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.

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.”

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