Posts Tagged ‘Sweden’

North Korea to Meet for Talks With U.S., South Korean Delegations in Helsinki

March 19, 2018

Comes ahead of U.S.-North Korea summit expected by May

Choe Kang Il, a senior North Korean diplomat handling North American affairs, is seen at the Beijing Capital International Airport on Sunday.
Choe Kang Il, a senior North Korean diplomat handling North American affairs, is seen at the Beijing Capital International Airport on Sunday.PHOTO: KIM JIN-BANG/ASSOCIATED PRESS

SEOUL—A North Korean official will hold unofficial talks in Finland with a delegation from the U.S. and former South Korean government officials, Seoul’s foreign ministry said, amid a flurry of recent diplomatic activity before an expected U.S.-North Korean summit by the end of May.

However, American officials said the meeting in Finland isn’t part of the process leading up to a planned meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but would be an informal discussion of the sort that have occurred periodically among former officials, academics and experts from the U.S., North Korea and South Korea.

A South Korean foreign ministry spokeswoman declined to say when the meeting would take place. She wouldn’t identify attendees except to say that the South Korean delegation would include civilian academics, alongside former government officials.

South Korea’s semiofficial Yonhap news agency reported that Washington’s former ambassador to Seoul, Kathleen Stephens, would attend. Neither Ms. Stephens nor the U.S. Embassy in Seoul could be reached immediately for comment.

The American officials said that Ms. Stephens, who served as the U.S. ambassador in Seoul from 2008 to 2011, wasn’t carrying a message on behalf of the Trump administration or serving as an interlocutor for the State Department.

Trump administration officials have said they haven’t yet heard from North Korea regarding Mr. Trump’s agreement to meet Mr. Kim, announced in a surprise move last month.

In a television appearance Sunday, South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha said North Korea’s Kim appeared to be assessing how to go forward after Mr. Trump’s decision, though she expressed confidence the meeting would take place.

“We believe the North Korean leader is now taking stock and seeing what this means and preparing for his positioning on this,” Ms. Kang told CBS News.

Unofficial meetings involving North Korea and the U.S., sometimes known as Track 2 talks, have been held before.

But the news of the discussions in Finland follows diplomatic action in recent days concerning Pyongyang’s nuclear program. On Saturday, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho concluded a three-day visit to Sweden that included talks with his Swedish counterpart and a meeting with the prime minister.

The State Department has said that visit had no connection to the upcoming summit expected between Messers. Trump and Kim.

Sweden is one of a handful of Western countries to maintain an embassy in North Korea’s capital, and represents U.S. diplomatic interests there. It is also among a few of Washington’s European allies that have consistently backed talks with North Korea.

Swedish officials in the past have helped secure the release of U.S. citizens detained in North Korea. At least three Americans are known to be still detained in the country.

On Sunday, hours before Seoul’s announcement about the Finland talks, a senior North Korean foreign ministry official, Choe Kang Il, was seen boarding a flight from Beijing to Helsinki, Yonhap reported. Mr. Choe is the deputy director of North American affairs at Pyongyang’s foreign ministry.

The Helsinki gathering follows announcements by Seoul officials this month that Mr. Kim was willing to discuss ways to dismantle his country’s atomic weapons.

Separately, South Korean national security adviser Chung Eui-yong, U.S. national-security adviser H.R. McMaster, and Japanese national-security adviser Shotaro Yachi convened in San Francisco over the weekend and agreed on the need to pursue complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, Seoul’s presidential Blue House said on Monday.

North Korea advanced its nuclear-weapons program dramatically over the past year in defiance of progressively tougher United Nations sanctions, launching intercontinental ballistic missiles that it has said can reach the mainland U.S. The regime conducted its sixth nuclear-weapons test in September.

Finland doesn’t have an embassy in Pyongyang. But the country has served a neutral role in international relations since the end of World War II, acting as a broker between the West and the Soviet bloc during the Cold War.

Write to Andrew Jeong at


Sweden warns of ‘foreign meddling’ in election

February 22, 2018


© AFP/File | Sweden’s security service said the country’s electoral system is not immune to “attempts by foreign powers to influence elections in other countries”

STOCKHOLM (AFP) – Sweden’s intelligence service on Thursday warned “foreign powers” could try and meddle in the Nordic nation’s upcoming general election, singling out Russia in light of alleged interference in the last US vote.However, the Swedish Security Service (Sapo), which is responsible for tackling espionage and terrorism, said in an annual report that Sweden’s “robust” and “decentralised” electoral system was tough to influence.

“It cannot be ruled out that certain foreign powers will take advantage of the Swedish election campaign to enhance conflicts in Swedish society and attempt to weaken the democratic system,” said Sapo head Anders Thornberg in the document, which was written last year.

“Russian espionage constitutes the greatest security threat” against non-NATO member Sweden, Sapo warned, adding that a third of Russian diplomats in the country were spies.

“Russia is in Sweden’s vicinity and could be linked to a potential military conflict,” Johan Olsson, a Sapo chief for countering security threats, said in the report.

Prime Minister Stefan Lofven told a January security conference that a new agency would be formed to protect citizens from “external influence” for the September 9 general election.

“To those who are considering to try to influence the election outcome in our country: stay away!” Lofven said.

“We won’t hesitate to recklessly expose those who will try… Russia has been pointed out in many reports,” he added.

In a January 10 report, the US Senate accused Russia of spreading “disinformation” and “propaganda” to interfere in the elections of other countries to undermine Western sanctions against Moscow.

Russia’s government on Monday insisted there was no evidence that it meddled in the US elections, after Washington indicted 13 Russians for alleged covert efforts to sway voters.

