Skip to main content

N. Korea endgame: 3 scenarios

By Michael J. Green, Special to CNN
updated 7:34 AM EDT, Fri April 12, 2013
A North Korean soldier patrols the bank of the Yalu River, which separates the North Korean town of Sinuiju from the Chinese border town of Dandong, on Saturday, April 26. 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." A North Korean soldier patrols the bank of the Yalu River, which separates the North Korean town of Sinuiju from the Chinese border town of Dandong, on Saturday, April 26. 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
<<
<
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
>
>>
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
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT