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North Korea Conflict: Outcomes Analysis

This article was originally published on April 4, 2018 as a special analysis available to subscribers to
Erudite Risk's Korea Risk Monitor report. It was written by and Rodney J. Johnson and Kyle L. Johnson.

While recent developments are promising, it is important to keep in mind that nothing of real import has changed as of yet and that we are a long way from reaching a stable end to this crisis. 


The recent news of a potential summit meeting between Kim Jong Un of North Korea and Donald Trump of the United States has created a belief in some that the crisis on the Korean Peninsula has been solved and is nearing its end. While we believe that recent developments are promising, it is important to keep in mind that nothing of real import has changed as of yet and that we are a long way from reaching a stable end to this crisis.

The ongoing charm offensive by North Korea, coupled with South Korea’s aggressive approach at rapport building between the North and the US, has led some commentators to remark that war is now off the table. The analysis of this report, and its conclusions, shows that war is both never off the table, and also the default result should other, more desirable outcomes be unachievable in practice.  

Lastly, we believe it is important to show that there are only three paths the crisis can take toward an eventual ending, and that out of those three paths, only two outcomes are completely stable and trustworthy. One of those outcomes is very desirable and difficult to reach: a stable negotiated end, and the other is easy to reach and very undesirable: conflict. Every other potential outcome is simply a waypoint on the path to one of those two, however long lasting it may seem.


Tracing the Flow of Outcomes

Beginning at the circle marked “Today” on the above flowchart, we see that there are only three main branches the crisis can traverse: diplomacy, forced disarmament/conflict, or acceptance/deterrence. Any other branch is unexpected (a civil war, or unilateral disarmament, for example) and somewhat unimaginable at this juncture. The current state is described as a fluid one as there has been no overt commitment by any party to any of the three alternative strategies.

Out of these three most viable options, there is a clearly preferable path: diplomacy leading to a negotiated end in which North Korea agrees to willingly and voluntarily give up its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. The other two paths are not preferred for one reason or another. Deterrence is not the preferred option because it is not stable in the long-term and may end in conflict anyway, while requiring the US to monitor and contain North Korea for the foreseeable future. Conflict is not preferable for obvious reasons - the same reasons that it has not been preferable for over 60 years - people will die and they will do so in potentially large numbers. 

With the emerging possibility of a summit meeting between US President Trump and KIM, it appears that we might try the diplomacy route in earnest. If the meeting does come to pass (not nearly a foregone conclusion), we begin the journey down a long and obstacle-strewn path toward a final, stable, negotiated ending to this crisis.

This strategy is not without risks. If direct negotiations between Trump and KIM fail, we have to ask where that leaves us. If the failure is seen as not fatal, we can circle around and continue negotiating. If the failure to come to a consensus seems terminal, we may be left with having prematurely spent our diplomacy chips, and abandon the possibility of ever coming to a negotiated settlement.

If by some miracle, the summit between KIM and Trump leads to an accord, we must continue by first realizing that the accord, in and of itself, is not a stable ending, and then proceed to monitor the situation over what may be two or three years while the agreement is executed. In that sense, an agreement at this juncture may start us down the road to a stable settlement, but it may also leave us in a situation where any failure to execute in the future will place us at a higher risk than if an accord had never been reached at all.

In practice, using everything we know at this juncture, a stable negotiated end represents more of an aspirational state than a real possibility. A lot of things would have to change between now and that point; things that have proved incredibly resistant to influence by administration after administration.

Outcome 1: An Unstable Negotiated End

To get to Outcome 1, the United States must offer what North Korea wants to receive in exchange for denuclearization, and North Korea must offer complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization.  

Furthermore, whether these offers will ever come to fruition or not, both sides must trust each other to the extent that they believe there is a better than not chance that both side’s offers will, in fact, be ultimately received by the receiving party. That is all that is required for an agreement at this stage.

Given that offers and goodwill are all that is required to make an accord, Outcome 1 is inherently unstable. The US and South Korea have been here before with North Korea, and one or more parties did not follow through on promised actions. This time, as before, NK has no reason or incentive to give up its weapons until it sees that is actually going to receive the promised proceeds of denuclearizing.

What does NK likely want?

The US would have to offer significant and irreversible security guarantees to the KIM regime. The regime needs to believe received benefits bestow the same level of self-determination as nuclear weapons do. 

These would presumably be treated as an “all or nothing” basket; without all of them happening, none of the individual conditions are meaningful. And it would not be sufficient for the US to say, “trust us,” or try to coerce denuclearization through threats of force. If it tries to do so, negotiations will almost certainly fail.

Outcome 2: Failed Negotiations

To get to Outcome 2, the Trump-KIM summit, or any other direct US-NK negotiations, would first have to occur, and then fail. While the former is improbable, the latter is not.

All it would take for negotiations to fail is for either the US, or North Korea, or both, to fail to reach the standard described above for Outcome 1. Furthermore, if the US, or North Korea, or both, fail to believe that the other is capable of, or willing to comply with, the conditions necessary to execute the agreement, there is no reason to make an agreement in the first place. Even with good offers on the table, a lack of underlying trust could derail the entire process.

Outcome 2 could lead to either further attempts at negotiating an end to the crisis, the diplomacy loop, or head off in a different direction. Diplomacy and repeated attempts at negotiation have limits: diplomacy fatigue, where domestic politics makes further negotiation difficult, or the belief that NK is using negotiations simply as a way to buy time and complete development of its weapons programs.

Outcome 3: Recognition/Deterrence

Outcome 3 is a quasi-stable solution, that will only come about when the US believes there are no other options but recognizing North Korea as a nuclear power. This condition could come about if a negotiated end is seen to be not achievable AND the military option has been dismissed - for the time being, at least - due to a belief it would result in unacceptable casualties and/or lack of efficacy. In practice, Outcome 3 would be very similar to the uneasy cease fire Korea has had since 1953, only this time, the US would have a direct stake in the game and would be deterring attack on the US mainland rather than just South Korea and Japan.

Like the verification process following Outcome 1, Outcome 3 can end at any time due to a recasting of the threat posed by a nuclear North Korea. US recognition of NK as a nuclear power and long-term deterrence is described as quasi-stable, because while it could quickly begin to feel like the “new normal,” just like the Cold War, it could go “hot” at any time. Quasi-Stable is synonymous with “permanent transition.”

If North Korea is seen as more dangerous than when deterrence was first pursued, other options may be put back on the table. 

A failure of Outcome 3 will lead to Outcome 5.

Outcome 4: A Stable Negotiated End

Outcome 1 is a necessary prerequisite for Outcome 4, but Outcome 1 is not a stable outcome in and of itself. In fact, an agreement, as difficult as that will be, is the easiest part of getting to a stable negotiated ending to this crisis. Any accord signed will have to be first executed and then verified and enforced over the course of several years until both parties have sufficiently demonstrated that their mutual promises have been fulfilled. The follow-through on Outcome 1 can end at any time if either the US or North Korea feels the other side is reneging - and both the US and North Korea have a long track record of reneging on international agreements.

It is worth noting that we have been on the road to Outcome 4 before - with both the Agreed Framework, and the Six-Party Talks’ “Action Plan.” These both failed. The status quo standoff persisted following these failures, because North Korea did not then represent a threat to the US mainland. The ticking clock of continuous NK weapons development means that it is unlikely there will be a return to the status quo following a similar failure this time. We should not expect a return to talks if post-Outcome 1 verification fails.

North Korea will have to have become irreversibly denuclearized to the satisfaction of the US, and that satisfaction will be subject to review at least as often as it is politically expedient to do so - meaning potentially every time there is a new US election. And as a practical matter, even if North Korea destroys all of their nuclear paraphernalia, they will still retain the know-how to quickly re-establish the program at any time, so it will probably be impossible for them to ever convince the US of full compliance as long as the KIM regime remains in power.

The US will have to follow through with all the security guarantees made to achieve Outcome 1. These will constitute a major constraint on US power in the region, which will be an issue, especially if US-China relations continue to sour. And like US satisfaction with NK denuclearization, those promises will be subject to review, at a bare minimum, every two years - whenever there is a major, federal election.

If and when all of those conditions are met, we can consider ourselves to have reached Outcome 4. It is a long and torturous journey to a negotiated end that seems highly improbable, and will likely be even more difficult in practice.

Outcome 5: Forced Disarmament/Conflict

Unfortunately, while Outcome 5 is the worst outcome for everyone on the Peninsula (and anyone reading this report), it is the easiest to get to: the default option. It can come whether US-NK negotiations happen or not, it can come regardless of whether or not those initial negotiations are successful (Outcome 1), and it can come even if we first enter a quasi-stable state of deterrence (Outcome 3). From the US perspective, the only way to disarm North Korea with total certainty is to end North Korea. Everything else requires some degree of trust over a sustained period, and trust is in short supply.

As stated before, there are two long-term, stable outcomes to this situation. Option 4 requires a long, and very fragile, line of conditions, supported by mutual trust and intentional cooperation; Option 5 only requires that this line fails, and that failure need not even be intentional.

A major impediment to a peaceful resolution is that both the US and North Korea lack key information about each other. Neither North Korea nor the US knows what the other side will do militarily, but they do know that the side to strike first gains a massive advantage by imposing limitations on their opponent’s ability to respond.

This alone creates a powerful incentive to default to Outcome 5.

The US rationale for attacking first is intuitive (destroy NK fast to limit response), but NK also has a strong reason to do so. If North Korea feels that conflict is inevitable, a first strike against key infrastructure and logistics hubs in the Pacific would be the most rational decision available, because it would greatly impair America’s ability to reinforce the relatively small number of troops it has on the Peninsula.

If the US thinks - correctly or incorrectly - that North Korea is incapable of inflicting a greater than acceptable number of casualties on the allies, the US will be more liable to attack. The US has until NK perfects its ability to hit America with a nuclear weapon to select and utilize a military option. Similarly, NK has until the US stages a significant amount of troops and equipment in the theater to utilize a military option. Neither side wants to wait for the other.


Erudite Risk

Erudite Risk offers risk management and security-related professional services for multinational companies operating in the Asia-Pacific region. With operations in India, Korea, and Singapore, Erudite Risk is ready to help you meet the challenges of Asia, the most dynamic and challenging business environment in the world.

Rodney J. Johnson is a former intelligence analyst for the US military, focused exclusively on North Korea. In addition, he has led or managed over 2000 security and risk management-related cases in Korea. He has created crisis management plans for entities operating on the Peninsula from virtually every industry. He is the creator of the Erudite Risk Crisis Framework and the designer of the North Korea Monitor.

Kyle L. Johnson is a former intelligence analyst for the US military, who also focused on North Korea. He is a Korean linguist with 15 years of experience analyzing North Korean military operations and activities.