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Three paths to war on the Korean Peninsula

By Patrick M. Cronin, Special to CNN
  • Patrick Cronin: Armed conflict could erupt on Korean Peninsula in several ways
  • He says North Korean missile tests could inadvertently lead to conflict
  • Cronin says North Korea may believe it can escalate at will because South is risk-averse
  • Sudden regime change or collapse in N. Korea could provoke fighting, he warns

Editor's note: Patrick M. Cronin is senior adviser and senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the nonpartisan Center for a New American Security in Washington.

Washington (CNN) -- For centuries the Korean sovereign state was known as Chosun, or land of the morning calm. But it has seldom seemed calm.

The Peninsula has been occupied by the Japanese, divided at the 38th parallel, and jolted by the outbreak of war 60 years ago. Even the 1953 Korean Armistice has been violated repeatedly.

Yet North Korea's recent deadly provocations mark a dangerous new twist in the fate of the Peninsula.

Never before has North Korea possessed such lethal and instantaneous firepower. Never before has the discrepancy between the two Koreas been so stark: a leading market democracy versus a militarized kleptocracy. And only once before has the impending death of North Korea's leader threatened to trigger a succession crisis or even regime collapse.

In simple terms, it is possible that war could resume on the Korean Peninsula in one of three ways: accidental escalation, the breakdown of deterrence, or a sudden regime change or collapse.

Accidental escalation

Conflict could erupt inadvertently in various ways. It might well occur as a result of North Korea's frequent resort to brinkmanship, saber rattling and coercive diplomacy. During the past 20 years, during which the United States has focused on eliminating North Korea's nuclear programs, Pyongyang has resorted to launching missiles and conducting nuclear tests. There is a high probability that North Korea will test-launch more missiles and perhaps conduct a third nuclear test within the next year.

Crisis on the Korean peninsula
Diplomats agree to disagree on Koreas
Richardson hopeful of N. Korea progress
North Korea's recent deadly provocations mark a dangerous new twist in the fate of the Peninsula.
--Patrick M. Cronin

Just because brinkmanship did not escalate in the past does not mean that such an equilibrium can be maintained. For instance, violations of United Nations Security Council Resolutions have been met with additional sanctions, and the North has threatened military strikes in retaliation for sanctions.

Missile tests could also go awry, and attempts to shoot down such a test might well lead to reprisal by the North. Thus, actions aimed at bolstering the North's negotiating posture could backfire and accidentally escalate into war, however short-lived.

Breakdown of deterrence

This, more dangerous type of escalation, is rooted less in negotiating advantage than in the North's apparent conviction that it can control conflict at every level of violence. With nuclear weapons as an insurance policy, and with South Korea's wealthy economy and capital so crucially exposed, the leadership in Pyongyang may reckon that South Korea and the United States are risk-averse. As one North Korean official allegedly put it: "We are willing to cut off our leg, and you are not willing to cut off your pinkie."

This belief in escalation dominance can be seen in the recent actions of an emboldened -- and some would say desperate -- North Korea, which has resorted to limited surprise uses of military force, first sinking a South Korean naval vessel and then shelling an island near the disputed maritime Northern Limit Line. With 50 Koreans killed, including two civilians, North Korea then threatened war when South Korea conducted live-fire drills this past weekend.

North Korea's military resources

The difference between inadvertent escalation and a breakdown in deterrence may be more academic than real and may be difficult to parse. After all, North Korea's latest bluff is now followed by a putative peace overture, including a willingness to return to nuclear talks. While this may well be a gambit involving tacking right before tacking left, this bargaining logic makes a heroic assumption that the North's four-decade-old nuclear program is a mere bargaining chip. Just as likely, a regime that touts a military-first policy and has successfully resorted to employing limited amounts of deadly force may simply not see any red lines at all.

Remember this is also a regime that has continued to proliferate, on and off the peninsula. Facing down such a determined foe could easily set off the chain reaction that the U.S. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently expressed concern about. But so, too, could the failure to face down such aggression. Chinese leaders should be concerned that by continuing to define their interests so parochially, that they may in fact precipitate the very crisis they purport to be trying to prevent.

Regime change or collapse

War could also be catalyzed by sudden regime change or collapse in North Korea. The resulting uncertainty and potential loss of command and control, including over the North's nuclear weapons, might well find China and the United States in conflict. One reason why this sudden change or collapse scenario is so dangerous is that different countries might perceive their overriding interests very differently in the heat of a crisis.

Most importantly, for South Korea, it may appear that rather than achieving reunification either by the soft landing of gradual absorption or the hard landing of North Korea's political failure, China's growing influence over the North could be leading to the permanent division of the Peninsula.

Each of these three types of scenarios, and many variants of them, is possible within the next five years. Preventing them will demand strengthening deterrence, shrewd diplomacy, new means of exerting pressure and responding to provocation, and balancing responses with the need to manage long-term consequences. No wonder so many worry about the future of the Korean Peninsula.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Patrick M. Cronin.