North Korea has played the poster child of rogue states for over half a century. The country has pursued deadly nuclear weapon programs and even allegedly sponsored terrorist activities and participated in counterfeiting and drugs trades, and continued to pose a security threat not only to the US and allies and interests but to the whole world, prompting the US to station forces in Japan and South Korea in case of an attack. The country has also been a focus for policy experiments, with both the Democrat and Republican administrations having tried to engage North Korea to improve relations and end the country’s objectionable behavior. The fundamental question each administration is often fronted with is to shape the diplomatic policies toward North Korea and advance US interests, moving away from the cold war hostility (Kim, 2019). There are many differences between the US and North Korea, based on governing structures and regime type, DIME attributes, and many others, and the US has several advantages compared to North Korea, including the size of the economy and military power. However, this essay only explores the comparisons that reveal the differences in national security across the two nations.
In terms of geography and DIME, North Korea is a country in East Asia, in the north region of the Korean Peninsula, and covers about 55% of the Peninsula’s land. Russia and China border North Korea to the North and South Korea to the South. However, North Korea keeps diplomatic relations with select countries, China being its closest ally (Helgesen & Thelle, 2013). China has remained the political supporter and supplier of economic aid to North Korea since the collapse of the Soviet Union. China’s official position concerning North Korea is to sustain the status quo of the Korean Peninsula, avoid any provocative or hostile actions and rhetoric from North Korea, and facilitate reforms that favor China, contrary to coercive sanctions as they are perceived to be destabilizing provocative countermeasures. Russia also remains in great support of North Korea and has been a trading partner since the Korea war. For instance, in 2014, Russia and North Korea entered a trade agreement to use rubies as a mode of settlement. The support from the great powers, Russia and China, strengthens North Korea’s national security and power position in the Peninsula (Zakharova, 2016). On the other hand, the US is a North American nation with a strong diplomatic relationship with most Western countries within Europe, Canada, Australia, and most African and South American countries. It is also the leading member of NATO, strengthening its economic and military powers (Brzezinski & Strmecki, 2019).
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In terms of information, North Korea remains the most isolated and secretive nation globally, and the state controls the information power, including the media (Helgesen & Thelle, 2013). On the other hand, the US derives its information power from free media, with freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment. Other sources of informational power include advertising, film and entrainment, US content in the museums, World Wide Web, libraries, endowments and foundations, non-governmental organizations, and increasing adoption of American English as a global language (Balkin, 2015). Unlike North Korea, American informational power is neither guided nor directed by presidential administrations, military commands, or national security agencies.
In terms of military power, the US has approximately 1.4 million military personnel and about a million or more reserve troops based on the Global Firepower Index, coming third after China and India in military personnel numbers. North Korea has about 1.1 million active military personnel and over 5 million reverse troops, making the country’s fourth-largest army in terms of numbers globally. US outmatches North Korea in several dimensions of military power, including airpower, with the US having an airpower strength of approximately 13,700 compared to 1,000 aircraft for North Korea. The US also has the second-largest nuclear power, with about 6,800 warheads after Russia. North Korea is estimated to have about 20 to 60 nuclear warheads. However, North Korea is believed to possess biological and biological weapon stockpiles, which researchers argue are more powerful than even nuclear weapons (Beckley, 2018).
Regarding economic power, the US has the most technologically powerful and largest economy globally, with a GDP per capita of $49,800. The US is an open market economy where the state and federal governments buy required services and goods mainly from the private sector. However, North Korea is a relatively poorer economy, ranked 39th out of 39 countries in the Asia–Pacific region. Besides, North Korea is the least open and most centrally directed economy globally and faces many economic problems, including multiple sanctions, from the US and its allies (Koen & Beom, 2020). The findings imply that the US is more powerful than North Korea, geographically and based on DIME attributes.
For the past five decades or so, North Korea has capitalized on its threat of nuclear weapons to negotiate for its global power. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has often promised to move rapidly in strengthening the country’s nuclear forces and threatened to employ its nuclear arsenals if provoked. The country continues provocative nuclear weapon tests in pressure and threat-based campaign to seize concessions from the United States and its allies. The nuclear negotiation between the US and North Korea to achieve denuclearization has often stalled because of the difference in the potential easing of several United States-led sanctions for North Korea’s demilitarization steps. So far, North Korea is the most sanctioned country in the world, with most sanctions emanating from the US and its allies (Koen & Beom, 2020).
