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Research Questions

  1. What decisions might North Korean leadership encounter when approaching economic reforms?
  2. What military decisions might North Korean leaders face if conventional deterrence fails on the Korean Peninsula?
  3. What considerations inform North Korean decisionmaking on nuclear weapons doctrine?

This report is a compilation of three papers designed to stimulate discussion among those who are focused on North Korean decisionmaking. The first paper describes the experiences of North Korea and three similar authoritarian regimes — China, Vietnam, and Cuba — and provides a forecast of why and how North Korea might adopt a new economic model. The second paper describes decisions that the North Korean leadership might face in two scenarios in which conventional deterrence on the Korean Peninsula breaks down. The final paper provides an assessment of North Korean leadership decisionmaking about nuclear weapons doctrine. Despite the many unknowns surrounding the North Korean leadership decisionmaking process, these papers constructively outline the parameters of the North Korean decisionmaking "trade space" and the historical examples from which North Korean leaders might draw.

Key Findings

Three other communist regimes — China, Vietnam, and Cuba — might offer clues about how North Korea might adopt a new economic model

  • Several factors emerged as influences on a communist regime's decision to open up: a rapid deterioration in central government finances, a relaxation in the necessity for ideological purity, removal from office of key leaders who had opposed reform, incipient famine, spreading corruption, and loss of a great-power patron.
  • U.S. policies encouraging regimes to open up or sanctioning them for foreign policies or domestic abuses do not appear to have figured directly in most of these instances.

A failure of conventional deterrence on the Korean Peninsula could quickly escalate to nuclear crisis

  • The authors created two "what if" scenarios designed to explore factors that could affect North Korean regime behavior during a crisis, and what might lead the regime to attack South Korean and U.S. forces stationed on the Korean Peninsula.
  • Depending on the catalyst for conflict, conventional deterrence could quickly erode during a crisis. Once fighting with conventional weapons begins, there might be few off-ramps for avoiding a nuclear exchange.
  • Cooperative alliance management between the United States and South Korea and measures bolstering that alliance's conventional deterrence posture might make North Korea more reluctant to take aggressive military measures that might destabilize the integrity of conventional deterrence on the peninsula. Regional states can seek to influence North Korea's threat perception by indicating that they will not intervene unless North Korea takes aggressive actions that threaten military stability on the peninsula.

The United States and South Korea have significant abilities to control the circumstances that would lead North Korea to undertake nuclear use

  • Different nuclear doctrines could be of use to North Korea in terms of three specific regime objectives: bolstering regime strength, deterring U.S. coercion or attack, and supporting offensive operations.
  • Some situations could be forestalled with continuing alliance commitments and coordination with other key actors, including China.
  • Other mitigating approaches include restraint, political agreements to reduce mutual threat and risk-of-war perceptions, and continued credible deterrent threats.

This research was sponsored by National Intelligence Council and conducted within the Cyber and Intelligence Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD), which operates the RAND National Defense Research Institute (NDRI).

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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