Tuesday, September 19, 2017

How Scientists Tracki North Korea's Nuclear Program

North Korea's ongoing series of nuclear tests are interesting to me, a geoscientist, because of the seismic signature that they leave behind.  Here is some background information, showing from a seismic perspective, how North Korea's ability to produce ever more powerful nuclear weapons is improving.

During the early stages of the nuclear age between 1945 to 1957, nuclear weapons testing took place in the atmosphere as shown in this video:

This led to potential issues since the tests exposed civilian populations to excessive levels of radiation.

After the signing of the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963, most tests took place underground with the exceptions of China which continued atmosphere testing until 1980 and France which continued atmospheric testing until 1974.  The explosions from underground testing creates a subsurface cavity which often collapses, creating a rubble-filled chimney that may go to the surface depending on the depth of the test.  Here is a graphic showing the Nevada test site and the impact of a nuclear weapons test on the subsurface:

The only certain way to track these underground tests is through seismic monitoring.  During the nuclear test ban discussions held in 1958, it was decided that there was a need for a global network of accurately calibrated and timed instruments that could measure and monitor underground nuclear explosions.  Seismologists had, for some time, recognized the need for a global network of seismographs to produce the data needed for further global studies in seismology.  This led to the creation of the World-Wide Standardized Seismic Network or WWSSN.  Construction began in 1961 and was completed at the end of 1967 with the installation of 121 WWSSN systems plus one which was given to the USSR.   

Here is a map showing the WWSSN stations in 1978:

One of the major benefits of the WWSSN was its assistance in developing the science of global plate tectonics, a key aspect of the geoscience world today.

In 1996, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was adopted by the United Nations.  Here is a map showing the signatory, ratifying and non-signatory states (in red):

Monitoring is obviously a very important part of the CTBT Organization.  Four types of monitoring are used including seismic, hydro acoustic, radionuclide and infrasound.  We'll focus on the seismic monitoring for the purposes of this posting.  Seismic monitoring takes place at 170 seismic stations (50 primary and 120 auxiliary) in 76 nations around the world.  The primary stations operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and data is relayed in real time to the International Data Centre in Vienna, Austria.  Here is a video which explains how the seismic monitoring system works:


Now, let's look at the seismic history of North Korea's nuclear tests according to the CTBTO, focussing on the test of September 3, 2017.  The "event" was detected at 41 primary and 90 auxiliary stations along with two hydroacoustic and one infrasound stations.  The event took place at 03:30 UTC on September 3, 2017 and is consistent with a man-made explosion, however, CTBTO states that the explosion can only be classified as nuclear once airborne radioactivity is detected, a process which can take up to55 days which was the case in the 2013 test.  The initial estimate of the event's magnitude was 5.8 which was later revised to 6.1.  Here is a graphic showing how this event's seismic signature compares to North Korea's other nuclear tests:

As you can see, there was significantly greater seismic activity after the September 3, 2017 test than there was in all previous nuclear tests.  Calculations now suggest that the yield of the most recent blast is approximately 250 kilotons (one quarter of a megaton), by far North Korea's largest yield as shown here:

By way of comparison, the Little Boy weapon that destroyed Hiroshima had a yield of 15 kilotons and the Fat Man weapon that destroyed Nagasaki had a yield of 22 kilotons.

The data from the latest North Korean nuclear test suggests that the hermit kingdom has now developed a weapon that would be capable of creating significant damage to its intended target.  With a weapon of this size, accuracy becomes somewhat less important since destruction will be widespread.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Non-Cash Payments - The Wave of the Future for Americans?

While most people look at trends in the United States as a guide to what will happen in the future, a report from the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA), Australia's answer to the Federal Reserve, gives us a good indication of where the global economy is headed.

In its one of its recent annual reports, the RBA's Payment Systems Board looks at how consumers in Australia pay for retail items.  They also track the frequency with which consumers withdraw cash from ATMs.  All of this is done to "promote the efficiency of the payments system and promote competition in the market for payment services, consistent with the overall stability of the financial system.". 