Uzbek asylum seeker admits in court he drove the truck in a Stockholm, Sweden terror attack in April 2017

February 20, 2018


In this file photo dated April 7, 2017, provided by Swedish Police shows Akhmat Akilov being apprehended in Marsta, north of Stockholm, Sweden, after he drove a lorry into a crowd. (Swedish Police via AP)
STOCKHOLM: A rejected Uzbek asylum seeker who has admitted to a deadly Stockholm truck attack testified Tuesday that he wanted to pressure Sweden’s government to end support for a coalition fighting Daesh and avenge its dead followers.
On the first day of his trial last week, Rakhmat Akilov, 40, pleaded guilty to stealing a beer truck on April 7, 2017, and mowing down pedestrians on a busy shopping street, swerving wildly to hit as many people as possible.
Three Swedes were killed including an 11-year-old girl, as well as a 41-year-old British man and a 31-year-old Belgian woman. Ten more were injured.

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Five people were killed and ten injured when a truck crashed into department store Ahlens on Drottninggatan, in central Stockholm. Photo: AFP / Fredrik Persson

The assault mirrored other truck attacks in 2016 that left scores dead, one in Nice, southern France, the other in Berlin.
Unlike those attacks, however, the Stockholm murders were never claimed by Daesh.
On Tuesday, Akilov told the court he had nonetheless been given the green light by Daesh members he was in contact with on encrypted chat sites.
Their exchanges show he spent three months preparing the assault. In mid-March, several weeks before the attack, he sent his contacts photos of the intended target for approval.
He told the court Tuesday he wanted “Sweden to end its participation in the fight against the caliphate, to stop sending its soldiers to war zones.”
“I did this because my heart and my soul aches for those who have suffered from the bombings of the NATO coalition,” Akilov said.
Sweden, a non-NATO member, has around 70 military personnel based mainly in northern Iraq to provide training as part of the US-led coalition against Daesh.
Akilov, whose Swedish asylum application was turned down in 2016, swore allegiance to IS on the eve of his assault in one of Europe’s safest cities.
Prosecutor Hans Ihrman has said he expects the hearing to provide a better understanding of “the process of radicalization” of emerging attackers, who are “marginalized in a foreign country” and take on “symbolic targets.”
He added that Akilov’s case “fits into a broader framework” of terrorists. Akilov has been charged with “terrorism and attempted terrorism.”
After crashing the truck into the facade of a store, Akilov set off an explosive device — made up of five gas canisters and nails — although it didn’t explode as planned and caused damage only to the truck.
He told police he wanted “to die as a martyr in an explosion.”
Akilov fled the scene, running into a nearby metro station, and was arrested several hours later from public transport video surveillance images.
One of the key questions in the case, unprecedented in the Scandinavian country, is whether Akilov had any accomplices.
Swedish intelligence agency Sapo is still investigating the identities of his chat contacts, and Akilov himself testified that he only knows their online pseudonyms.
Before the attack, Akilov said he recorded a video of himself pledging allegiance to Daesh.
Investigators so far believe he carried out the assault alone.
Testifying that he initially wanted to attack NATO-member Denmark, Akilov said he was ordered by one of his contacts to target Sweden instead.
He also told the court he gathered information on previous terrorist acts just before his assault, including the April 3 Saint Petersburg metro bombing and the March 22 London car attack against pedestrians at Westminster Bridge.
Speaking calmly in Russian through an interpreter, Akilov expressed no remorse for his actions. Cooperative at the beginning of questioning, he gradually grew impatient.
“From his testimony so far, it’s quite obvious that we are dealing with a person who is quite convinced of the splendour of his deed,” a lawyer for 13 plaintiffs, Gustaf Linderholm, told AFP.
After arriving in Sweden in 2014, at the start of a huge wave of migration to Europe, Akilov’s application for residency was rejected in June 2016.
He later went underground to avoid expulsion and worked odd jobs in construction.
The father of four, who drank alcohol and used drugs, according to colleagues and acquaintances, lived alone in Sweden. His wife and children stayed behind in Uzbekistan.
Akilov claimed he went to Turkey in 2014 with the intention of entering its war-torn neighbor Syria.
Prosecutors have said they will seek a life sentence and, thereafter, his expulsion.
A life sentence in Sweden varies, but is on average 16 years.
The trial is scheduled to last through May, with a verdict due in June.



China’s polar ambitions cause anxiety

February 20, 2018

It’s set to expand presence in Antarctica and the Arctic in positioning itself as a polar power

Chinese tourists going abroad must be used to it by now – the lists of dos and don’ts to prevent them from tarnishing their country’s image.

“Do not spit phlegm or gum” and “don’t take a long time using public toilets” are just two of the exhortations in a 2013 pamphlet from the National Tourism Administration.

But the latest set of regulations is different, with rules against collecting soil, rocks and animals, carrying toxic objects and leaving behind solid waste. They are meant to protect Antarctica’s environment and promote sustainable development of China’s activities in the region, said the China Arctic and Antarctic Administration.

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The rules – released by the State Oceanic Administration earlier this month – include a ban on violators from the area for three years.

They come at a time when the number of Chinese tourists to Antarctica and the Arctic has spiked. Antarctica attracted 5,289 Chinese visitors last year – making up 12 per cent of visitors – overtaking Australians as the second-largest group of travellers there.

Up in the Arctic, Chinese tourists going to the Russian Arctic National Park and the Finnish Lapland have risen as well.

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The regulations also come amid closer scrutiny of China’s expanding polar activities.



China needs to clearly signal its intentions and strategic interests in the Antarctic, as other Antarctic states have done before them.

PROFESSOR ANNE-MARIE BRADY, of Canterbury University in New Zealand, on China’s ambitions in the Antarctic.


Chinese diplomacy in the polar regions can be collaborative and cooperative, rather than provocative and challenging.

DR LIU NENGYE, of Adelaide University in Australia, on how China’s interest in the polar regions differs from its areas of core interests such as Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Tourists are the most visible signs of the growing Chinese presence in the polar regions, which now feature mainly scientific research activities, but will increasingly include economic activities.

This is occurring as global warming causes ice melt in the polar regions, leading to possibilities in shipping and the exploitation of natural resources there.

This increasing Chinese presence in the poles has drawn mixed responses from other parties, whether those with direct stakes like the Arctic states and claimant states to Antarctica, or those with no direct claims but which want a piece of the action.

China is set to expand its activities as it positions itself as a polar power, in line with its foreign policy to be a global presence. As early as 2014, then director of the State Oceanic Administration Liu Cigui wrote: “Today, we are already standing at the starting point of a brand-new historical era, of striding towards becoming a polar-region power.”

Its 13th five-year development plan of 2016-2020 includes a major programme to explore the polar regions. China’s polar ambitions are a function of its rise, said Dr Liu Nengye of Adelaide University.

“China is now able to reach remote parts of the world, be it the Arctic, Antarctica, deep seabed or outer space,” he said in an e-mail interview. He added that economic interests are key, but there are geopolitical reasons as well.

The rest of the world, particularly nations that have been driving polar policies, “may be worried that they will no longer play leading roles in the international decision-making process or at least (are) not as comfortable as they used to be”, he added.


A key foreign relations moment for China this year was the publication of its first White Paper on its Arctic policy last month. Dr Liu said it was well crafted, adding: “It clearly explains China’s objectives in the Arctic and reaffirms China’s full support of the existing Arctic international legal regime.”

The sovereignty of the Arctic states – those that ring the Arctic Circle like Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States – is also respected, he noted.

China positions itself as an important stakeholder as a “near-Arctic state” whose climate and environment are affected by changes there.

While scientific and environmental research is talked about in the policy paper, economic activities also figure strongly. China wants to take part in the development of Arctic shipping routes.

It wants to develop a Polar Silk Road to link with its Belt and Road Initiative  to build infrastructure along land and sea routes that link China to Africa and Europe.

Beijing is keen on the Polar Silk Road because it not only cuts by about a third the travel time from China to Europe, compared with the route via the South China Sea and Indian Ocean now, but also runs through an area free of pirates.

It also wants to take part in the exploration and exploitation of oil, gas and mineral resources, utilise fisheries and other living resources and develop tourism in the Arctic.

In addition, it wants to take part in shaping its governance.

Response to the White Paper has been mixed among Arctic states.

Canadian analysts worry about its ambiguity on Canadian jurisdiction over the North-west Passage that runs through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. While the White Paper acknowledges the sovereignty of Arctic states, it also says international law needs to be observed.

“We don’t know how China places the hierarchy between Arctic states and international law,” Universite Laval professor Frederic Lasserre told CBC News.

He found the ambiguity over what China wants to do in the Arctic “a bit troubling”.

But the Russians have welcomed China’s engagement in the Arctic. China National Petroleum Corporation has a 20 per cent stake in the Yamal liquefied natural gas project in Siberia, and the two nations are looking to cooperate on developing rail and port facilities at Arkhangelsk city near the Arctic Circle.

China has also cooperated with Nordic state, including Iceland, on scientific research. What worries the West is that China and Russia appear to be stepping up military cooperation, having held naval drills in the Baltic Sea last year.

Chinese naval vessels have also at times operated close to the Arctic waters, noted Dr Marc Lanteigne of Massey University in New Zealand.

However, he added: “There is little sign that Beijing has any interest in sending military vessels to the Arctic on a regular basis, especially since doing so would likely prompt a strong reaction from both Russia and the United States.”


In Antarctica, China’s activities are also coming under greater scrutiny.

China runs four research stations there and is building a fifth that is expected to be completed in 2022.

Antarctica is not governed by any one country but by the Antarctica Treaty signed in 1959. China is one of 29 consultative nations of the treaty that govern the territory.

One of the treaty’s objectives is to keep Antarctica demilitarised and nuclear-free, and ensure that it is used for peaceful purposes only.

China published a White Paper on its Antarctic activities last May that focused heavily on its scientific concerns and interest in cooperating with other states on projects related to the environment and climate, noted Dr Lanteigne.

However, a report published last August by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said China “has conducted undeclared military activities in Antarctica, is building a territorial claim, and is engaging in military exploration there”.

It also said China is looking for resources, including minerals, hydrocarbons and fish.

All territorial claims have been suspended since the Antarctic Treaty came into force in 1961, while the Madrid Protocol forbids any activity related to mineral resources other than for scientific research. This protocol is up for review in 2048.

The report said that for the Chinese, the protocol simply postpones what they believe is the inevitable opening up of Antarctic resources. It suggests that China should be encouraged to issue an official Antarctic strategy.

Professor Anne-Marie Brady of Canterbury University in New Zealand, who wrote the report, said in an e-mail: “China needs to clearly signal its intentions and strategic interests in the Antarctic, as other Antarctic states have done before them.”

As a consultative nation, China is entitled to help shape the evolution of Antarctic governance, she added.

As a non-Arctic state and non-claimant to Antarctica, China is seeking to walk a fine line between avoiding being seen as a “gatecrasher” and not being marginalised, said Dr Lanteigne.

