Over the past few decades, North Korea has developed a penchant for aggression just below the threshold that would cause the United States, South Korea and other states to respond in kind. As its economy rots and one member of the Kim dynasty gives way to another, the provocations expand. They reached new peaks in March 2010 when a North Korean submarine sank a South Korean navy ship, and in November 2010 when the North Korean military shelled a South Korean island, killing two soldiers. Even more ominously, North Korea has worked strenuously to develop more powerful ballistic missiles that may, at some time in the future, be armed with nuclear weapons.
North Korea’s neighbors face the enduring possibility that desperation or miscalculation may lead the regime to strike out even more violently, either concluding that it will face wholesale economic collapse or political upheaval if does not, or through the belief that it has so cowed the United States, South Korea, Japan and China that it can commit aggression with impunity. Given this, the United States needs a careful plan for how to respond.
The appropriate response, of course, depends on the nature of the provocation, for which Pyongyang’s options include relatively low-level aggression, such as regime involvement in organized crime, the sale of missile and nuclear technology and limited attacks on South Korea; potentially more dangerous missile strikes against other nations; a large-scale conventional invasion of South Korea; and, worst of all, the use of nuclear weapons.