achieves nothing?

Let’s be clear — starting negotiations with a meeting between Kim and Trump is a hell of a gamble for both sides. Front loading the head-of-state level meeting like this is, in diplomatic terms, putting dessert first. Normally lower-level staffers and diplomats negotiate agreements for months or years before the principals show up for a final photo-op. If Kim and Trump get along badly or agree to nothing right at the start, the immediate impression will be that diplomacy, at the highest level, has failed. And if diplomacy runs its course before it even, well, runs its course, are we back to the prospect of a “very rough thing”?

Facebook unveiled plans for a new cryptocurrency and payment system on Tuesday. It's called the Libra, and it's not-so-modest goal is to "reinvent money," and "transform the global economy" so that "people everywhere can live better lives." Ambitious much, Zuck?

This is a huge political gamble, but the rewards could be enormous. Here's a quick look at the tradeoffs:

The risks: Facebook is asking its 2.5 billion users — and government regulators — to entrust it with something that's vitally important to people everywhere and a power that governments jealously protect: access to money. And it's doing so at a time when trust in Facebook and other big Silicon Valley companies is at a low ebb.

Whether it's a concern that Big Tech has become too powerful or that it's not doing enough to protect privacy or put a stop to fake news, it's a heck of a time to launch a new techno-utopian project that could give Silicon Valley much more power — including the ability to track not just what people say they like but how they spend their money.

Mark Zuckerberg understands this — the Facebook founder is setting up Libra as a Swiss-based non-profit that will be governed by an "association" of 28 tech and financial companies and non-profits of which Facebook is just one member. He's also promising that Facebook will not mix personal data with payment information, and to cooperate with regulators.

But this will always be Zuckerberg's baby, and by launching Libra, he's painting a big new political bullseye on his own back.

The payoff: If Libra can survive the inevitable political and regulatory storm (and convince its billions of users that they can trust the underlying technology and financial stability of the new cryptocurrency) the upside could be enormous.

How enormous? The Libra website claims that more than 30 percent of the world's population — about 1.7 billion people — currently lack access to traditional bank accounts. Many more pay steep fees to transfer money using traditional payment services. Libra, by contrast, promises access to anyone in the world with a simple smartphone — and to make payments as inexpensive as sending a text message.

Plug those capabilities into a social network whose user base is roughly double the population of the biggest country in the world, and the results could be revolutionary — not just for billions of people who would gain new access to financial resources, but for Facebook's business model, and for central banks and governments that have traditionally sought to control the flow of money through their economies.

That would be a techno-utopian dream come true, but it's a power that governments won't willingly surrender.

If Willis's story on Tuesday about Argentina being plunged into darkness after a nationwide power failure didn't get you packing a flashlight and checking that your car has a full tank of gas, this one should. Over the weekend, the New York Times said anonymous US officials had revealed a US campaign to plant "potentially crippling malware" inside Russia's power grid "at a depth and with an aggressiveness that had never been tried before."

Quick thoughts:

This is a big provocation. It's the cyber equivalent of mining a harbor — an aggressive move that falls short of actual conflict but sends an unmistakable message: mess with us, and we'll mess you up.

The leak was probably intentional. The campaign fits with the new US strategy, launched under the Trump administration, of trying to deter cyber adversaries like Russia, China, and Iran from hacking its critical infrastructure. By disclosing the US campaign, US officials are effectively telling Russia (and by extension China and Iran), that they've got a loaded gun cocked and pointed at their economies.

That's dangerous. People — and governments — may not always behave rationally when a gun is pointed at their heads. Russia might be even more inclined to lash out. And unlike more conventional forms of conflict, cyber isn't a domain where the US can be sure it has an overwhelming advantage if push comes to shove.

It gets worse. The Times said US cyber officials described a "broad hesitation" to go into details of cyber operations against Russia with President Donald Trump because they feared he might cancel it or tell other governments about it. Among other things that are disturbing about this story, a lack of communication between the President and US cyber warriors could send mixed signals that further embolden US adversaries.

It's no secret that cyberattacks are becoming more commonplace. But where do most of them originate and what countries do they target most? The graphic above shows the most significant offenders and victims since 2006. Hackers in China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea account for three-quarters of all major attacks. Nearly a fifth of attacks, meanwhile, have targeted institutions or companies in the United States.

(At least that we know of: this chart highlights known attacks on government agencies, tech companies, and other operations that caused more than $1 million in economic damage. But many cyberattacks are never disclosed, and some countries are more transparent than others, so consider this a cross-section of a much bigger — and more disturbing — picture.)

China's outrage against Swiss bankers – Paul Donovan, an economist at UBS and a former colleague of your Wednesday Signal author, ended up in hot water last week after he wrote that an outbreak of swine fever that had pushed up pork prices in China, "matters if you are a Chinese pig. It matters if you like eating pork in China. It does not really matter to the rest of the world." The Swiss bank put Donovan on leave after a nationalist tabloid picked up the story, unleashing a torrent of invective from angry Chinese citizens, industry groups, and clients. Although we're a bit puzzled at the intensity of the outrage, we're following this story closely. The anger of 1.4 billion people is a powerful thing, and if the US-China standoff over tech and trade continues to escalate, US firms could soon find themselves on the receiving end.

What we are ignoring: Trump on ICE

Trump's Deportation Threats – As Donald Trump revved up his official reelection campaign in Florida on Tuesday, he took to Twitter to vow mass deportations of "millions of illegal aliens" starting next week. We are ignoring this for two reasons: First, it looks more like a campaign trail stunt than a well-thought-out plan — the scale of deportations Trump envisions would require massive logistical coordination, and it's not clear that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can deliver it — even if the federal force got help from local police, who may be reluctant to participate in mass arrests in their communities. Second, while this type of rhetoric may play directly to Trump's base, images of crying children torn from their parents will galvanize the president's opponents — and, in particular, the suburban women crucial to his 2016 victory. We're not ignoring the pain and trauma that mass deportations would inflict on immigrant communities if Trump delivers on this threat. We're ignoring a boast that's likely to prove a political bust.