Global Overview: North Korea, Ukraine and The Philippines
- North Korea: It is likely that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) will conduct some sort of test to protest the planned State visit of President Yoon Suk Yeol to the U.S. on April 26.
- Ukraine: Weaknesses and potential plans exposed in apparently authentic leaked Pentagon documents, while allies see the extent of U.S. spy activities.
- U.S. – Philippines agreement on military bases: Too little, too late in the face of China’s global expansion?
North Korea: Increasing Tensions
Over the past six years, consistent U.S. policy on the DPRK has been through considerable adversity. The whipsaw of changes initiated by the Trump administration, and Kim Jong Un’s recent provocations have left the world community digesting new potential situations somewhat influenced by other world events.
Recent DPRK political statements and propaganda appear more threatening. At 8th Party Congress in 2021, Kim declared nuclear weapons a predominant goal in the building of their ideal powerful socialist state. Last year the North passed a new law, making use of nuclear weapons somewhat easier if they detect buildup for attack. The parallels between this new law and Putin’s statements last year about the use of nuclear weapons if Russia were to be attacked should not be ignored.
Confusion about U.S. policy regarding the DPRK is routed in history and policy. While the Obama administration elected to continue previous administrations’ policy of “Strategic Patience” regarding North Korea and its nuclear weapons program, President Trump chose a more aggressive approach…that intensity may have led to its own eventual failure.
Historically, the U.S. has supported the ROK’s independence and the elimination of DPRK nuclear capabilities.This policy position, enforced by sanctions against the North, has been widely supported in the region and by the United Nations. It has also not effectively eliminated the threat of nuclear weapons development by the North. North Korea is continuing to expand its nuclear capabilities. The Korea institute estimates they have about 90 weapons today while the Rand Corporation prediction is for up to 200 by 2027.
Trump’s surprise 2018 Singapore Summit decision to cancel U.S.-ROK exercises seemed to give the negotiation process some energy (possibly reflected in the pause of missile testing in 2018), but in the end the West got nothing in return while the North continued their nuclear program, training, and exercises. The collapse of the 2019 Hanoi Summit reflected both the domestic political pressure on Trump as well as the U.S. delegations’ lack of preparation and traditional bottom-up diplomatic processes to build to an agreement. Since 2019, North Korea has conducted 116 missile tests on eight different types of vehicles.
In 2022, the U.S. and South Korea resumed training exercises. North Korea became more provocative, increasing production and testing of short- and long-range missile systems, UAVs, and possibly moving into operational exercises of systems. Japan, possibly in recognition that the U.S. could once again move to a more isolationist approach after the 2024 elections, issued new National Security and National Defense Strategies (see February 2023 update).
The DPRK will likely conduct some sort of test timed to coincide with the State visit of President Yoon Suk Yeol to the U.S. on April 26. In 2023, North Korea has already tested 2 SLBMs,4 cruise missiles, an ICBM, and an underwater attack drone. Recently they claimed the ability to mount a nuclear warhead on cruise missiles. The possibility exists that the DPRK will challenge USN Admiral John Aquilino’s statement that the U.S. will “immediately” shoot down any ICBM fired over Guam or in the pacific region. Kim Yo Jong, sister of Kim Jong Un, warned the North would see it as a “declaration of war” if the U.S. took military action against the North’s strategic weapon tests.
Conclusion: The Chinese think our pressure-based approach is destabilizing and they have no incentive to support our position. In fact, any action that appears to weaken the U.S. is in Chinese long-term interests. Despite the degree of change affecting U.S. policy in recent years; today South Korea, Japan and U.S. are in fact all on the same military preparedness and policy course. While our Allies want a stronger defense policy, many academics want more compromise. A provocative reaction to the U.S.-ROK summit is predictable and will lead to even more resistance to any compromise with the DPRK on their nuclear program.
Leaked documents have caused a stir inside the U.S. and its allies, as well as Ukraine. The source of the supposed Top Secret and Secret documents is unknown but speculation ranges from gamers on social media to Russia.
The documents reportedly have more detail on activities and outcomes in the war for both sides. The assertions of U.S. spying on other heads of state, leveled by the Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov, seem to be timed to undermine allied unity against Russia. In addition, the reduced numbers of Russian casualties in the documents appears to indicate tinkering with the report by the initiator. In any event, the Department of Justice has opened an investigation into the leak.
Two cases are possible: One is that the documents are authentic and accurate and the other is that they have been manipulated or wholly manufactured by a third party.
If they are authentic, then so far, there are no surprises, although there are some more details than previously known. We should not be surprised that the U.S. and most of our allies are monitoring the debates and decisions of players in the conflict, including Ukraine, so that we can more accurately predict possible future actions and consequences. The wide range of sources however leads to the conclusion that these documents are at least partially authentic. If authentic, then prudent planning would seem to be a logical next step.
In military planning for any event, planners examine two possible scenarios: The Most Likely (ML) and the Most Dangerous (MD). The ML case is a rational examination of the situation and possible courses of action to address and influence the outcome. Potential resources needed to react to each case are reviewed; and at more mature stages of planning advice and comments are solicited from the Department of State, NSC and other agencies with equities in the situation.