Dr Liu thinks that China’s interest in the polar regions differs from its areas of core interests such as Taiwan and the South China Sea. Thus “Chinese diplomacy in the polar regions can be collaborative and cooperative, rather than provocative and challenging”, he added.


US economy: The growth puzzle

February 20, 2018
After several years of weak demand and low inflation, investment is rising. But an increase in long-term growth requires a big jump in productivity
Sam Fleming in Chattanooga
Financial Times (FT)
Frbruary 20, 2018
In the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, Platt Boyd monitors a small platoon of 12-foot long robot arms that he hopes will help revolutionise one of America’s most technology-shy industries.
The Chattanooga, Tennessee-based founder of Branch Technology is vying to bring large-scale 3D printing to the construction sector, allowing elaborate architectural creations to be prefabricated with minimal human labour.“It has massive potential,” says Mr Boyd, standing on his spartan shop floor near two emerald-green robots that are producing the skeleton of a 42-foot-wide structure. “The sector is one where there is a lot of low-hanging fruit.”In the coming weeks Mr Boyd’s small start-up expects to take on 10 more staff, move to a 40,000 sq ft new factory and take delivery of four more $200,000 robots as it capitalises on America’s red-hot construction market.


Platt Boyd in Chattanooga.


Mr Boyd’s bullish outlook reflects rising optimism among US business owners about whether to make new investments. A record share of small businesses say now is a good time to expand in the US, according to data going back to 1973 from the National Federation of Independent Businesses. With global demand gaining traction and US wages accelerating, this is stoking hopes that the US could be on the cusp of higher sustained expansion.

The mood among bosses offers a counterweight to the warnings over the past few years that the US remains stuck in “secular stagnation” — a semi-comatose state of excess savings, weak demand, low inflation, and depressed interest rates. Much of the country’s dynamism has been concentrated in urban superpowers ranging from Los Angeles and New York to Austin, leaving large tracts of the country stranded and disillusioned.

Image result for Chattanooga, river, bridges, photos
To optimists, the economic health of smaller cities such as Chattanooga, with a population of more than 170,000, is a sign of an expansion capable of broadening its reach © Alamy
Yet if companies start bolstering investment, it could give a recovery now in its ninth year further staying power, preventing the recent cyclical upswing from flaming out.
“We have seen a genuine acceleration in business investment in recent months which we expect to gain more traction this year, driving higher productivity in the United States,” said Bart van Ark, chief economist at The Conference Board think-tank. “If this cyclical pick-up lasts long enough it could start to lift America’s growth potential over the longer term, but it is too soon to call that turning point.”Even before Congress passed the recent tax cuts, the US saw two successive quarters of double-digit annualised growth in corporate spending on equipment. New projections from The Conference Board, shared with the Financial Times, show US productivity this year on course to grow 1.3 per cent — below rates seen before the crisis but the fastest pace since early this decade.Broader economic data so far this year have been robust, with gross domestic product on track to rise 3.2 per cent in the first quarter, according to the Atlanta Fed and annual wage growth accelerating to 2.9 per cent in January.

At the same time, Congress is pouring fuel into the US economy by cutting taxes and lifting spending. Indeed, some economists, including Bill Dudley, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s president, believe the bigger risk is that the economy overheats, which could bring the expansion crashing to a halt.

To optimists, the economic health of smaller cities such as Chattanooga, with a population of more than 170,000, is a sign of an expansion capable of broadening its reach. Set along a winding stretch of the Tennessee River and surrounded by green mountains, Chattanooga used to be seen as a polluted, post-industrial wreck. But following several decades of regeneration efforts led by local government, unemployment in the broader urban region is now 3.4 per cent, (compared with 4.1 per cent nationally), the population is expanding, and small tech companies are joining large-scale manufacturers such as Volkswagen in expanding their operations in the city.

“There have been these waves where we have made real progress — the last few years have been one of those waves,” says Andy Berke, the city’s Democratic mayor, who adds that when he was growing up, the city was dying. “You have to take advantage of it while the economy is good.”

New data from the Brookings Institution covering the Chattanooga metropolitan area show the pace of job growth was 15.6 per cent for its young companies — defined as up to five years old. That is the sixth most rapid of the biggest 100 metro areas in the country from 2015-16.

Ken McElrath, the founder and chief executive of Skuid, a Chattanooga-based software company, says he located there in part because it is “crazy” how much cheaper it is than in downtown San Francisco or New York or Boston. “Because the cost of living is so low, you don’t need to pay them exorbitant wages,” he says.

Nevertheless, this remains an expansion on fragile foundations. Although the Brookings Metro Monitor data, to be released on Tuesday, show the recovery has broadened out, with 93 of America’s 100 biggest metro areas posting increases in output from 2015 to 2016, that growth is still concentrated within the most populous and successful cities.

The region around Chattanooga has benefited from inflows of foreign investment, lured in part by tax incentives, as well as a decision by the local utility to install ultra-fast internet infrastructure. Nevertheless the Brookings numbers show productivity in the metropolitan area actually dropped marginally between 2015 and 2016.

Mark Muro, director of policy at Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program, says that the 53 largest metro areas with 1m of population have generated 95 per cent of population growth and 73 per cent of GDP growth from 2010 to November 2016. “A limited core of the country has a vibrant economy while much of the remainder is being left behind,” he says. “It seems sort of academic to ask whether or not the country is in secular stagnation when we see such massive growth divides — it is an unsustainable situation.”

Within Chattanooga, residents talk of divided fortunes. In the city’s downtown a nascent tech sector has sprung up in its innovation district, hosting software and web-development firms sporting the sector’s obligatory ping pong tables, bean bags and office pets.

Larry Summers, former Treasury secretary, says a key question is whether ‘extraordinary macroeconomic and financial conditions’ are needed to generate adequate growth © Bloomberg
But while poverty has fallen in recent years, the city of Chattanooga still has a poverty rate of more than 20 per cent, and poverty among black residents is above 30 per cent, according to Census Bureau figures. Many residents, notably in historically black parts of town, feel excluded from the growth in the urban core, say local activists who bemoan the small size of its black middle class.

“They have come up with a strong template for how to grow a mid-size city,” said Ken Chilton, an associate professor at Tennessee State University. However “there are a whole group of folks being left out of the benefits”.

Sitting in the downtown restaurant where he works in the kitchen, Allen Shropshire says that while newcomers to the city with good skills have prospered, many locals have not. He is now taking a course in energy-saving construction from a local non-profit called Green Spaces and a partner organisation called Build Me A World. “Most weeks I am breaking my back just to get a decent amount for my family,” he says.

This sort of inequality is replicated across the country, creating a barrier to more durable growth given that so much spending power is held in the hands of well-off individuals.

Larry Summers, former Treasury secretary, revived the concept of secular stagnation to describe America’s economic plight in the aftermath of the financial crisis. He says growth has been running above potential and there is modest evidence of accelerating wages. But a key question is whether “extraordinary macroeconomic and financial conditions” are needed to generate adequate growth.

“We have one of the largest fiscal expansions in the country’s history starting from full employment, we have short-term real interest rates at essentially zero, we have the wealth effect of a stock market that has risen by 25 per cent a year, and all of that is only enough to get you 2.5 per cent growth in 2018,” he says. “The question is whether we are moving steadily at a higher level of investment that can be maintained indefinitely and sustainably financed. I don’t think some signs of increased spending subsequent to a major increase in asset prices, a huge fiscal expansion and a major increase in oil prices constitute convincing evidence.”

Needless to say, Trump administration officials have a very different take and are pointing to punchy growth numbers in the second and third quarters last year as evidence that the US has already embarked on a sustainably stronger growth trajectory.

Predictions in the administration’s budget of 3 per cent annual growth well into the next decade left most economists deeply sceptical, however. The Federal Reserve in December put the longer-term trend at just 1.8 per cent even after the tax cuts — similar to the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate.

A key part of the problem is demographics: absent big changes in immigration patterns, the population’s ageing will mean slow workforce growth, cutting away a key growth driver.

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Large-scale manufacturers such as Volkswagen are expanding their operations in Chattanooga © Reuters
To lift potential growth even modestly, the US would therefore need to see a jump in productivity — and a truly remarkable one if the kind of long-term growth figures President Trump has promised were to be achieved. Instead, the country’s productivity performance has been dire, with output per hour growing at an average of just 0.6 per cent a year for the past seven years, according to the Conference Board.
However forthcoming research by the McKinsey Global Institute suggests there is potential for a rebound. It stresses the important role that the financial crisis played in dragging down US productivity. As its influence fades, productivity has the potential, at least, to grow 2 per cent a year across leading countries over the coming 10 years.
“When we see the financial crisis after-effects dissipate we would expect productivity growth to speed up from the historic lows we have seen,” says Jaana Remes, a partner at MGI. “We would expect some bounceback.”Much will depend on whether US companies match their enthusiastic predictions of higher technology investment with action, and whether the digital advances of recent years begin to diffuse among broader populations of firms and into sectors that are technological laggards.

Company bosses have repeatedly claimed that tax reductions and looser regulation will induce them to spend more, but tax cuts have often shown up in dividends and share buybacks, rather than new technologies.Indeed, the history of slow-adapting sectors like construction shows just how hard it can be to increase productivity. While US agriculture and manufacturing have raised productivity 10 -15 times since the 1950s, construction remains at the same level as 80 years ago.

Despite his enthusiasm about his own technology, Mr Boyd says it will take three decades to make such changes widespread. “It is a generation change,” he says. “It is not something that will happen overnight.”

The US is far from alone in suffering a productivity slump in recent years – and new research covering a selection of advanced economies shows how severe the drop has been.

Productivity growth slumped about 80 per cent on average between 2000-04 and 2010-14, according to analysis from the McKinsey Global Institute covering the US, France, Germany, Sweden and the UK.

The decline is hugely significant given the role productivity plays in driving up living standards.

The first phase of the slowdown represented the waning of the technology boom of the 1990s. The second phase was driven by the crash in demand during the Great Recession.

This leaves reason for optimism about the future; if the financial crisis was responsible for a chunk of the slowdown, there ought to be scope for a bounce now that many of its effects have dissipated.

Some economists have warned that many of the biggest technological advances have already been made, holding back the potential for productivity growth.

But MGI says digital advances such as the introduction of new online marketplaces and machine learning could herald productivity leaps.

To date, the benefits have not materialised, broadly because of time lags behind in the adoption of new technologies and barriers to their use. In retail, for example, online sales are two times more productive than store sales, and yet they account on average for just 10 per cent of sales.

At the same time, there is a major sting associated with digitisation as labour markets become more polarised between winners and losers. That could lead income inequalities to grow and hold back spending and growth.

See also:

Platt Boyd Is Branching Out


Seeking post-Brexit unity, EU leaders find more fights

February 18, 2018


© AFP/File / by Danny KEMP | European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was picked after European elections in 2014 by a controversial “Spitzenkandidat” system — German for “lead candidate”

BRUSSELS (AFP) – EU leaders face difficult talks this week on the thorny issues of how to plug holes in the post-Brexit budget and choose a successor for European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.A special one-day summit in Brussels on Friday of the 27 leaders without Britain is meant to be a key step in the roadmap to a leaner and more unified bloc after Britain leaves in just over a year.

