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Thinking through options on North Korea

As history shows, new nuclear states such as North Korea usually probe the limits of their power and test how other international actors respond. But consider this: Once escalation starts, it can be extremely difficult to control.

By Lowell Schwartz / May 3, 2013

A South Korean man at the Seoul Railway Station watches a television news program showing US citizen Kenneth Bae May 2. Mr. Bae was detained for six months in North Korea and has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for 'hostile acts' against the state. Op-ed writer Lowell Schwartz says: 'North Korea’s current behavior is almost predictable.'

Ahn Young-joon/AP



North Korea has captured global attention with its provocative behavior in recent months, the latest being this week’s sentencing of US citizen and tour leader Kenneth Bae to 15 years of hard labor. Secretary of State John Kerry, during a recent visit to Seoul, vowed that “the United States will, if needed, defend our allies and defend ourselves.”

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But after issuing threats, conducting nuclear tests, and launching missiles, what will North Korean leader Kim Jong Un do next? The escalating tension on the Korean Peninsula is again prompting analysts to ponder North Korea’s next big move, how the United States and its allies would respond, and what Pyongyang might do after that.

Predicting the next move of an adversary like North Korea is difficult to say the least, and thinking several moves out is even harder. One tool to help decisionmakers think through the options is a strategic “war game” where expert “players” are confronted with a future crisis based upon historical facts and projected enemy military capabilities.

Analysts at the RAND Corporation have been conducting research on the problems posed by nuclear-armed regional adversaries – not only North Korea, but also Iran and more far-fetched ones such as an aggressive and hostile Pakistan.

As part of this research, we invited regional scholars and civilian and military officials from the Department of Defense and the Department of State to play games in which they were asked to devise strategies and craft responses to a series of possible scenarios.

These games and additional historical research raised a series of issues which should help shape our thinking in deterring and, if necessary, fighting states like North Korea that have dangerous nuclear capabilities.

The first issue is that new nuclear states can behave provocatively as they adjust to the power of their new weapons. As history shows, they usually probe the limits of their power and test how other international actors respond. These tests have generally occurred in the diplomatic sphere, although there are some cases of limited acts of aggression. In the cases where military aggression occurred, states halted their efforts long before nuclear use would have been triggered.

Seen in this light, North Korea’s current behavior is almost predictable, a textbook example of what should be expected from a new nuclear power.


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