Daryl Press and Keir Leiber sensibly warn about the potential that attacks against the North Korean leadership cadre might have destabilizing effects. The U.S. may well refrain from launching attacks directly against the North Korean leadership in order to maintain some rump level of communications, and to give the leadership a potential survival strategy beyond nuclear escalation. Precedents for not directly attacking the leadership include Libya in 2011 and Serbia in 1999. However, given the close ties between the Kim regime and the senior military leadership, and the identification of the state itself with the Kim clan, there could be considerable temptation to strike.
These dynamics operate on the North Korean side, as well. Senior North Korean military officers are professionals; they surely understand the power of the advanced American and South Korean military establishments, and appreciate that pre-emption could prove disastrous to North Korean military prospects. The appropriate response to concern about catastrophic defeat at the hands of the United States and South Korea would surely be to deescalate the crisis, but DPRK domestic politics may, for the time, preclude that possibility.
Nevertheless, it is exceedingly difficult to believe that serious military professionals within the DPRK believe in the possibility of victory against the United States. Motivated bias surely matters to decision-making, but just as surely must have some limits.
Thus, if North Korea successfully convinces the U.S. and the ROK that war is inevitable, it is almost irresponsible for the latter not to launch a pre-emptive attack that would disrupt North Korean preparations. Were a war to take place without pre-emption, the political opposition in both countries would take the current leadership to task for failing to take steps to destroy the DPRK’s military at its stepping off points. The political implications of this logic are obviously grim, and it should be clear that neither Seoul nor Washington believes, at this point, that war is inevitable. At the same time, convincing North Korea that war is inevitable could have similar disastrous effects. This is undoubtedly why the United States has responded in slow, measured fashion to North Korean provocations.
Again, few wars happen by accident; most take place because policymakers want them, even if those policymakers operate with poor or incomplete information about the prospects for success. Given the current balance of capabilities on the Korean Peninsula, a full war seems exceedingly unlikely, as none of the combatants stand to benefit.
Still, even the low probability of an accidental war demands some attention from policymakers. Seoul, Washington, and, perhaps most importantly, Beijing should take every possible step to ensure that some form of communication remains between the potential belligerents. The United States must be extremely careful in assessing North Korean moves, even if the DPRK decides to expand its provocations to incidents like the sinking of the Cheonan or the artillery barrage of 2010.
This does not mean that the U.S. or the ROK should simply accept such attacks as the cost of doing business, but they do need to respond with great care. Finally, the leadership of the DPRK must come to an appreciation of how dangerous a situation it has created for itself, and strongly consider stepping back from the brink before something tragic happens.
Robert Farley is an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination, and can be found on twitter at @drfarls.