But cracks have already appeared between French President Emmanuel Macron, leading the charge for a reformed Europe, and Juncker with his federalist vision of how top EU officials should be chosen in future.

The row means the EU’s attempts to overcome the shock of losing a major member are running into the classic problems that have bedevilled it for its six decades of existence: money and sovereignty.

Juncker was picked after European elections in 2014 by a controversial “Spitzenkandidat” system — German for “lead candidate” — under which the political group with the most votes gets to nominate its candidate for the job.

Both the European Parliament and Juncker back a repeat after the May 2019 European election, saying it gives the public a direct say in who heads the commission, the EU’s powerful executive arm.

– ‘Right and obligation’ –

European Council President Donald Tusk — who coordinates summits and represents the EU member states — is expected to lay out options at the summit, including whether to continue with the Spitzenkandidat system.

Leaders are expected to say it is their own “right and obligation” to choose the commission chief, while “taking into account” the views of parliament, as the EU treaties state, an EU source told AFP.

Many national leaders are bitterly opposed to the Spitzenkandidat process, saying it sidelines democratically elected heads of government in favour of a backroom deal by Brussels-based political parties, and also makes the job of commission chief too political.

Macron this week slammed the Brussels establishment as ideologically incoherent and called for a “political revamp” to give the commission a clear mandate, defined by the national leaders.

Juncker however said earlier this week that the Spitzenkandidat system was “completely logical”. He also called for the commission chief’s job to be merged with Tusk’s.

The row has become particularly fierce after the European Parliament earlier this month dealt Macron a slap by voting against “transnational lists” — which would allow 30 of the 73 seats vacated by Britain to be elected on pan-European tickets, instead of directly to constituencies.

“Why should we have Spitzenkandidaten if we have no transnational list for elections?!” Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel tweeted.

– Fixing a hole –

Filling the hole that Brexit leaves in the EU’s multi-year budget from 2020 threatens to open up even deeper divisions — but this time between member states themselves.

Tusk will ask the leaders at the summit whether they want to increase the budget, decrease it or keep it the same, sources said.

EU Budget Commissioner Guenther Oettinger has said that Britain’s exit could leave a hole of as much as between 12 and 15 billion euros ($15-19 billion) and suggested that contributions be increased to between 1.1 percent and 1.2 percent of GDP from the current level of one percent of GDP in the 2014-2020 budget.

The Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, Sweden and Finland, all net contributors, are said to be against that idea.

Warnings by Oettinger of cuts on agriculture — a bugbear for France — and “cohesion funds” that benefit poorer eastern European states are also likely to go down badly.

But there is little appetite for suggestions that the EU could try to bring countries like Poland and Hungary into line on issues including the rule of law and migration by making cohesion funds “conditional” on good behaviour.

With these tensions in the background it is no surprise that the EU has been stressing the need for unity in Brexit talks with Britain.

Tusk is expected to ask leaders on Friday if they want to push ahead next month with issuing negotiating red lines on a post-Brexit future relationship with Britain.

Uncertainty over Britain’s wishes, and difficulties in negotiations on a post-Brexit transition period, could push that back.

by Danny KEMP

Bookseller Gui Minhai surfaces in Chinese custody to deliver staged confession — China again forced to deal with ugly accusations of torture, coercion, violation of human rights and rule of law

February 10, 2018

Activists call the video, in which Gui criticises his home nation of Sweden, ‘the product of pure coercion’

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, standing, suit and indoor

One time Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai delivers what supporters denounced as a ‘venal’ staged confession while being held by mainland China police. Photograph via SCMP

By Tom Phillips

Three weeks after he was snatched from a Beijing-bound train, the Swedish bookseller Gui Minhai has resurfaced in police custody, making what activists denounced as a surreal, venal and shameful video confession to a series of unspecified offenses.

“I feel ashamed about myself. I have made mistakes,” Gui, 53, is filmed telling a small group of reporters who said they had been given access to the prisoner by Chinese security officials.

“My message to my family is that I hope they will live a good life. Don’t worry about me. I will solve my own problems myself.”

Gui, a Hong Kong-based publisher who specialised in titillating tomes on China’s political elite, had last been heard of on 20 January when he was seized by plainclothes agents as he travelled to China’s capital with two Swedish diplomats.

Supporters say Gui, whose increasingly phantasmagorical tale began when he vanished from his home in Thailand in 2015, had been heading to the Swedish embassy for a medical check-up amid suspicions he was suffering from a rare neurological disease.

However, Gui rejected that narrative on Friday as he was paraded before reporters from pro-establishment news outlets including the South China Morning Post, an English-language broadsheet which faced criticism in 2016 for printing a mysterious and apparently coerced interview with a young Chinese activist.

Gui, who has spent much of the past two years in custody but was partially freed last October, accused Sweden of “sensationalising” his case and tricking him into a botched attempt to flee China.

“I fell for it,” he says. “Sweden offered me a plan, and that was to use my medical appointment as an excuse to get to the Swedish embassy in Beijing. And then they would wait for an opportunity to get me to Sweden.

“My wonderful life has been ruined and I would never trust the Swedish ever again,” Gui adds.

Forced televised confessions have become a hallmark of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s increasingly hardline rule with a succession of government critics – including Gui and the human rights activist Peter Dahlin – appearing on camera to admit their supposed sins.

Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch’s China director, said Gui’s “interview” looked like the latest example of such staged admissions: “The venality of that video is breathtaking – as is the substance, which is suspiciously perfectly crafted to try to undermine Sweden’s access to him.”

