Escalation in the Korean Crisis: What will the NK Military do if Japan Shoots Down the Missile Launch?

Jpn Patriots

A few days ago, I predicted there would be no war, probably because I’m lazy and predicting the future will be the same as the present is an easy way to protect my credibility. However, I also noted that NK could get entrapped by its own belligerent rhetoric and be forced to escalate even if it doesn’t want to. I think this is why Kaesong was closed, for example.

I also noted how sanguine South Koreans are about NK, but foolishly, I didn’t really think about the Japanese. Then came the story about a mistweet by the city of Yokohama that apparently created local panic.The Japanese seem far more nervous about this than South Koreans, and NK did launch a missile once over Japan. The Japanese have also been talking a lot tougher, and Abe is clearly a hawk on NK. So here is the most likely escalation pathway I can see, despite my firm conviction the North Koreans do not want a war, because they will lose badly and quickly, and then face the executioner in Southern prisons:


1. April 15 is the birthday of the Great Korean Leader (wae-dae-han chosun suryong) Kim Il Sung. It is well-known that the Norks like holidays and anniversaries and commemorate them with their international hijinks. And no holiday is bigger than KIS’ birthday, around whom the whole state is built. His birthday is even the point of origin of an internal North Korean calendar.

2. The missiles most US and SK intelligence expect to be launched are on the east coast, on the Sea of Japan.

3. Unstated Japanese policy I’ve been told is not to shoot down NK missiles, even in overflight, unless the trajectory would bring a missile down on Japanese territory. Less clear is what they would do it were expected to land in Japanese waters.

3. So on April 15, or shortly thereafter, NK tests one or more missiles over the Sea of Japan. NK telemetry is poor – the improvement of which is the technical purpose behind all these missile launches.

4. One of the missiles strays to close to Japan, and they shoot it down.

5. What does the North Korean military do next? Recall that ‘military first’ (son-gun) has been the dominant ideology for 15 years, and the whole purpose of NK now, after the end of the Cold War and bankruptcy of communism, is to defend against ‘imperialism,’ of which the Japanese are a potent symbol due to their colonial venture in Korea from 1910-45. So post-shoot-down, there could be huge pressure on the military to do something to legitimize its rule, particularly before the other parts of the regime whom the military’s gargantuan defense spending (25-35% of GDP) is starving.

6. Because Japan is far away, North Korea does something dangerous where it normally does – in the Yellow Sea with SK. SK President Park, who’s said a counter-strike will occur on the next provocation ‘without any political consideration,’ follows through and allows the SK navy or air force to attack a NK port or something. Given how important this is, here are her words in the original: “만약 우리 국민과 대한민국에 대해 어떤 도발이 발생한다면 일체 다른 정치적 고려를 하지 말고 초전에 강력 대응해야 할 것.”

7. This then sets off a tit-for-tat escalation that no one really knows where or how would stop.

16 thoughts on “Escalation in the Korean Crisis: What will the NK Military do if Japan Shoots Down the Missile Launch?

  1. Good post with scary implications. Two offshoots: .

    First, some suppose that Jong Un, in appreciation of the DPRK’s hopelessness and desperation, is preempting self destruction by over playing his hand in this game of brinksmanship. I don’t think this is a likely – or verifiable – claim. But it does raise an interesting hypothetical. Thoughts? .

    Second, I wonder what extent Japan, ROK, and USA are willing to appease Nork for the sake of stability. China loves DPRK as a buffer for now, but endorsing them is becoming untenable. On the heels of Kerry’s positive relationship-building trip to Beijing, when do you see China flipping? Is this the lynch pin that Japan, USA, and ROK have been waiting out? Or is ‘waiting’ the name of the game regardless of China’s position?


    • I’m all for waiting on China. SK, Jpn, and US have done a good job not getting played against each other by NK in the last decade, pushing NK solely into hands of China. And someday they will fatigue of the ‘Kim Il Sung’ country. This is progress.> Date: Sun, 14 Apr 2013 11:15:01 +0000
      > To:


  2. It still seems unlikely South Korea would go down the tit-for-tat escalation for very long, unless (buoyed perhaps by a successful retaliation) Park Geun-hye suddenly decided she is going to be a war president (aka Thatcher or Blair style) – which isn’t unimaginable given she has no other particular political ideology and is perhaps searching for a historical mission. She likely wants to define herself against the blandly corrupt technocratic LMB non-legacy.

    Incidentally, does NK have any technical means to know exactly where there missiles land, or if they’ve been shot down, apart from reading it in Japanese newspapers?


  3. In case it’s useful, here’s my translation of Park’s words:
    “If by any chance a provocation should arise against our citizenry or nation (of South Korea), we must strongly respond to the first act of war without any other political consideration.”


  4. I have to quibble with your scenario, based on an Andrew Erickson post – with a link to a Patrick Cronin FP article – that just came out. First, Erickson identifies the most serious threat from a deliberate NK missile strike being oil refineries in either South Korea or Japan. Erickson constructs four scenarios from that premise, one of which is escalation to the Second Korean War. Erickson puts odds on that scenario at less than 5%. Erickson backs two more likelier scenarios, either “confrontation short of full conflict” or “tensions” (a reprise of the 1960s). Cronin also sketches a scenario involving Japan. What I found interesting with both Erickson and Cronin is, that Japan isn’t the one responding, but rather the U.S. destroys the NK missile and Seoul escalates along the DMZ or in territorial waters. Perhaps it’st a function of crafting scenarios with the outcomes inputted by the framing, but these are discreet events that allow for deescalation from multiple points. For instance, if the missile flies over Japanese territory, ascertain its trajectory and don’t shoot it down. Or, if NK activates artillery tubes in the Yellow Sea area, consider contingencies for that problem.

    But, what if the missile that sails over Japan is a dud that frustrates tracking? This for me is the scenario where real damage and loss of life would occur, but it also would cause the North Koreans to de-escalate, because they would realize their missiles are faulty and cannot be reliable for their defense, and that another dud would lead to an American strike on their missile batteries with broad public support if for no other reason than public safety. This all falls under the rubric of “accidents” that lead to war. No one has seems to worry about the Japanese SDF going rogue the way they do about the ROK forces. The key then is for the US to maintain sufficient authority over ROK and JSDF forces not to escalate no matter what the North Koreans do.

    Japanese public opinion might be realistically anxious about North Korea, but the issue as I see it is, who can the US trust not to escalate, the JSDF or ROK forces.


  5. In the above scenario how likely is it that the North Korean military would even admit that the missile was shot down by Japan, which would seem to be a precondition for pressure from other parts of the North Korean regime in step 5? Wouldn’t the North Korean military just announce that missile was a “stunning success demonstrating the might of North Korea’s ability to harm the imperialist aggressor” (or something) regardless of whether the launch was a success? Or would elites within the non-military parts of the regime still know the truth?


    • Pyongyang’s rhetoric or the concerns of the opposition is irrelevant to the government and military. Having a viable second strike capability is the goal of the missile program. If the US and allies know that Pyongyang’s limited arsenal of missiles are not reliable, the United States can pursue military planning based on the confidence that Pyongyang cannot retaliate to conventional and nuclear force. This entire episode is for domestic consumption and to test its missiles, so Pyongyang will monitor performance just as keenly as the US and Japan.


    • That’s a really good insight and yet another reason not to fear escalation. I think you are right. They are strong incentives just to say it was a success and move on. On the other hand, you gotta think other parts of the regime would know. Hmm. I dunno. What do you think?


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