Recent rhetoric emanating out of North Korea suggests that the isolated communist state will take violent action against its democratic neighbor to the South. Some pundits and academics have suggested that we should now be on the alert for large-scale violent conflict initiated by Pyongyang. But evidence based on past precedent indicates otherwise. The most likely action that we could see initiated by Pyongyang would be a small, violent provocation (violent meaning intended to cause casualties). North Korea has in fact conducted a number of violent provocations over the years ― and I will thus discuss the aspects of these provocations, and the most likely scenarios during which they could occur.
Violent provocations conducted by the North Koreans over the past 40 years (to include cyber/electronic warfare attacks) have four things in common:
1) They are intentionally initiated during moments in history when they will have the likelihood of garnishing the most attention on the regional and perhaps even the world stage
2) They always appear to be incidents that are small, easily contained, and quickly "resolved."
3) They have involved always changing tactics and techniques.
4) North Korea denies responsibility for the event.
Without exception, North Korea's provocations have followed this trend. There are four likely scenarios for provocations Pyongyang could initiate in coming days or weeks.
Likely Scenario 1: Northern Limit Line Attacks:
Since 1999, North Korea has repeatedly initiated violent attacks in the Northern Limit Line area off of the west coast of the Korean Peninsula. This area serves as the de facto "maritime DMZ" between the two Koreas, and has been the scene of violent acts numerous times between 1999 and 2010. Provocations have included naval battles, artillery attacks, and submarine attacks. Future scenarios could include Special Operations Forces attacks on one of the five ROK islands in the area ― to include attacks on civilians.
Likely Scenario 2: DMZ Attacks.
North Korea has initiated numerous violent attacks (meant to inflict casualties) against both South Korean and US forces along the DMZ. The most recent attack was during the summer of 2015, when two ROK soldiers were badly wounded from mines planted on their side of the DMZ by North Korean Special Forces.
North Korea has initiated numerous cyber-attacks against South Korean targets. These attacks have focused on government web sites, systems for radio and television networks, and NGO's who have spoken out against North Korean policies. In addition, North Korea has jammed GPS communications on civilian aircraft (hundreds of them) flying into Incheon airport (the international airport that serves Seoul). All of these attacks have proven to disrupt activities in South Korea ― though none have been deadly to date. These attacks ― both cyber and EW ― have occurred in recent years (within the past three years), and are the newest form of North Korean low level, asymmetric prevocational behavior. While cyber-attacks against the South can be considered almost routine now, large scale attacks against a number of high value targets, conducted simultaneously, have the potential to cause serious disruption in ROK government and society.
While these attacks have received little attention outside of the Korean Peninsula in recent years, they continue to exist. There have been attempts to assassinate high-ranking defectors in Seoul (in the past 10 years), and attempts to kidnap defectors in Europe (in the past 24 months) to bring them back to North Korea that have been confirmed. Further, the capability of Reconnaissance General Bureau personnel to carry out either assassination attempts or acts of terror (eg; gas attacks) has been confirmed in open channels and would likely be at least partially successful should Kim Jong-un decide to authorize this activity.
Proposed Policy Solutions: The United States needs to support its ally in Seoul by fully cooperating on anti-provocation measures. Further, it is important to make predictive statements about this activity, and to note that it often occurs during annual ROK-US exercises that take place in late February to mid-March (or soon after they conclude). North Korean violent, low-level provocations can and should be treated the same as nuclear tests or long-range missile launches. That is to say, they should be responded to with swift, robust actions that will send a message to North Korea that the United States will not tolerate Pyongyang's rogue state behavior and fully supports counter-measures taken by our key ally in Seoul.
Bruce E. Bechtol Jr. is a professor of political science at Angelo State University, and is the author or editor of six books on North Korea, most recently "North Korea and Regional Security in the Kim Jong-un Era: A New International Security Dilemma." Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.