“Sweden and the EU should call it out for what it is – the product of pure coercion – and redouble their efforts to free him.”

Måns Molander, the group’s Sweden and Denmark director, tweeted: “#China is forcing Swedish citizen #GuiMinhai to ‘confess’ and make public statements. We have seen it before.”

William Nee, an Amnesty International campaigner, tweeted: “This sort of contrived video and media interview made in incommunicado detention is shameful.”

Sweden made no immediate comment but last week Stockholm condemned China’s “brutal intervention”.

Read the rest:


Detained bookseller Gui Minhai slams Sweden in ‘staged interview’

A Hong Kong-based Swedish bookseller in jail in China has accused Sweden of exploiting his case for political reasons. But rights activists claim his statement was made under duress.

Poster showing Gui Minhai

A detained Hong Kong bookseller at the center of a growing dispute between Sweden and China on Friday accused Stockholm of using him as a “chess piece” in an interview slammed by journalists and rights groups as coerced.

In the media appearance arranged by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, Gui Minhai, who has dual Swedish-Chinese citizenship, said he never wanted to leave China and that Sweden had been exploiting his case to “create trouble” for the Chinese government.

“I have seen through the Swedish government. If they continue to create troubles, I may consider giving up my Swedish citizenship,” he said, saying that some Swedish politicians might be seeking “political gains” in an election year.

The interview appeared to have been organized by Chinese authorities in response to comments made on Monday by Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom, who slammed Beijing’s “brutal” treatment of Gui.

This came after several other milder calls for his release from Sweden, echoed by Germany, the European Union and the United States.

Read more: Hong Kong’s 20 years under Chinese rule – A failed project?

Photographs of the missing bookstore shareholders Gui Minhai, (L), and Lee Bo, are taped to barriers outside the China Liaison Office during a protest in Hong Kong, ChinaSeveral booksellers in Hong Kong been arrested by Chinese authorities in the past years

Calls to continue

A spokesman for the Swedish Foreign Ministry told media that Gui’s comments would have no effect on further pleas for him to be freed.

“We have a clear demand that he be set free so that he can meet his family,” Patric Nilsson told the Swedish news agency TT. “Those demands remain.”

The Sweden and Denmark director of Human Rights Watch, Mans Molander, was among those to pan Gui’s appearance as staged.

In yet another embarrassing move, is forcing Swedish citizen to “confess” and make public statements. We have seen it before. Chinas violations of and international consular law must meet firm response from Sweden and EU. 

Causeway Bay Bos publisher Gui Minhai has said he regretted attempting to go to Beijing with Swedish diplomats last month, which ended in Gui being reportedly snatched from a train. In an interview…

Previous arrest

Gui was arrested in January by plainclothes agents while on a train with Swedish diplomats who were taking him for medical treatment. According to Gui’s daughter, Angela Gui, he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS.

In his interview, Gui said that the Swedish officials had been attempting to get him out of China.

Previous to his current detention, Gui was released from a Chinese prison in October after completing a two-year sentence for allegedly killing someone in a drink-driving accident. During his stay in jail, he issued a televised confession in which he said he was being legally held and was “willing to accept any punishment.”

Gui is known for selling books containing gossip about top Chinese leaders, with some saying that this explains efforts by Chinese authorities to silence him.

Several booksellers in Hong Kong have been arrested over the past few years by Chinese authorities.

tj/jlw (AP, dpa)



UN Security Council considers demanding 30-day Syria truce

February 10, 2018



© Abdulmonam Eassa, AFP |Members of Syrian civil defence forces known as the White Helmets evacuate a victim of an air strike in the rebel-held enclave of Arbin in the Eastern Ghouta near the capital Damascus on February 9, 2018.


Latest update : 2018-02-10

The UN Security Council is considering a draft resolution demanding a 30-day ceasefire in Syria to allow for urgent deliveries of humanitarian aid, according to the text seen by AFP on Friday.

Syrian rescuers evacuating badly injured people following an airstrike


Sweden and Kuwait presented the measure that would also demand an immediate end to sieges, including in Eastern Ghouta where a bombing campaign by government forces has killed more than 240 civilians in five days.


The proposed measure came a day after the council failed to back an appeal by UN aid officials for a month-long pause in fighting.

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said it was “not realistic” to impose a ceasefire because armed groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces were unlikely to uphold it.

Russia has repeatedly blocked action in the council that would put pressure on its ally Assad.

Negotiations on the proposed measure are to begin on Monday and diplomats said it could quickly come to a vote at the council.

It remained unclear whether Russia would resort to its veto to block the draft resolution proposing the 30-day truce, diplomats said.

The measure would decide “that all parties to the Syrian conflict shall immediately abide by a humanitarian pause and cessation of violence throughout Syria, for a period of 30 consecutive days,” according to the text.

The draft demands that all sides allow medical evacuations 48 hours after the start of the humanitarian pause.

Convoys carrying food, medicine and other vital supplies would be authorized to make weekly deliveries to civilians in need, in particular to the 2.9 million Syrians living under siege or in hard-to-reach areas.

Cease depriving of food

UN aid officials accuse the Syrian government of blocking all aid convoys to besieged areas since January.

Rights group accuse the Assad regime of resorting to starve-and-siege tactics against rebel-held areas.

The draft resolution calls on all parties to “immediately lift the sieges of populated areas” and “cease depriving civilians of food and medicine indispensable for their survival.”

The UN humanitarian coordinator in Syria, Panos Moumtzis, on Tuesday called for the month-long ceasefire across Syria as fighting in Eastern Ghouta and Idlib escalated.


Western powers have expressed alarm over the government’s bombing campaign in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, where 400,000 people have been living under siege since 2013.

