US actions during the past two weeks truly highlights the flexibility it has when countering rivals. Paul Bracken refers to this concept as “escalation dominance.” In theory, the US can increase the pressure on countries such as North Korea indefinitely, without relying on nuclear weapons. While Bracken focuses solely on military aspects, this dominance extends to economic and political spheres. Though the deployment of advanced aircraft shows military dominance, it is dependent on political and economic factors.The divergence in explanations pertaining to aircraft deployment clearly demonstrates the political aspects of this phenomenon. The US plays “good cop” claiming that the aircraft represent conventional deterrence while the South plays “bad cop”, inserting nuclear deterrence into equation. In the power triangle of North-South-US relations, only the US has the ability to leverage this type of tactic. North Korea may try a similar routine with China, but as recent votes as the UN have shown, China has limited patience with North Korea.
In contrast to the US, North Korea has very few escalatory options. North Korea cannot sanction the US or parallel its actions by sending heavy bombers to Canada or Mexico. Ironically, the inflexible position of North Korea also means that it could potentially reach a nuclear threshold faster than a country such as the US. With this in mind, the US and South Korea should consider novel ways to contain the escalation dilemma. In theory, it may be beneficial to provide Pyongyang with as many non-military escalatory options as possible while also using different deterrent mechanisms. The US should avoid using stealth aircraft when dealing with less-advanced nuclear states due to their inability to be detected and also because they often seen as central components to a swift, debilitating attack. For a country such as North Korea, US stealth fighters remind them of what befell leaders such as Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milošević.
In terms of novel non-military escalatory options, the US and South Korea should essentially consider how to channel North Korea’s “nervous energy.” Two areas in which this concept could be developed include relations with the US and an increase in treaties. A modified US-North Korea relationship would probably curtail full diplomatic recognition, but it could include hotline mechanisms. If a hotline was established with the US, it would provide North Korea with an additional non-military bargaining chip. Additionally, new treaties would provide North Korea with more symbolic icons that could be sacrificed during a time of crisis. North Korea has already withdrawn from the Korean War Armistice and it is likely that any future treaties will be used by the North Koreans to vent frustrations. Regardless of the course taken, options such as these should be considered in order to keep Pyongyang away from the button.