Good morning, Vice-Minister Chen. I hope you enjoyed sampling our great country’s authentic cuisine at lunch today. If not, I keep a bottle of Pepto in my desk. As you know, the new Trump Administration is all about cutting government spending, although we know how to invest, too. The neon signage and gold-leaf bathroom fixtures have been a yuuge morale boost here at Foggy Bottom. And yes, those are real diamonds on my pinkie ring. That was my annual bonus for giving the State Department the class it sorely needed. They love all the changes around here. They tell me so every time I ask them.
The new President, my boss and former client, certainly has made some unconventional personnel selections, but hey, who am I to complain? This is a nice change of pace from schmoozing those goombahs on the Gaming Commission, staring down those sanitation union goons, and haggling settlement agreements with slip-and-fall sharks.
These guys who work for me now may lack in style, but we’ve come to understand each other a little better. A few of them are pretty smart, and for a guy who graduated from the night program at Thomas Cooley, I think I surprised them with what a quick study I am. They’ve schooled me on a few things, and I think I can translate our differences into plain English, which is the only kind I speak. I want to get down to brass tacks on North Korea and close a huge deal. It’s going to be a win-win for you, for me, and for Korea. You’re going to love it, I promise. I won’t even ask you to pay for it.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Our economy isn’t great, but at least it’s recovering. Your economy is terrible, and it’s going to stay terrible at least as long as Japan’s did. Your stock market crashed last year because for years, you ignored some deep structural flaws in your economy. For all those years, you made policy decisions that seemed “safe.” In your workplace, it isn’t such a good idea to point out that the safe decisions the boss supports are covering up big problems. It’s so much safer to just go along and keep your head down. But unsustainable trends eventually end. And when they do, the longer they’ve gone on, the more likely they are to end very badly. Eventually, the big shots will come looking for those who allowed the crisis to build. And I don’t have to tell you what a bitch accountability can be in China.
You could say all of this about your North Korea policy, too. It’s a crisis we’ve both spackled over for years while the termites ate away at the beams and the rats ate the insulation off the wires. Their system is unsustainable. It might even be unstable. The little guys know the system is screwing them, just like the little guys in your country knew they were getting screwed in the 1930s. They see the rich getting richer and they hate it, but they have to hold their hate inside. The smart ones keep their heads down and scrape together whatever dough they can on the side, on the down-low. At least that gets them off the state’s dole, which they know they can’t count on anymore. They’re also getting wise about the outside world, and how good we have things compared to them. But they can’t protest it, they can’t vote out the people who are keeping them down, and it’s almost impossible for them to escape, so their anger just builds.
A few years ago, a lot of people starved there. I used to ask myself why they didn’t overthrow that government, but then, the last thing a starving man thinks about is wasting energy he doesn’t have to fight the system. Plus, over there, everyone rats everyone else out.
Mao got a lot of things wrong, but one thing he got right is that hunger doesn’t bring down a system, envy does. What makes people overthrow governments is figuring out that a few people are getting rich and keeping them down. A lot of us think the same thing here, as a matter of fact, but every two years, we get an engraved invitation to line up and overthrow our government at the polls. Is this a great country or what? Maybe that’s not your thing, but it’s a lot cleaner without the guns and pitchforks.
We know there are limits to how much pressure any closed container can hold. Eventually, the container explodes. Ever notice how these things tend to start with the little stuff, and aren’t really about politics when they first start? But once they do start, they spread fast. Then, things tend to get political. Of course, people have been saying this about North Korea for a long time. It hasn’t collapsed, but don’t tell me it hasn’t decayed.
We’ve had it with this punk, the South Koreans have had it with this punk, and we’re ready to give him and his whole system a good shove. I gotta hand it to him for getting this far. He cracked a lotta heads. But being a tough punk doesn’t make you smart. His top guys are all scared of him, but that doesn’t mean they respect him, and they sure as hell don’t trust him. Deep down, you don’t think he’s so smart, and neither do we. His caporegimes and consigliori aren’t going to simply wait their turn to get whacked, along with their families. Eventually, they’ll have no choice but to whack him first. Wouldn’t you like to get ahead of that?
