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presidenting is hard :: korea

ok, mr. trump, i promised you a while back that i was going to write some posts designed to help you out while you try to act as if you're capable of being president. as i mentioned at that time, i'm concerned that you think that korea was once part of china. it never was, although that wasn't for lack of trying on the part of the chinese. perhaps if you tried learning your history from someone other than the president of china, it would help.

but at the moment, the most important stuff you need to know is not what's happened in the history of korea, but in the present. you'll note that i say "korea" and not "north korea", because, historically [ok, there is a little history involved here], there isn't a north korea or a south korea. that shit is on you [your country, not you personally] and your cold war policies. before the 1950s, korea was just korea, and to this day, they speak the same language, share the same genes and venerate the same history. stop talking about "the whole korea" as if it's a miraculous thing. "the whole korea" is the traditional standard and what's happening now is an aberration.

secondly, stop talking about kim jong un like he's some sort of badass who came in and took over the country as a child prodigy. his father was president. his grandfather was president. and those are the only leaders in north korean history. kim jong un was groomed for this role since childhood, and everyone in the country knew it. the fact that his father died while jong un was still in his twenties doesn't change that. and the fact that his uncles have made some attempts to take advantage of his youth doesn't mean much when the entire apparatus of the state relies on the father-to-son succession of the kim dynasty for its stability, and that the massive north korean army overwhelmingly backs their youngest "dear leader" means that the man is extremely well-insulated from any real danger. he is not a badass. he's just the guy who was next in line.

when you were on the campaign trail, you made a lot of noise about china needing to take the lead on pressuring north korea to abandon its nuclear program and to stop menacing south korea, japan and the united states. now that you've talked to president xi and been given your ten minute history of china-korea relations, you're ready to acknowledge that "it's complicated". bravo, sir. you've just realised something that's true of every fucking foreign policy issue. that's why theses ongoing things always on-go. because they're not easy. but, to paraphrase john f. kennedy [he was also u.s. president, read about him on wikipedia], sometimes you do things because they are hard. i know that might come as a shock to you, but that's what presidenting is about: tackling the really difficult stuff.

thing is, you were kind of right about china needing to step it up. they have been north korea's largest trading partner for decades. by some estimates, with the sanctions that have been imposed on the regime from the 90s until today, china now accounts for 90% of north korea's foreign trade. find me another country who has 90% of their trade eggs in one basket. i guarantee you're going to struggle. [contrary to what you might think, mexico does not do 90% of its foreign trade with the united states. sorry.] so there is no country that wields more influence in pyongyang than china.

the bad news is, a number of people who know about such things have theorised that china does not have the influence that americans and others have been lead to believe. say whuh?

while north korea still relies overwhelmingly on china for export income, decades of sanctions have actually made the country smarter about how it invests its money. for one thing, the north koreans have banked a lot of what they have coming in, meaning that they have a rainy day fund or, if they want a raining missiles on their neighbours and enemies day. their money can and has been used to buy the materials needed to build their nuclear program, but it also means that north korea is not badly positioned to withstand the effect of sanctions.

furthermore, cutting off trade with other countries has resulted in the north korean government placing more focus on growing the domestic economy. the closest that the government in pyongyang has come to collapse were during times when their crops failed and they couldn't feed their own people. however, in the last few years, that cycle seems to have abated, to the point where north korea lowered the amount of grain it imports from china for the first time in many years. in fact, rather than collapsing under increased sanctions, north korea's economy looks to be growing.

most of the attention that's been given to the north korean economy has been focused on the mining industry, and that isn't surprising, given that it's the country's biggest source of income. coal mining in particular is a big deal, and north korea is the world's largest producer of anthracite, which is the purest form of coal. so clearly, sanctioning coal and anthracite exports is hitting them where it hurts. [i'm sorry, i've written a lot without giving you a funny picture. do you need a funny picture? here you go.]

too soon?

so all that you and your friends have to do is place heavy sanctions on places that buy north korean coal, right? isn't it amazing that no one thought of it before? jesus, dude, don't you know anything? everybody has thought about it before. in fact, china announced earlier this year that it was banning imports of north korean coal and that it would be buying the coal it needed from other places. holy shit, that's so incredible it should welcome another rose garden beer party! or it would be, if it weren't kind of bullshit, because chinese companies can get an exemption if they say they're acting "in the people's wellbeing", because china has made it clear that they will not cause a humanitarian disaster [or an influx of north korean refugees] by imposing trade sanctions.

here's the other thing: you know who depends on cheap north korean coal? fucking everybody. all that cheap manufacturing that you're able to do in china? yeah, it's based on their being able to get their hands on north korean coal. refusing coal shipments [or forcing them into the black market, which is where north korea actually gets a lot of those currency reserves i mentioned earlier] means that china needs to depend on their own coal, or stuff mined in other countries like australia in order to meet their demand. and all of that is considerably more expensive than north korean coal. and i know you're all high on the fact that you think that china will make up the deficit by buying american coal [because you kept harping in your campaign about how you'd keep coal miners in west virginia safe in their jobs], but that's a load of hooey, because american coal exports to china have been falling significantly, and american coal is even more expensive than chinese or australian coal for buyers in china.

so that's awesome, right? making chinese goods more expensive relative to others, has to be good! no you utter fuckwit, making chinese goods, or any goods more expensive is a terrible goddamned idea because wages in your country are stagnant. driving up the price of coal in china drives up the price of coal everywhere. it makes all sorts of stuff more expensive to buy, which means that people are less likely to buy stuff. and in the slightly longer term, it makes people [especially the chinese] think, "hey, maybe we should be finding some source of power that's cheaper and more legal than coal". so congratulations, business genius, this plan will cause coal exports to fall in time for the 2018 elections, and by the time you're up for re-election in 2020 [assuming you're not impeached or chased into hiding by an angry mob in the meantime], all of those supporters will be dead from black lung and lack of medical insurance.

