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Watch List: May 16, 2018

North Korea’s canceled meeting, NAFTA’s coming deadline

|May 16, 2018

The items listed below represent potential emerging issues that our analysts are tracking. These can be long term or short term, but will be updated daily. If an item on our Watch List becomes critical, we will email you a full analysis explaining its significance.

Each Saturday, we will follow up our daily Watch List for each week with our conclusions on these issues.

North Korea: Pyongyang has canceled its summit with Seoul scheduled for May 16, citing U.S.-South Korean military drills. North Korea had proposed the talks, and the drills have been scheduled for months, so something seems amiss. Shortly thereafter, Pyongyang threatened to pull out of the summit with the United States, citing U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton’s demand for immediate, rather than phased, denuclearization (similar to the U.S. deal with Libya in 2003). It’s understandable why Pyongyang would reject these demands; the Gadhafi regime fell less than a decade after ending its nuclear program. But Bolton has been calling for Libya-style denuclearization since March, and he first floated the “Libya model” in an official capacity more than two weeks ago. Previous “agreements” with North Korea fell apart only after Pyongyang received concessions, which it has yet to receive this time around. The timing of North Korea’s about-face is curious. Find out if this is anything more than standard North Korean negotiating tactics.

North Korea: A North Korean soldier reportedly starved to death after getting stranded for just a few days on a broken-down train, according to Seoul-based activist outlet Daily NK. People don’t usually starve in a few days, so this may be a small hint that the North is facing a major food crisis. It could also be yet another attempt by the South to shape perceptions about the North. Still, a famine is worth looking into, especially if it affects the performance of North Korean soldiers.

Mexico: Mexico’s economy secretary shrugged off the informal May 17 deadline on a revised NAFTA deal set by the U.S., saying Mexican negotiators have no time limit for concluding talks on an agreement. This comes after the U.S. and Mexico failed to reach a consensus during last week’s talks on the auto industry, ending hopes for a (mostly symbolic) deal on the sector. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is reportedly making a last-ditch effort to strike a deal by the end of the week. It’s possible that no deal will be reached during this session of the U.S. Congress and that a new batch of lawmakers could slow progress on the deal or kill it entirely. For the sake of argument, let’s assume the worst for the Trump administration. If officials fail to reach a deal this week, and Democrats retake Congress, what options does the president have left?

Turkey, Israel: Israel has frozen imports of agricultural products from Turkey. Turkey and Israel each recalled their envoys to the other. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been sniping at each other on Twitter. This is somewhat surprising behavior from two countries that often share interests. Considering everything going on in the Middle East, we should do a bottom-up review of our assumptions on Turkish geopolitics.

Russia: An op-ed in Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets said the Russian government would face a “social explosion” within the year if it failed to implement major economic reforms. Let’s determine the paper’s reliability and credibility. Related, senior Russian officials have been hinting that Moscow may be finally ready to tackle the crisis in the deeply indebted Russian pension system. Fixing these kinds of systems is always risky; find out what the political and economic risks for doing so are in this particular case.

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