4 factors to consider in US options for North Korea

North Korea has captured global attention with its provocative behavior in recent months. 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.”

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. Here are four factors to consider when thinking through US options on North Korea.

1.New nuclear states can behave provocatively

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un gives field guidance at the Masik Pass Skiing Ground under construction by the Korean People's Army in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in May of this year. (KCNA/Reuters)

As new nuclear states adjust to the power of their new weapons, they have the potential to behave provocatively. 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.

Lowell Schwartz is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and co-author of “The Challenge of Nuclear-Armed Regional Adversaries.”

Once escalation starts, it can be difficult to control

 When dealing with a new nuclear power, it is important to know that once escalation starts, it can be extremely difficult to control. A deliberate and limited US response is still likely to result in extreme escalating actions by North Korean adversary forces. These could include the early use of nuclear weapons.

There could be a mix of reasons why controlling escalation may be difficult in real crises. One might be the efficiency with which the US has overthrown the governments of its adversaries in recent years. These operations almost always began with an intensive air campaign to cripple strategic targets, such as leadership facilities and national-level command-and-control communication centers.

These types of attacks, which have become mainstays of the US military repertoire, could be perceived by adversary leaders as threats to their hold on power, and therefore could prompt escalation.

It is difficult to neutralize an enemy’s nuclear arsenal

 The US faces extreme difficulty when it seeks to militarily neutralize an enemy’s arsenal of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. Such a mission would require actionable intelligence about a country’s nuclear infrastructure and the means to rapidly strike such assets.

The US experiences in Iraq during the 1991 and 2003 wars were not comforting. In 1991, an intensive 42-day air campaign failed to prevent Iraq from continuing to launch Scud missiles. In 2003, despite 12 years of close monitoring of activities related to weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, US intelligence spectacularly overestimated Iraq’s WMD holdings.

North Korea, with its skill at hiding important military facilities underground, its repressive regime, and its nearly complete isolation from the rest of the world, must be considered an even bigger intelligence challenge.

Obviously it will not always be possible to avoid the use of force and the risk of escalation. But the US and its allies cannot take the possibility of military responses against nuclear regional adversaries off the table without limiting its own strategic options, eroding its influence, and threatening its security.

Keep Kim Jong-un’s motivations in mind

Policy options must be designed with the perspectives and motivations of the adversary leaders in mind. The last thing strategic plans should do is cause adversary leaders to believe the use of nuclear weapons is their first, best option.

Military responses designed to deter and defeat specific acts of aggression in general would be a good start. Conventional strikes on selected targets directly associated with the military operations of threat countries such as North Korea might also be called for. In addition, the placement of theater missile defense systems will likely be reassuring to US allies and would provide some protection for US forces.

Every scenario is different; some hostile actions by Pyongyang may be blustery displays of strength aimed at internal audiences, while others may be serious threats to regional security. This is where finesse may outperform force. The US, working closely with its allies, should approach each potential conflict with North Korea in its own context, sculpting policy that draws on experience as well as observations made through research. The stakes could hardly be higher.

Lowell Schwartz is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and co-author of “The Challenge of Nuclear-Armed Regional Adversaries.”