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The United States Needs a Gray-Zone Strategy Against North Korea
Pyongyang thrives on provocation. Washington has to learn to counter it.
North Korea’s firing of short-range ballistic missiles on May 4 and 9 and testing of a new “tactical guided weapon” on April 17 are stark reminders that the Kim Jong Un regime knows how to deftly exploit the gray zone between war and peace. Pyongyang is not only seeking to pressure South Korea and reassure North Koreans of their country’s military might but is also probing the United States’ trigger points.
Since assuming power in 2011, Kim has fine-tuned his risk calculus, launching provocations against the United States and its Northeast Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, that fall below the threshold of retaliation but successfully achieve Pyongyang’s goals. The success of Kim’s foreign policy rests on the skillful use of gray-zone tactics: aggressive or coercive actions that seek to gain advantage and influence without provoking outright escalation to military conflict.
Pyongyang’s formula has included a tailored mix of bellicose rhetoric (often aided by sensational coverage by the foreign media), missile launches over Japanese airspace, irregular tactics including cyberattacks on South Korean and U.S. companies, the quiet continuation of its nuclear weapons program—and the occasional conciliatory gesture. The regime’s multidimensional gray-zone tactics have enabled it to outmaneuver the United States. The past two decades of North Korean relations with both South Korea and the United States have seen boom-and-bust cycles characterized by periods of accommodation and reconciliation, punctuated by crises along the way. The latest tests pose a unique dilemma for both Washington and Seoul, neither of which, rightly so, wishes to overreact and risk closing a rare diplomatic window for denuclearization and eventual peace.
Over time, the lack of concerted responses to bad behaviors will feed Pyongyang’s perception that operating in this gray zone, dialing up the scope and pace of provocations when negotiations hit a snag, allows it to set the agenda with Washington in the long term. If this is to change, U.S. policymakers need their own gray-zone strategy. Even as Washington continues to engage Kim and test the verity of his pledge to work toward “complete denuclearization,” as stated in the 2018 Singapore joint statement, it needs to draw on a creative, integrated toolkit and well-calibrated tactics.
Gray-zone conflict is necessarily characterized by limited conflict, sitting between so-called normal competition between states and what is traditionally thought of as war. The central aim is to influence the decision-making of adversaries and other key audiences, rather than removing their capacity to choose using brute force itself. Considering the North Korea challenge as a gray-zone conflict provides a clear framework for understanding and managing a situation that otherwise seems too dauntingly complex and sprawls across neat boundaries of peace, war, conventional combat, cyberwarfare, nuclear policy, economics, diplomacy, escalation, and deterrence.
Any strategy must include the spectrum of conflict from peace through to limited war and coherently blend deterrence and escalation management. It must centrally involve multiple audiences (e.g., allies and third parties), multiple domains (e.g., conventional, cyberspace, diplomatic), multiple timeframes (e.g., not just each crisis, or recurrent crises, but also the longer game), and multiple levels within societies (e.g., South Korean and Japanese public opinion), as well as deal with the ambiguity of many North Korean actions that are open to multiple interpretations.
Effectively influencing North Korean choices requires that the United States and South Korea establish a clearly delineated structure of disincentives and credible retaliatory threats to dial up—and dial down—dissuasion, without triggering a dangerous conflict spiral. Neither deterrence nor escalation management alone is enough.
This is particularly important as the North Korean government devotes significant resources to advancing its offensive cyber-capabilities. Even after Kim launched his January 2018 charm offensive, North Korea’s spy agency, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, continued to attack South Korea through targeted malware and denial of service attacks. This included stealing some $32 million from Bithumb, a Seoul-based cryptocurrency exchange service, just weeks after the first summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in June 2018. North Korean hackers also reportedly stole U.S.-South Korean wartime operational plans and other sensitive military documents. Even during the recent U.S.-North Korean summit in Hanoi this past February, North Korean hackers seemingly kept up the tempo.
Punitive responses to North Korea’s lower-grade provocations should begin not with military measures but with diplomatic, information, and economic levers. The United States possesses a portfolio of tools. These range from new sanctions on third-party entities that conduct commercial activities with Pyongyang and a stronger maritime interdiction posture to more aggressive overt and covert information operations in concert with Seoul.
Before the current progressive South Korean administration took office, for example, Seoul blared anti-communist messages, international news, and even K-pop music through radio broadcast systems at the Demilitarized Zone loudly enough to be heard several miles into North Korea. Propaganda balloons scattered DVDs and U.S. dollar bills across the border. Reinstating and even ramping up these irritants can respond to North Korean provocations by signaling displeasure without closing off lines of engagement. The current progressive South Korean administration will be reluctant to return to such measures in the absence of a blatant nuclear or intercontinental ballistic missile threat out of concern that they would aggravate Pyongyang and be criticized for choosing Washington over their Northern brethren. Finally, the United States, South Korea, and Japan should continue to coordinate their defensive and offensive cyber-capabilities in response to North Korea’s use of cyberwarfare as part of broader trilateral cooperation to deal with a common challenge.
When it comes to higher-grade provocations, the United States must both involve the United Nations Security Council and strengthen its extended deterrent. Pyongyang’s latest firing of short-range ballistic missiles, which threaten South Korea as well as U.S. troops and citizens there, violate U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 2397 (passed in 2006 and 2017), the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration between the two Korean leaders, and the 2018 inter-Korean military agreement.
The U.N. Security Council should issue a stronger response than mere statements of condemnation, as it has done in the past after short-range ballistic missile tests. The allies should also resume their canceled joint military exercises but withhold the participation of nuclear-capable strategic air and naval assets (B-1B, B-2, and B-52 bombers) and ballistic missile submarines capable of launching nuclear warheads. These can be reincorporated into the exercises if the regime tests nuclear devices and ICBMs.
Diplomacy and confidence-building measures should be the Trump administration’s modus operandi when dealing with Pyongyang, but they must be coupled with creative multidimensional responses in conjunction with its allies to prevent slippage toward undesirable outcomes. As the U.S. administration prepares for a third summit with Kim and navigates the current diplomatic lull, it should clearly signal to North Korea that it is preparing for exit ramps should an end to negotiations be preferable to unproductive diplomacy.
This means the two allies must continuously model the North’s actions and maintain readiness in anticipation of surprise gambits and diplomatic breakdown. Under the auspices of a military agreement inked at the fifth inter-Korean summit, in September 2018—which stirred controversy in the United States and South Korea alike—Seoul and Pyongyang designated no-fly zones above the DMZ, withdrew 11 guard posts, and took other measures to promote the demilitarization of the Joint Security Area.
But if North Korea does not disarm—or even advances nuclear arms production—and Washington has dropped its military readiness on the peninsula to mollify Pyongyang, then the United States risks being caught off guard. The United States should view the potential reinstatement of the Ulchi Freedom Guardian and Vigilant Ace combined military exercises with South Korea both as essential readiness maintenance tools and as levers to shape Kim’s risk calculus for provocations.
The most likely intermediate outcome is a new dynamic equilibrium, where shifting perceptions position North Korea for growing diplomatic and eventually economic ties with major actors in Northeast Asia—including China and Russia—even as its nuclear capabilities remain. This will be particularly so in the absence of a real nuclear deal with Washington. Kim’s continuing overtures to both Beijing and Moscow both hint at these eventualities and signal he is already preparing other pathways to prosperity in case bilateral diplomacy with the United States fails to deliver.
“Fire and fury” is not the only way to punish bad behavior. But turning a blind eye to North Korea’s gray-zone tactics only emboldens the regime. Without a lasting breakthrough, the improbability of any real structural change in Washington’s relationship with the Kim regime leaves little room for the type of “bold decisions” that were South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration’s signature refrain throughout 2018. Rather, it demands a careful, tactically flexible approach in which economic, diplomatic, and military pressure can be scaled up or down incrementally. After six decades of ambiguity between peace and war with North Korea, the United States must also operate in the gray zone.
Duyeon Kim is a senior advisor for Northeast Asia and nuclear policy at the International Crisis Group.
Nicholas D. Wright is affiliated with Intelligent Biology, Georgetown University Medical Center, University College London, and New America. He applies neuroscientific, behavioral, and technological insights to understand decision-making in politics and international confrontations. Wright previously practiced internal medicine and clinical neurology in Oxford and London.