Let's start by looking at the RBA's statistics for the change in the number and value of ATM cash withdrawals, a key metric of how much cash is used in Australian society since ATMs are the primary method by which individuals obtain cash:

In 2014/2015, the number of ATM cash withdrawals fell by 5 percent and the value of ATM cash withdrawals fell by 2 percent.  The trend in 2014/2015 continues a trend of shrinking use of ATMs that started in 2009 - 2010.  The RBA notes that the continued decline in ATM withdrawals reflects a number of factors:

1.) consumers' adoption of new technologies including contactless card payments.

2.) growth in online commerce.

Cash payments continue to be used but are mainly utilized in low-value transactions although that is changing as well.

On the other hand, Australian consumers have become quite fond of using debit cards as we can see on this table:

The average annual growth rate in the use of debit cards between 2009/2010 and 2014/2015 is 13.7 percent compared to only 5.2 percent for credit cards.  BPAY is an electronic bill payment system that is owned by the four major Australia retail banks.  It allows consumers to make bill payments through a financial institution's online, mobile or telephone banking system.  BPAY payments have risen by an average of 5.9 percent annually over the same time period.

In 2014/2015, an average Australian made around 400 non-cash transactions per person with card payments accounting for nearly two-thirds of those payments as shown on this graph:

It is interesting to see that the average transaction value for both credit and debit cards has continued to fall as shown on this graph:

This indicates that, despite transaction fees, consumers are becoming increasingly comfortable using non-cash payment methods for even small transactions.  One way that banks have prodded consumers into paying for small items using non-cash methods is through the increasing use of contactless transactions where cardholders merely wave their smart credit card over a merchant's terminal, requiring no PIN input or signature.  Currently, this method is used for only relatively small transactions under a specified limit (i.e. $100), however as time progresses and consumers become more addicted to the contactless system, it will expand.

The RBA is even so kind as to provide us with a summary of per capita non-cash payments for other countries for the year 2013 as you will see in this table:

Here is a graph showing how the percentage of non-cash payments has skyrocketed since 1997:

In 2013, nearly 60 percent of all non-cash payments in the nations that make up the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures (CPMI) were made using either debit or credit cards.

Lest the banking system try to fool us into thinking that debit and credit cards are safer for them and us, here's a graph showing how the losses associated with fraudulent use of credit cards in Australia has mushroomed since 2006:

In 2013, Australian debit, credit and charge cards wound up with total fraud losses of $421 million, up 30 percent from $322 million in 2013.  The increase in card fraud was driven by a 61 percent increase in losses associated with Australian cards being used to make fraudulent purchases overseas in a "card-not-present" transaction (i.e. where a card is used online, by telephone or by mail).  For those of us that have suffered fraudulent use of one of our cards, we can attest to the pain that is created when a card has to be cancelled and reissued.

Where is Australia headed from here?  Recent research by Australia's Westpac Bank shows that 79 percent of Australian smartphone users agree that making payments by a smartphone will soon become the norm.  Those who use their smartphones for payments also believe that Australia will be cash-free by 2022.  Westpac has gone so far as to invest in a smartphone app called "HeyYou" which allows Westpac customers to preorder takeaway food and coffee directly from their Westpac app without having their wallet.  This saves frustrated consumers thousands upon thousands of hours spent every year waiting for food and drink to be served (sarcasm noted).  Westpac notes that:

 "As well as making the customer's life easier, Hey You helps cafe owners run more efficient businesses. The Hey You app allows cafes to process more orders by removing cash and reducing the time and cost to serve each customer." (my bold)

Not to mention increased transaction fees charged by the bank!  You'll even note that Westpac is offering a $5 credit for customers that order through their app:

With the United States being among the highest per capita users of cashless transactions, it looks like our future has been determined.  All we need now is for the Federal Reserve and the federal government to sell the benefits of a cashless society to American consumers, particularly to those that still insist on using checks as a payment method.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Carter Solution to the North Korea Crisis

At the annual "Conversation with the Carters" held at the Carter Center in Atlanta, we got an interesting viewpoint on the ongoing crisis in North Korea from a former President of the United States, Jimmy Carter.  Let's look at what the 92 year-old former president had to say about how the Trump Administration should handle the issue.