UNICEF said dozens of children have reportedly been killed this week and that life under such heavy violence had turned into a “living nightmare” for children.

The draft resolution expresses “outrage at the unacceptable level of violence escalating in several parts of the country,” in particular in Eastern Ghouta and Idlib.

Sweden and Kuwait, two non-permanent council members, are leading efforts to address the humanitarian crisis in Syria at the top UN body.

More than 13.1 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian aid, including 6.1 million who have been displaced within the country during the nearly seven-year war.



Publisher detained in China ‘confesses’, blames Sweden

February 10, 2018


© AFP/File | Gui was one of five Hong Kong-based booksellers known for publishing gossipy titles about Chinese political leaders who disappeared in 2015 and resurfaced in mainland China


Detained book publisher Gui Minhai has surfaced nearly three weeks after disappearing into police custody in China, confessing wrongdoing and accusing his adopted country Sweden of manipulating him like a “chess piece”.

It was unclear whether the Chinese-born Gui’s statement was genuine or made under duress, but a video of his confession shows him flanked by two police officers in a scene likely to prompt accusations of official coercion.

The Chinese-born Gui, 53, was arrested on a train to Beijing last month while travelling with two Swedish diplomats — the second time he has vanished into Chinese custody in murky circumstances.

Sweden, the European Union and the United States have called for Gui’s release, with Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom on Monday calling his seizure “brutal”.

But Gui accused Sweden of “sensationalising” his case.

“I have stated that I do not want Sweden to continue to sensationalise what has happened to me. But obviously, Sweden has not stopped doing so,” he said in the video.

“I felt that it was necessary for me to come out and say something.”

Gui was travelling by train to Beijing from the eastern China city of Ningbo, where doctors had said he may have the neurological disease ALS.

He was to see a Swedish specialist in the capital but was arrested aboard the train.

Gui said Friday that Swedish officials had pressured him to leave China despite being barred from doing so due to pending legal cases.

“I have declined a few times. But because they were instigating me non-stop, I fell for it,” said Gui.

“Looking back, I might have become Sweden’s chess piece. I broke the law again under their instigation. My wonderful life has been ruined and I would never trust the Swedish ever again.”

Gui was one of five Hong Kong-based booksellers known for publishing gossipy titles about Chinese political leaders who disappeared in 2015 and resurfaced in mainland China.

Gui was on holiday in Thailand at the time.

He eventually re-emerged at an undisclosed Chinese location, confessing to involvement in a fatal traffic accident and smuggling illegal books into mainland China.

China has given scant details on his arrest but acknowledged on Tuesday that Gui was in custody under criminal law, without offering further specifics.

Chinese criminal suspects often appear in videotaped “confessions” that rights groups say sometimes bear the hallmarks of official arm-twisting.

Gui’s family members could not immediately be reached for comment about his confession, but they have previously expressed fears that he will receive a lengthy prison sentence, jeopardising his health.

But on Friday, Gui said no doctors had diagnosed him with ALS, saying “I think Sweden has exaggerated this and manipulated (me).”

“I have seen through the Swedish government. If they continue to create troubles, I may consider giving up my Swedish citizenship,” he said.


UNRWA chief slams ‘political dimension’ of US aid cut to Palestinians

January 30, 2018


UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl speaks during a news conference at a UN-run school in Gaza City. (Reuters)
GENEVA: The head of the UN agency for Palestinians criticized on Tuesday the “political dimension” of a US decision to dramatically slash funding to the organization, warning this could lead to rising instability.
Pierre Krahenbuhl said the US decision to reduce funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) this year by $300 million “has a political dimension that I think should be avoided.”
He made these comments while issuing an emergency appeal for more than $800 million in funds to provide additional assistance to Palestinian refugees in Syria, Gaza and the West Bank.
The US, which for years has by far been UNRWA’s largest donor, announced this month it will be contributing just $60 million to the organization’s 2018 budget, down from $360 million last year.
“It is very clear the decision by the US was not related to our performance,” Krahenbuhl said, pointing out that he had a “positive” meeting with US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner last November and had been left with the impression Washington would maintain its funding levels.
Krahenbuhl said the cuts were clearly linked to the Palestinian leadership’s decision this month to freeze ties with Trump’s administration after its controversial recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, adding that Washington could no longer be the main mediator in talks with Israel.
The Palestinians see East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
Krahenbuhl stressed the “imperative to preserve and ensure that humanitarian funding is preserved from politicization.”
“The whole point of supporting communities in very difficult conflict environments is that one doesn’t have to agree with anyone’s leadership. One is concerned with the well-being… of communities.”
He underlined that UNRWA provides essential services to some 5.3 million Palestinian refugees across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and the Gaza Strip, including running 700 schools and 140 health clinics.
“It is not the first time in our long and proud history that we face challenges of this nature, but it is in financial terms the most serious financial crisis ever in the history of this agency,” he said.
Cuts to these and other services for populations often already in dire need and lacking any possibilities to move or to improve their situations could be a recipe for disaster, he warned.
“There is no doubt that if no solution is found to the shortfall… then there will be increased instability,” Krahenbuhl said.
“Cutting and reducing funding to UNRWA is not good for regional stability.”
Following the US move, UNRWA last week launched a global fundraising campaign, titled “Dignity is Priceless,” to help fill the gaps.
And Krahenbuhl said other donor countries were rushing to provide their donations early to ensure services could continue while the organization works to bring in more cash.
Denmark, Finland, Germany Norway, Russia, Sweden and Switzerland had already provided their annual donations in full, while Belgium, Kuwait, Netherlands and Ireland had vowed to do so “very soon,” he said.