ok, now that you've had a moment to think about the coal situation, here comes the difficult part [no, the coal wasn't the difficult part]: have a look at the cia's [flawed] profile of the north korean economy. you see the coal and mining in there, but there's one thing that you might miss: textiles.

pay attention. this is important.

as it turns out, north korea, which the cia derided as hopelessly backward and limited in its capacity for industrial scale production, is pretty damn good at manufacturing textiles. their workers- much cheaper than in other notoriously cheap asian hubs like china, vietnam and indonesia- are in demand in foreign factories. their own factories are highly advanced and ahead of the curve when it comes to discovering, perfecting and employing new technologies in fabrics and garment construction. north korean textiles are in demand. but how does that work when international companies can't do business with them? i'm pretty sure you're familiar with the method.

basically, big international companies hire an agency- usually in hong kong or southern china- to meet with all sorts of suppliers, and to gather and evaluate bids for every component of your product. so, if you're making a backpack, when your agency is finished with its mission, you'll have a team made up of mr, factory, mr. zipper, mr. exterior fabric, mr. lining, mr. shoulder strap, mr. buckle, and probably a few more. your agent then directs your team of mr. men to supply each of their components to the place that will actually assemble the goods [mr. factory].

now, if you're very clever [who am i kidding?], you may have seen that there are a couple of opportunities for north korea to infiltrate this process:

first of all, as a maker of raw textiles, someone from north korea could be mr. exterior fabric. or mr. lining. but it's also possible that there's a chinese business owner who sells you the fabric and/ or lining, but just buys the product dirt cheap from north korea, or rents-to-own north korean workers [that's a thing] to make the goods in china.

or, mr. factory can just subcontract the whole process to a factory in north korea, because even after he pays to import the finished product, it ends up being cheaper than paying locals to do it.

so there's every chance that your tacky, ill-fitting trump suits that are made in china aren't even made in china, but north korea. except that they probably aren't, because the north koreans are too busy making high-end sportswear and other top class stuff.

do these western and chinese companies know that these things happen? sure they do. or if they don't, it's because they maintain a willful ignorance about the manufacturing process [which many do]. but hell, if you look at the above example of sportswear [or for crying out loud, donald, it's the last linked article, but here you go], the secret was so carefully maintained that the manufacturer of record took a whole bunch of people from the australian buyer to see the north korean factory, so they could appreciate how completely awesome it was. in other words, no one gives a shit that their "made in china" goods are actually being made in north korea.

so, with what i've just told you, i'm sure that you can see that, rather than just having china sanction north korea in a general way, which isn't working any more than decades of other sanctions have, isn't sufficient. and i'm likewise sure that you've figured out what will work. [i'm certain of neither thing. i'm just being polite.]

if you really want to bring north korea to its economic knees, you have to go after individual companies that are buying from them, either directly or indirectly. china needs to impose penalties for its factories that import textiles, or buy north korean labour, or outsource manufacturing. you need to penalize american companies that buy from suppliers who do so, and coerce them into much more robust oversight of their asian manufacturing. large american companies already have massive offices charged with approving and supervising facilities that make anything for them. however, some [*cough* walmart *cough*] have a reputation for being lax, while others [*cough* costco *cough*] scare manufacturers more than the idea of a north korean nuclear strike.  your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to make sure everyone is drilling down to the absolute roots to make sure that they are not doing business with the "hermit kingdom".

uh-oh. that means that you're actually going to end up nailing american companies to the wall. and it means that you're going to end up penalizing companies in asia and the middle east for trading with north korea or exploiting north korean slave labour. placing meaningful sanctions on north korea will actually mean placing sanctions in a lot of places that are not north korea, because, when it comes to direct sanctions, your bag of tricks is basically empty. the problem is that once you do slap all these new rules and penalties on the companies that are quietly keeping kim jong un afloat, you're going to face a backlash. prices are going to increase for a lot of companies, and, for those companies that are located outside the united states, there is likely to be a lot of anger from foreign governments. but hey, anything to end the kim dynasty and block north korea from having a nuclear weapon, right? after all, everyone agrees that destroying kim and north korea is a good thing.

we wish
or not. you know who have kind of mixed, ambivalent views on north korea? south koreans. young south koreans are suspicious of their northern neighbours, but they tend to roll their eyes when it comes to all the sabre-rattling and bomb-chucking. former president park geun-hye characterised the relationship between the divided koreas as "complicated", but showed a broad openness to the idea of reunification. thank god they got rid of her, amirite? oh god, they elected someone worse. and by "worse" i mean "worse for you lot in america's government", because the new president elect, moon jae-in, is even more open to increased dialogue with north korea, and cut his political teeth at the side of someone who was highly suspicious of american designs on korea [both parts]. yes, moon has condemned the recent missile launches, but that's the least he can do. and the fact that he was elected, while it was no doubt helped by the fact that his predecessor was turfed from office for corruption, indicates that a lot of people in south korea like his calmer attitude towards the north. it's as if they think that dialogue and negotiation might have more of an effect than chest beating and displays of military strength.

there's a lot more to the situation, but i suspect that your brain is full and that you need some time to reread this, then ask ivanka or jared to read it and explain it to you very slowly. so i'll stop here. so what should you do about this? give me that $400,000 a year salary you're supposedly donating to charity or whatever and i'll tell you. until then, for god's sake, shut up and seriously consider your options. you might surprise all of us and come up with a good idea.


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