Allow me to be blunt about something else — we’ve had it with you, too. We know your game. Every time this fat calzone does something that pisses us off, you rope-a-dope us by voting for some U.N. resolution, and then turn right around and break it to prop this guy up. Even John Kerry, who has to be the biggest freier of all those Harvard feinshmeckers, finally got wise to you. Knowing when you’re being played isn’t the kind of smarts they teach at Harvard, but I’ve seen a hundred guys try it with the Gaming Commission. No one in this town is going to be strung along by you anymore — not Congress, and not me. The more nukes the North Koreans get, the more likely they are to sell them. We’re not going to let this get to the point where they can drive nukes to Atlantic City in a submarine or a shipping container.
So what can we do about it? For one thing, payback. You know how much you hated it when we sold Taiwan all those PAC-3 Patriot missiles and Aegis cruisers. I wanted to sell them gas centrifuges and krytrons, but the pinstripes here almost passed out and begged me not to. We tabled that one, at least for the time being, but I gotta tell you, just between us, the idea of Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea having nukes doesn’t exactly keep me awake at night.
OK, now, you really should take me up on that Pepto. No? You sure? OK, if you say so.
Maybe this will relax you a little — we’re not going to invade North Korea. All they have up there is coal and meth, and if we wanted more of those things, we’d invade Wyoming! Besides, why play to an adversary’s strength when they have so many weaknesses we can exploit far more cheaply? Even the geniuses who let North Korean go nuclear in the first place can see what those weaknesses are — money and legitimacy. My guys here think they can use those weaknesses to put a lot of pressure on Kim Jong-un, and maybe even overthrow him without firing a shot.
You’re already seeing that between the South Koreans and our banking wizards, we can do some damage to those guys. Your bankers are his bag men. They hold the money that buys his swag, pays his army, and pays the goons that keep everyone in line. They’ve started freezing his accounts because they know we can do some major damage to them. This would be bad for us both, but it would be worse for you — much worse. Your banks aren’t looking so solid these days. Even the collapse of a small bank in China is going to mean a lot of angry depositors. Things could get ugly for you. There could be a ripple effect, even a panic.
We can stir things up inside North Korea, too. For a long time, that government has invested a lot of scratch in keeping its people ignorant and keeping the news out. You can argue about what those people would do with the truth, but the government over there is obviously pretty scared about that prospect. Things there aren’t as calm and content as I used to think they were. The North Koreans aren’t robots. Just imagine how things would change if we found ways to give them cell phones, smartphones, and the internet. When that happens, well, the possibilities are endless.
You can’t want this to get chaotic. That’s a dead end for you. Sure, violence might allow Kim Jong-un to survive in the short term, but there are a lot of guns over there, and parts of the army are corrupt and demoralized. In the long run, if he takes the violent path, you’ll have another Syria right on your border. The more brutal Kim Jong-un is, the more outrage there will be, and the more of it will stick to you. We’ll keep bringing it to the U.N. until you agree to help us disarm him peacefully.
Now, look — just take the Pepto. OK, feel better yet? Good. This is the part you’re going to love. We can avoid all of that unpleasantness. Let’s close a deal instead.
You want this guy Kim Jong-un out, but you’re afraid things could get out of hand. But the surest way for things to get out of hand is to just wait for them to play out. We want him out, too. So do the South Koreans and the Japanese. If we join forces to cut off the money and the swag, we both know he can’t last. All you have to do is stop buying his coal and minerals, and follow the U.N. sanctions for a change. Inspect his cargo and make sure nothing illegal gets through. Freeze the bank accounts you know are dirty. We can share information about the iffy ones. Maybe Kim Jong-un will take the hint and deal. Or maybe, we’ll just arrange some friendly meetings with some of those North Korean generals you’ve been schmoozing, who want to live to see their great-grandchildren. Surely there are some reasonable men among them we can do business with.
Play ball with us, and there’s something in it for you, too. We can keep Japan and Korea from going nuclear. And if you don’t want the U.S. Air Force building new runways and setting up THAADs all over North Korea, I’m sure we can work something out.