The Most Dangerous case is also examined so that planners can outline what resources may be necessary to respond. Potential courses of action may be fleshed out based on the likelihood of occurrence, and senior decision maker guidance. If the MD case also becomes the ML case, then planners and senior leaders have a solid analytical baseline for presenting options to political decision makers. This sort of planning happens continuously for a wide range of alternatives and scenarios.
If the documents are not authentic and have been manipulated in part or in total by a third party, then the intelligence apparatus will move into high gear to determine the source and their potential intent. Options range from disaffected low-level analysts or more senior members of the community to people with agendas. Changing the numbers of Russian casualties by as much as an order of magnitude lower, and inferring disunity among U.S., NATO and Ukraine leaders is clearly in the Kremlin’s interest.
Conclusion: The comprehensive global nature of the topics and sources infers the documents were at some point authentic.That they were manipulated seems also to be likely, and predictable. The outcome will be evaluated by the DoD for many weeks to come, and likely some sources of information in other nations will react by stopping or severely curtailing the information they pass to the U.S. for fear of being discovered. The impact on allies like South Korea and Israel will take some time to diminish and may make some less likely in the short term to cooperate with the U.S., which is probably the desired outcome of the releasers.
U.S. and China: Chess Moves to Gather Potential Allies
The Philippines has long been a target of China’s maritime coercion in the strategically important South China Sea. China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Taiwan are involved in a tense, decades-long territorial impasse.
The U.S. has a very long, and complex history with the Philippines. From colonization after the Spanish-American War to the decades long mentoring of the island nation for its eventual independence in 1946; through the Marcos Era, Corazon Aquino and Duterte; the U.S. military has had considerable impact on the PI. After the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, the U.S.decided to not pursue rebuilding of Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base (budget pressures from the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union) as peace was “breaking out” across the globe. Today the U.S. is once again entering into a new, closer phase of relations with its former colony. President Ferdinand Marcos remarked to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin that the region has become “terribly complicated” and can only be navigated with the assistance of partners and allies.
In a clear message to China, Secretary of National Defense Carlito Galvez and Austin also reaffirmed the mutual defense treaty commitments. Austin said the Mutual Defense Treaty applies to armed attacks on either countries’ defense assets to include vessels and aircraft anywhere in the West Philippine Sea (the name the Philippines prefer to South China Sea).
“We discussed concrete actions to address destabilizing activities and the waters surrounding the Philippines, including the West Philippine Sea, and we remain committed to strengthening our mutual capacities to resist armed attack,” Austin said.
The Chinese response in the media was predictable.
“Whereas the U.S. claims that such cooperation is intended to help the disaster relief efforts of
the Philippines and some Americans even tout the EDCA sites as driver of local economy, it is
plain and simple that those moves are part of the U.S. efforts to encircle and contain China
through its military alliance with this country.”
Beijing is not inactive, however. In late March, China and Brazil reached an agreement to reject the U.S. dollar as an intermediary and conduct trade / financial transactions directly in their own currencies, exchanging yuan for reais instead of going through the dollar. China is Brazil’s biggest trading partner, with a record $150.5 billion in bilateral trade last year.
This move is the latest in a two decade’s long approach toward Latin America. Quietly, China is increasing influence in the U.S. southern flank, becoming the second largest trading partner with Latin America. Florida Republican Rep. María Elvira Salazar drew attention to growing security threats emerging from Latin America in February: “Chinese President Xi Jinping has been to Latin America more times than President Obama, Trump and Biden combined in the last 10 years,” Salazar told lawmakers. “The Chinese are not here for trade. They’re here for war.”
It appears the Monroe Doctrine no longer applies. Last year, China’s trade with Latin America reached $450 billion compared to $180 billion in 2010. According to the World Economic Forum, “on the current trajectory, LAC-China trade is expected to exceed $700 billion by 2035 , more than twice as much as in 2020.”
Conclusion: China continues to react negatively to U.S. moves in Indo China while at the same time concluding agreements that support the Belt and Road initiative and their stated policy to Leap-Frog the West. China has been able to conduct similar initiatives for extended periods of time across the globe. The U.S. must be more than a “one trick pony” when dealing with potential threats to economic security from China’s control over strategic minerals, monetary policy and military deployment and capability. In comparison to China’s aggressive history, the U.S.-Philippines agreement appears too little, if not too late.
Learn more about the author, Advisory Board member and retired U.S. Air Force Major General Michael Snodgrass.
 See https://www.ncnk.org/resources/publications/kju_8th_party_congress_speech_summary.pdf/file_view
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 See https://www.38north.org/2023/01/how-to-respond-to-the-new-north-korean-threat-from-uavs/
 See https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/north-korea-warns-us-against-shooting-down-missile-tests-2023-03-07/
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 See https://www.nytimes.com/explain/2023/russia-ukraine-war-documents-leak
 See https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/08/us/politics/leaked-documents-russia-ukraine-war.html
 See https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Stories/Article/Article/3286055/us-philippine-alliance-strengthens-as-it-enters-new-phase/
 See https://thediplomat.com/2023/03/china-warns-philippines-over-us-access-to-military-bases/
 See https://www.foxnews.com/world/china-flexes-muscles-latin-america-latest-security-challenge-us
 See China’s Growing Influence in Latin America | Council on Foreign Relations (cfr.org)
 See China’s trade with Latin America is bound to keep growing. Here’s why that matters? | World Economic Forum (weforum.org)
 See https://www.brinknews.com/latin-america-is-becoming-chinas-backyard/