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 is seen walking with a cane in this image released Thursday, October 30, by the state-run Korean Central News Agency. Kim, who recently disappeared from public view for about six weeks, <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/28/world/asia/kim-jong-un-cyst/index.html'>had a cyst removed</a> from his right ankle, a lawmaker told CNN. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is seen walking with a cane in this image released Thursday, October 30, by the state-run Korean Central News Agency. Kim, who recently disappeared from public view for about six weeks, had a cyst removed from his right ankle, a lawmaker told CNN.
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
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
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
>
>>
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
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1832 GMT (0232 HKT)
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2103 GMT (0503 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2125 GMT (0525 HKT)
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT