Many of the current conflicts and crises in international relations are born of internal factors within the governments of the countries precipitating them.
North Korea is no exception to this, although there are differences in its approach. North Korea’s new, young ruler, Kim Jong-un, has found himself in a leadership crisis almost immediately after taking the helm, because of a combination of sanctions and other actions from the international community.
The suspension of food aid, joint military exercises between the US and South Korea, further financial sanctions approved by the UN Security Council, and the freezing of overseas financial assets of North Korea or its citizens, have all contributed to Kim’s leadership being questioned at home. To consolidate his political power, he has resorted to the risky tactic of military scaremongering.
This time, however, it seems that the US and its allies South Korea and Japan are getting impatient with what they regard as a tired ruse.
Let us rule out first of all the possibility of North Korea launching a nuclear weapon. Such an action would be directly followed by a comprehensive counterattack — and possibly even a targeted preemptive strike — coordinated by the US, South Korea and Japan. It could also lead to an overwhelming set of new punitive sanctions by the international community, and then the days of North Korea’s ruling party would be surely be numbered.
The most likely next step for North Korea would be to launch several short-range or medium-range tactical missiles, which could be aimed south toward Guam or east toward the US and South Korean navy fleets.
Whether these missiles actually hit their targets or not, they would still have the effect of carrying out a threat. That would give the US, South Korea and Japan an opportunity to test their anti-missile defense systems.
It would also give the US Army a legitimate pretext for striking the sites it is really worried about, namely North Korea’s nuclear weapons facilities. If the US did so, and as long as Kim was willing, the two sides could then enter into negotiations, allowing military tensions to abate for the time being.
In the event that Kim feels his dignity has been bruised, and rashly decides that the time has come to launch an attack, there are three ways in which this could play out, with varying degrees of seriousness.
First, he could order an attack similar to the March 2010 sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette the Cheonan, by launching a missile or submarine attack against a US or South Korean vessel.
Next, he could select a specific area and order a limited and containable attack, similar to the November 2010 artillery bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island.
The final option, and one that nobody wants to see happen, is that he could order an all-out, large-scale offensive against South Korea, using artillery or missiles to bombard US and South Korean forces or major cities and towns south of the 38th parallel, sending in tank divisions as part of a major land invasion, or dispatching special forces to South Korea to assassinate its leaders. He might even order the use of biological weapons.
In the case of the first two scenarios, no matter whether North Korea achieved its objectives, or US and South Korean forces successfully defended against the attack, there would still be a chance for the two sides to de-escalate the situation and enter into negotiations.