Danger Zone: Will North Korea Take the Highway to Nuclear War?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un looks through a pair of binoculars as he guides the multiple-rocket launching drill of women's sub-units under KPA Unit 851

The United States does not have the experience to draw upon that would guide it through a military action against the DPRK.

Analysts agree North Korea is quite serious in its threat to shoot down American warplanes, even if they are flying in international airspace. The threat came in response to President Donald Trump’s latest challenge to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) via Twitter, in which he doubled down on his proclamation that the North’s days were numbered if they continued to provoke and threaten the United States.

On September 26, intelligence indicated that officials sent a small number of fighters, external-fuel tanks, and air-to-air missiles to an air base on the east coast of the country, ostensibly to place itself in a better position to intercept and target U.S. planes flying in the area. This move shows Pyongyang is serious about at least projecting an image of a willingness to follow through on its threat.

So, what happens if North Korea were to shoot down a U.S. military aircraft? What is quite clear is how the United States might respond; less clear is if the United States will respond at all.

DPRK attacks on U.S. aircraft, though rare, have happened. The last one occurred December 18, 1994; an Army OH-58 Kiowa helicopter patrolling the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was downed, resulting in the death of one pilot and the capture of the other (he was released shortly thereafter). The most egregious violation, however, occurred April 15, 1969. A Navy EC-121 Warning Star intelligence aircraft was shot down by a North Korean fighter jet over the Sea of Japan, killing all thirty-one crewmembers.

In neither case did the U.S. retaliate. The downing of the helicopter in 1994 was far too low-level of an incident and was largely the result of pilot error. Therefore, both sides were inclined to de-escalate rapidly and move on from the incident.

After the downing of the EC-121 in 1969, however, the Nixon administration considered major response options, including a nuclear strike, against North Korea. Many factors intervened, however, and the blatant act of aggression by Pyongyang went unanswered. The administration was “ashamed” of the incident and vowed to never allow such an attack to go unanswered. For the rest of Nixon’s term, the North Koreans never again provoked the United States.

There have also been many close calls, the most recent instances coming in the previous decade. On October 20, 2000, two U.S. aircraft participating in an exercise accidentally flew into the DMZ, a move which could have easily sparked a violent reaction from the North. On March 4, 2003, an Air Force RC-135S Cobra Ball intelligence plane was intercepted by four DPRK fighters over the Sea of Japan. Though the North Koreans demonstrated hostile intent, the RC-135S continued on its way and escaped, unharmed.

The Trump administration has made its position clear that it will respond militarily to any overt act of aggression. While North Korea is not likely to test this proposition, it does not prevent the country from engaging in other actions short of outright violence. For example, instead of firing upon U.S. aircraft, North Korean air defenses or fighters can issue threats via radio or “illuminate” them with fire-control radar, as they did to the RC-135S in 2003, aiming to intimidate the United States—or even provoking an incident that Pyongyang can use to construct a damning narrative against Washington. It is precisely this sort of subversion, rule-exploitation and self-victimization that rogue regimes like the DPRK specialize in. It would be quite a surprise to see the North not use Trump’s ultimatums to their advantage.

But even demonstrations of hostile intent, such as illuminating U.S. aircraft with radar, are incredibly reckless and could result in catastrophe for both sides. It is not clear what, if any, guidance higher authority has issued to commanders in theater on how to deal with North Korean hostility. Establishing such guidance and clarifying the rules of engagement ahead of time will help avoid uncontrolled escalation, but what this guidance and rules of engagement specifically entails matters as well.

For example, how should hostilities in-progress be handled? Under what circumstances are U.S. pilots authorized to take preemptive measures to defend themselves? Will units be required to consult higher authority before returning fire? Will they be permitted, as Ronald Reagan decreed with regards to Libya in 1981, chase them “right into the hanger?” Without answering these questions ahead of time, the United States will find itself stumbling over itself during an actual emergency, potentially making an unpleasant situation even worse.