When asked what he would do to manage the North Korean nuclear threat if he was president today (at the 43 minute 3 second mark), here is his response:

"I'm going to say something which you probably won't like.  The first thing that I would do would be to treat the North Koreans with respect.  I would be talking to them.  I've been over there three times myself to deal with the leaders of North Korea.  I've been out in the boondocks in North Korea, little villages where they didn't even know that we were going to see about the distribution of food because people were starving over there.  Their allocation of calories for a grown man was only 700 per day and as you know a diet is about 1400 per day for one man.  SO, we have refused to talk to them since George W. Bush was in office,  George Bush Junior, and Obama refused to have any discussions with the North Koreans even though I went over there twice when he was in office and urged him to talk to them.  I know what the North Koreans want.  The North Koreans want a peace treaty with the United States.  We've only had a ceasefire since the Korean War was over.  I was in a submarine in the Atlantic when the Korean War was going on, I remember very it vividly.  We only have a ceasefire, we don't have a treaty with them.  What they want is a firm treaty guaranteeing North Korea that the United States will not attack them or hurt them in any way unless they attack one of their neighbours, notably South Korea.  But the United States has refused to do that and I think that's what I would do, is to work with the North Koreans.  I would send my top person to Pyongyang immediately if I didn't go myself to the North Koreans about how to defuse the issue.  Until we are willing to talk to them and treat them with respect as human beings, which they are, then I don't think that we're going to make any progress." (my bold)

In case you are interested, here is a link to President Carter's entire address.  He touches on a wide range of current subjects including Ukraine and Russia, Syria and ISIS its recruitment of young warriors, Columbia and FARC, women's legal rights in developing nations, the fight to eradicate the Guinea worm among other issues.

President Carter has far more experience dealing with North Korea than anyone in the current administration.  The fact that the Kim family has seen this:

...and this:

...happen to leaders who crossed the United States, it is no wonder that Kim Jong-un is constantly threatening the United States with his own version of hellfire.

While President Carter's advice to treat North Korea with respect makes logical sense, it certainly doesn't play into the plans of the military-industrial-technology complex (aka the Deep State) which thrives on a constant state of war, probably why his recent comments on the issue received almost no press coverage from the American mainstream media.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Friendship Treaty Between China and North Korea

With the Trump Administration threatening to move against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) as a punishment for their ballistic missile and nuclear programs, it is a good time to take a look back to 1961 when the People's Republic of China and the DPRK signed the "Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance Between the People's Republic of China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Here is the text of the treaty which was signed in July 1961:

THE Chairman of the People's Republic of China and the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, determined, in accordance with Marxism-Leninism and the principle of proletarian internationalism and on the basis of mutual respect for state sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and mutual assistance and support, to make every effort to further strengthen and develop the fraternal relations of friendship, co-operation and mutual assistance between the People's Republic of China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, to jointly guard the security of the two peoples, and to safeguard and consolidate the peace of Asia and the world, and deeply convinced that the development and strengthening of the relations of friendship, co-operation and mutual assistance between the two countries accord not only with the fundamental interests of the two peoples but also with the interests of the peoples all over the world, have decided for this purpose to conclude the present Treaty and appointed as their respective plenipotentiaries:

The Chairman of the People's Republic of China: Chou En-lai, Premier of the State Council of the People's Republic of China.

The Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea: Kim Il Sung, Premier of the Cabinet of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea,

Who, having examined each other's full powers and found them in good and due form, have agreed upon the the following:

Article I

The Contracting Parties will continue to make every effort to safeguard the peace of Asia and the world and the security of all peoples.

Article II

The Contracting Parties undertake jointly to adopt all measures to prevent aggression against either of the Contracting Parties by any state. In the event of one of the Contracting Parties being subjected to the armed attack by any state or several states jointly and thus being involved in a state of war, the other Contracting Party shall immediately render military and other assistance by all means at its disposal.

Article III

Neither Contracting Party shall conclude any alliance directed against the other Contracting Party or take part in any bloc or in any action or measure directed against the other Contracting Party .

Article IV

The Contracting Parties will continue to consult with each other on all important international questions of common interest to the two countries.

Article V

The Contracting Parties, on the principles of mutual respect for sovereignty, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit and in the spirit of friendly co-operation, will continue to render each other every possible economic and technical aid in the cause of socialist construction of the two countries and will continue to consolidate and develop economic, cultural, and scientific and technical co-operation between the two countries.

Article VI

The Contracting Parties hold that the unification of Korea must be realized along peaceful and democratic lines and that such a solution accords exactly with the national interests of the Korean people and the aim of preserving peace in the Far East.