However, despite the sanctions, which threaten the economy of the already impoverished nation, Kip Kim Jong-un has maintained its goals of concurrently developing its nuclear arsenals despite the miserable economy and increasing international pressure for denuclearization. Intelligence shows that North Korea conducted around 13 to 15 rounds of nuclear weapon tests in 2021, and there is evidence that the country is reconstructing tunnels at one of its nuclear testing grounds that has been dormant since 2017 to explore a nuclear device. Besides, China’s role in shielding North Korea from political and economic pressure also plays a critical role in Pyongyang’s nuclear threats. Despite an almost total economic embargo, North Korea seems to be receiving economic support from Chine and other eastern countries for survival (Khoo, 2021). As mentioned earlier, China remains North Korea’s closest ally.
Contrary to North Korea, the US combines military technology and economic power to achieve its national security. Since the Cold War, the US has continued to invest in science and technology industry to secure its position as a global leader for over half a century. US economic prosperity and military capability position it as the world’s superpower attributes used to protect the nation’s national security and negotiate for global influence. The US has one of the strongest, most financed, most technologically advanced, and the most powerful military globally, making the country the most difficult one to confront (National Research Council 2009). The US outpaces other countries in military expenditures, accounting for about 37% of total global military spending, and is also the largest producer of military equipment. The US also has the largest economic power globally, with a GDP of roughly $19.485 trillion (Kassianova et al., 2020). The national bank of these two attributes, military and economic power for national security purposes and global influence.
According to the World Report 2020, the North Korean government has maintained the totalitarian and repressive rule, torture, prison camps, arbitrary punishment, and the threat of execution to sustain to control its population and also restrict North Koreans from traveling to rest of the world (World Report 2020). North Korean citizens are often under constant state surveillance and face daily execution, imprisonment, and torture threats. The totalitarian regime has existed since 1948. The government systematically subjects its citizens to uncompensated labor as a form of control and to sustain the country’s economy. North Korea has also constantly declined to corporate with other countries and international bodies, such as the UN Seoul, to tackle alleged human rights violations by the totalitarian regime (“North Korea: Systematic Repression,” 2021). North Korea banks mostly on the threat of using a nuclear weapon to scare away external threats to its totalitarian systems, including US and western interference. North Korea’s approach contradicts what the US believes in as an approach to national security.
The US national security approach is based primarily on American internationalism that reflects the union of American values and national interests. Measures are taken to protect national security using diplomacy to rally United States allies and isolate potential threats. (Brzezinski & Strmecki, 2019). The US also marshals its economic power to elicit cooperation with other countries globally and sustain effective armed forces within the US borders and abroad. The US National Security organization system had remained state since 1947 when President Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947, which, together with the 1949 amendments, established different security arms, including the Department of Defense, Department of the Air Force, Secretary of Defense, and National Security Council to protect the nation’s national security (Prados, 2001). Unlike North Korea, the US has guaranteed unalienable rights to every American through a ratified constitution and, to some extent, non-Americans. The rights have evolved through legislation, judicial president, and constitutional amendments. Hence, as the US is concerned with national security policies, it also takes care of human rights, ensuring no such things as forced labor, execution of citizens opposing the current regimes, and other totalitarianism actions as with North Korea.
However, one thing unique about North Korea is the level of organization, the small country with a dwindling economy has managed to play in the big league of world powers. In East Asia, the rapid advance of North Korea to the position of nuclear power despite the intense United States pressure, particularly during 2017, is one dramatic process. The country has manifested several features of great power, and the elevated ranks have had a significant bearing on the country’s diplomatic relations with other great powers, including China and United States. Perhaps terming North Korea’s great power may sound surprising due to its small territory and poor economic state, less population of just 25 million people, and insignificant soft power influence in the world (Korhonen & Mori, 2020). North Korea, though not promising based on DIME attributes, provides a classic case of small power with global influence that perhaps the US can learn a thing or two on how to maintain its global dominance in the wake of imminent threats from the East, including potential threats posed by China and Russia to the US global superpower position.
Balkin, J. M. (2015). Cultural democracy and the first amendment. Nw. UL Rev., 110, 1053.
Beckley, M. (2018). The power of nations: Measuring what matters. International Security, 43(2), 7-44.