Skip to main content

N. Korea endgame: 3 scenarios

By Michael J. Green, Special to CNN
April 12, 2013 -- Updated 1134 GMT (1934 HKT)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, center, tours a frontline military unit, in this image released July 16 by state run North Korean Central News Agency. A recent <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/17/world/asia/north-korea-un-report/index.html'>United Nations report</a> described a brutal North Korean state "that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world." North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, center, tours a frontline military unit, in this image released July 16 by state run North Korean Central News Agency. A recent United Nations report described a brutal North Korean state "that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world."
HIDE CAPTION
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Michael Green: North Korea more threatening than usual; three scenarios may play out
  • 1. Nuke threats grow; regime will get U.S. to lift sanctions; regime returns to same tactics
  • 2. China will turn on North, cut it off; Kim will lose power; North and South reunite sans nukes
  • 3. Kim will fire on South; U.S. will get involved; North will fall; Japan, South Korea ravaged

Editor's note: Associate Professor Michael Green is senior vice president for the Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University. He served as special assistant to the president and senior director for Asia on the National Security Council staff during George W. Bush's administration.

(CNN) -- Hyperbolic North Korean threats of war are not new. What is new is the intensity and persistence of those threats this time around.

Add to that an untested 29-year-old leader who is suddenly a four-star general with lots to prove. How does this end? Consider these three possibilities:

1. What Kim Jong Un hopes: North Korean threats continue to escalate. Pyongyang renews earlier threats to transfer its "nuclear deterrent capability" to third parties in the Middle East and declares South Korean waters west of the peninsula an open fire zone.

The South Korean stock market plummets. Chinese leaders begin to panic about instability on their border. Washington is desperate to set aside the North Korea problem while dealing with a parallel crisis in Iran. The North proposes negotiations on a peace treaty formally ending the Korean War, but only if international sanctions imposed on the regime after their previous nuclear and missile tests are suspended.

Michael J. Green
Michael J. Green

Washington, Seoul and Tokyo reluctantly agree to the North's terms to avoid further escalation. Meanwhile, the North continues miniaturizing uranium-based nuclear weapons in underground facilities.

One year later, they test a more sophisticated warhead design and improved missiles payload. The North then demands the end of remaining international sanctions, recognition as a legitimate nuclear weapons state and a summit meeting in Pyongyang between Kim and President Barack Obama.

To back up its threat, the North shells several South Korean islands and threatens to use its newly enhanced nuclear capability if the South retaliates. The crisis resumes, but with the North more dangerous.

This has more or less been the pattern thus far.

2. What Washington, Seoul and Tokyo hope: Kim's unpredictability finally turns the North's erstwhile ally, China, firmly against the regime.

Intensifying U.S.-Japan-South Korean defense cooperation demonstrates how North Korean actions are isolating China within the region. Beijing vows to step up pressure on the regime and stops all inbound North Korean ships and planes for inspections based on U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Opinion: Why North Korea worries Dick Cheney

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



When Kim tries to escalate again, Beijing cuts oil shipments to the North by 50% (China's food and fuel shipments keep the small North Korean economy afloat).

The North agrees to a moratorium on testing of missiles and nuclear weapons and to resume earlier negotiations on denuclearization. Those talks move at a glacial pace because the North sees nuclear weapons as its only means of regime survival. But Kim's obvious mismanagement of the confrontation has discredited him in front of his generals.

Fissures open, and the regime begins slowly to unravel. Careful U.S. and South Korean coordination with China throughout the crisis lays the basis for a managed unification of the peninsula, removal of the North's nuclear and WMD arsenal, and freedom for millions of North Koreans.

3. What everyone fears most: Kim's escalation strategy fails to cause the other powers to recognize the North as a legitimate nuclear weapons state or to ease sanctions.

The young leader and his advisers continue searching for threats that will terrify the South and cause China to provide further bribes for good behavior, but without provoking a massive U.S. attack on the North. The exuberant but inexperienced Kim approves live artillery fire on uninhabited mountains just outside the South Korean capital of Seoul.

The South responds with limited counterbattery fire against the North Korean artillery units.

Inside North Korea: Starvation and death
DOD: Missile defense radar in Pacific
Is N. Korea a nuclear threat or not?

Opinion: Does N. Korea think U.S. is soft?

Aware that it cannot surrender or win, the North opens broader and deadlier artillery and missile broadsides against the South. Knowing that these forward deployed artillery and missile forces pose the greatest threat to the South if not taken out, U.S. and South Korean forces hammer North Korean emplacements north of the DMZ.

The conflict ends with defeat of North Korean forces and decapitation of the North Korean leadership through massive airstrikes, but the damage to South Korea and Japan, which is within missile range, is appalling.

How does this end?

Right now we are somewhere between the first two scenarios -- and could remain ambiguously so for some time. The third scenario remains highly unlikely, though not impossible.

The first scenario is tempting for some, because it would temporarily ease tensions, but in the long run it makes the third scenario more likely and much more lethal.

That means that U.S. policy has to focus on realizing scenario two. The North's brazen actions make that more possible than ever. But it means not blinking.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Green.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1225 GMT (2025 HKT)
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1128 GMT (1928 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2231 GMT (0631 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT