Assessing the U.S. Shift to Great Power Competition and the Risk from North Korea

Updated: Sep 2

Editor’s Note:  This article is part of our Civil Affairs Association and Divergent Options Writing Contest which took place from April 7, 2020 to July 7, 2020.  More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.

Title:  Assessing the U.S. Shift to Great Power Competition and the Risk from North Korea


Date Originally Written:  July 3, 2020.


Date Originally Published:  August 31, 2020.


Author and / or Article Point of View:  Richard McManamon is an U.S. Army Officer and a graduate student at the National Defense University.


Summary:  U.S. President Donald Trump’s strategic shift towards Russia and China has de-prioritized North Korea. Following multiple summits between the two nations, minimal lasting progress has been made. As the U.S. shifts focus to great power competition, a comprehensive approach towards North Korea to protect U.S. interests will be of value.


Text:  Individual human factors, both behavioral and psychological, have played a critical role in countless global conflicts and the contemporary security environment is equally impacted by these factors. Following President Trump’s election, a new National Security Strategy (NSS) was published in 2017 that emphasized a shift from a counter-terrorism focused strategy to one that challenges near-peer threats from China and Russia. The Department of Defense implemented the NSS in the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), where the document specifically labeled China “a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors” and highlighted Russia’s attempt to reshape the world through their authoritarian mode[1]l.


The NSS and NDS emphasizing Russia and China reduces focus on North Korea. President Trump’s relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been highly volatile and the U.S. relationship with North Korea further destabilized as North Korea tested twenty-three rockets in 2017 alone[2]. Throughout 2017, President Trump expressed his feeling towards North Korea through multiple tweets, for example, labeling the North Korean ruler “Little Rocket Man[3].” Kim disregarded Trump’s emotionally driven responses and continued rocket testing, which escalated tensions even higher. As the situation escalated toward a breaking point, Trump and Kim met in 2018 and again in 2019. Furthermore, in June 2019 President Trump made a trip to the Korean peninsula for further nuclear negotiations, which marked the first time a U.S. sitting president entered North Korea[4].


Since 2017, both leaders applied various human factors that contributed to a bilateral relationship. Nevertheless, the promising start that followed multiple summits began to dramatically falter when North Korea conducted its first missile launch of 2020 on March 21st showcasing its desire to maintain its position in the global order[5]. The 2020 missile launch combined with new satellite imagery showing a possible expansion of a rocket launch facility signaled to the U.S. and other Western powers that North Korea is maintaining its hardened stance and attempting to portray an image of strength[6]. To Kim, the U.S. realignment of resources toward Russia and China may look like an opportunity. Moreover, this shift to China and Russia can provide enough space for North Korea to expand their rocket research and development. Further highlighting the North Korea challenge, a 2019 RAND report highlighted that North Korea is on a trajectory of nuclear development that has transformed it into a fundamentally different kind of strategic challenge[7].


While the U.S. transitions to China and Russia, it still maintains numerous sanctions on North Korea. For years the U.S. and United Nations Security Council have placed sanctions on the country ranging from export/import restrictions to economic restrictions[8]. The longer the sanctions are in place, the less effective they are. Furthermore, the continued U.S. use of sanctions can provide a false sense of security to the U.S. as it realigns its global strategy towards China and Russia. The U.S. prioritization of China and Russia allows North Korea to maintain its status within the global order without new pressure from western nations to promote change in governance.


President Trump has successfully communicated with Kim in the past by leveraging his attributes and finding common ground with the North Korean leader. While the complete dismantling of North Korea’s rocket and nuclear program may no longer be feasible, the U.S. can reestablish meaningful diplomatic relations with North Korea to influence Northern peninsula. This is not to suggest that if the U.S. were to extend an olive branch that North Korean missiles would be instantly dismantled. However, progress with North Korea can likely be increased through human interaction and an emotional connection versus harsher sanctions that may harm the population more than the senior leaders of the country. Lastly, the opportunity cost of the U.S. not meeting the challenge now is that inaction can embolden Kim Jong Un to develop a more capable missile program that threatens U.S. national interests and its allies globally.


As the U.S. continues a strategy shift to China and Russia, countries like North Korea are losing their much-needed prioritization within the U.S. government. While both China and Russia pose risks to U.S. interests, acknowledging such risk does not justify a neglect of other threats on the world stage. Small risks can quickly transition to substantial risks if not appropriately managed. The ramifications of not placing significant resources and attention on North Korea creates opportunities for Kim to exploit, with short and long-term costs for U.S. interests and regional security. President Trump has the tools to build a relationship with North Korea to achieve good governance and order. Moving forward, the U.S. can ensure a comprehensive strategy that effectively challenges China and Russia, but not at the cost of neglecting smaller countries. Such a strategy starts with increased diplomatic relations, revisits sanction negotiations with the input from key nations and lastly, works towards a manageable missile treaty with North Korea.


About the Author: Richard McManamon is a U.S. Army Officer and a graduate student at the National Defense University.


The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Endnotes:

[1] Department of Defense, National Defense Strategy (2018). Retrieved from https://dod.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2018-National-Defense-Strategy-Summary.pdf.


[2] Berlinger, J. (2017). North Korea’s missile tests: What you need to know. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2017/05/29/asia/north-korea-missile-tests/index.html


[3] Hirsh, M. (2019). Trump just gave North Korea more than it ever dreamed of. Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/06/30/trump-has-already-given-north-korea-more-than-it-dreamed-of


[4] Ripley, W. (2019). Trump and Kim make history, but a longer and more difficult march lies ahead. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/30/asia/trump-kim-history/index.html


[5] Masterson, J. (2020). North Korea tests first missiles of 2020 . Retrieved from https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2020-04/news/north-korea-tests-first-missiles-2020


[6] Brumfiel, G. (2020). North Korea seen expanding rocket launch facility it once promised to dismantle. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2020/03/27/822661018/north-korea-seen-expanding-rocket-launch-facility-it-once-promised-to-dismantle


[7] Gian Gentile, Yvonne K. Crane, Dan Madden, Timothy M. Bonds, Bruce W. Bennett, Michael J. Mazarr, Andrew Scobell. (2019). Four problems on the Korean peninsula. Retrieved from https://www.rand.org/pubs/tools/TL271.html

Schoff, J., & Lin, F. (2018). Making sense of UN sanctions on North Korea. Retrieved from https://carnegieendowment.org/publications/interactive/north-korea-sanctions Photo Credit - The Statesman / IStock - https://www.thestatesman.com/world/us-envoy-north-korea-arrives-south-pyongyang-rejects-talks-1502906826.html

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