Article VII

The present Treaty is subject to ratification and shall come into force on the day of exchange of instruments of ratification, which will take place in Pyongyang. The present Treaty will remain in force until the Contracting Parties agree on its amendment or termination. Done in duplicate in Peking on the eleventh day of July, nineteen sixty-one, in the Chinese and Korean languages, both texts being equally authentic.

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, there had been some discussions by the Chinese and North Korea about a potential treaty of alliance, however little progress had been made until the end of June 1961.  In late June 1961, North Korea's Foreign Minister Pak Seong-cheol informed Chinese Ambassador Qiao Ziaoguang that Kim Il-sung would pay a visit to the Soviet Union on June 29, 1961 with the purpose of signing a treaty of mutual assistance with China.  After visiting Moscow, Kim Il-sung flew to Beijing where he and China's Premier Zhou En-lai signed the PRC-DPRK treaty on July 11, 1961.  It is key to note that the treaty has no expiry date, suggesting that it is still in effect today. 

Please note that I have highlighted the Treaty's Article II.  This article clearly states the military  and other obligations of both parties should a third party be subjected to an by any state or group of states.

recent op-ed in the Global Times, the Communist Party of China's unofficial English language daily, examined the relevance of the 1961 treaty in light of the current tensions between Pyongyang and Washington.  Here is a quote:

 "The precondition of peace is a stable geopolitical structure. In recent years, South Korea, Japan and the US have re-engaged in the geopolitical game in Northeast Asia. The treaty has somewhat supported structural stability in Northeast Asia. South Korea and the US have repeatedly hyped up the prospect of the collapse of Pyongyang's regime. Some have tried to exclude China's interests from the future landscape of the peninsula, while the treaty indicates that such thinking only leads to a dead end.

Pyongyang should cherish the treaty and make it one of the foundations for its national security. North Korea's pursuit of nuclear technology has impaired its own security as well as the region's, and it has also jeopardized China's national security. This has violated the principles of the treaty.

The treaty firmly opposes aggression. But North Korea insists on developing nuclear weapons and conducting missile launches in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, which increases the risks of military clashes with the US. The situation has changed a lot compared with that of 2001 when the treaty was renewed. 

North Korea needs to end its nuclear tests. South Korea and the US should stop their aggressive military threats against Pyongyang. Both sides should contribute to peace and stability on the peninsula. China is geographically adjacent to the peninsula. If there is war, China will face the risk as well. 

China will not allow its northeastern region to be contaminated by North Korea's nuclear activities. Nor will it allow changes to the peninsula structure through non-peaceful means.

China has not imposed full-scale sanctions on any country and the Chinese people have stayed away from war for years. The world has seen China's strength gaining momentum. China respects all countries, but no country should underestimate China's determination." (my bold)

You will notice that People's Republic of China is quite clear about its agenda in the Korean Peninsula.  While it is not in favour of the DPRK's development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles largely because it threatens China's national security, China has stated clearly that it is not in favour of changes to the current North - South geopolitical split, particularly changes that are brought about by "non-peaceful means" for example by a war started by outside military powers or by military coup, a tactic historically favoured by the United States.  China has, however, been quite clear that it will not come to North Korea's aid if it launches missiles that threaten the United States as shown in this op-ed from the Global Times dated August 10, 2017:

"Beijing is not able to persuade Washington or Pyongyang to back down at this time. It needs to make clear its stance to all sides and make them understand that when their actions jeopardize China's interests, China will respond with a firm hand.

China should also make clear that if North Korea launches missiles that threaten US soil first and the US retaliates, China will stay neutral. If the US and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.

China opposes both nuclear proliferation and war in the Korean Peninsula. It will not encourage any side to stir up military conflict, and will firmly resist any side which wants to change the status quo of the areas where China's interests are concerned. It is hoped that both Washington and Pyongyang can exercise restraint. The Korean Peninsula is where the strategic interests of all sides converge, and no side should try to be the absolute dominator of the region." (my bold)

We can clearly see from this posting that the political ties between China and North Korea are still firmly in place despite North Korea's recent actions.  The fifty-five year old treaty between the two nations is still in effect and, should the United States and any of its regional allies make the first moves in a war with North Korea, the terms of the Friendship Treaty clearly state that China must come to the aid of the North Koreans, a promise that they clearly made to the world in August 2017.