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Red Teaming North Korea

The actions of Kim Jong-un and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) have surprised and frustrated analysts and national security thinkers’ best guesses over the past weeks. In life, there are adversaries and competitors who are unpredictable, and act contrary to your best assessment of their predicted behaviors. The difficulty of determining the strategy of a dictator, terrorist, or loose cannon is the assumption that their actions are rational and have the same value of potential risk. With the rising tensions on the Korean peninsula, the U.S. government and the Republic of Korea (ROK) fell into several thinking traps that a red team could have solved. The belief that the DPRK and baby dictator Kim Jong-un were up to the “normal” North Korean saber rattling of the past was challenged repeatedly as the tensions escalated through last week. As the game of brinkmanship has raised concerns worldwide the conflict highlights the difficulty of predicting the actions of an adversary who has very different end state goals.

RTJ Red Teaming Law #8: “Risk is subjective. Oh, and goals are mercurial, perceptions are plastic, knowledge is gettable, time is exploitable … Review this law whenever you think you’ve mastered the practice of red teaming.” The belief that the DPRK regime or other dictator has the best interest of his or her country in mind is a fallacy, as risk is subjective. In business and national security environments, a competitor most likely does not place the same risk value as your organization in any given scenario. As a red team member, it is vital to ascertain the opponents risk tolerance and not discount scenarios that place an adversary in a situation that you would consider high risk. In the situation with Kim Jong-un, who is relatively unknown in his behaviors, the early models of the scenarios in North Korea were modeled on the expected behaviors of his father. As past incidents demonstrated, the elder Kim who would escalate hostilities to resume weapons talks, gain bargaining power, or reduce sanctions. As the younger Kim’s behavior and actions surpassed his expected actions based on his father, concerns raised of a renewed Korean conflict catching many by surprise.

RTJ Red Teaming Law #9: “Red teaming is not forecasting; red teaming is the art of challenging assumptions and exploring the possible.” Six months ago the prospect of a nuclear exchange or detonation by DPRK would be judged unlikely by most national security thinkers. Today, the likelihood is higher than ever as the dangerous moves towards brinksmanship are beyond the believed range of possible actions. During the first few weeks of raising tensions the headlines and editorials told contradictory stories. Many news outlets and think tankers downplayed the North Korean threat and few even threw out hopeful predictions of a “coming reformist” move by Kim Jong-un. The assumption that actors would avoid an armed interstate conflict at all costs is being challenged daily as tensions escalate on the Korean peninsula. All scenarios should be war gamed, even the improbable with special focus on the most likely scenarios, the most dangerous, and the most absurdly improbable. The more unlikely planning team in an organization determines a possible adversary decision or action, the more likely the enemy will choose that course of action. It is beyond foolish to believe that an irrational actor will determine the potential outcomes of their actions have chances of failure. The fallacy of unbridled offensive spirit can quickly catch an adversary in a trap. As an old soldier’s saying goes, “If your attack is going too well, you are in an ambush.” The belief that the DPRK would quickly back down from a war footing, is based on the assumption that they fear the combined coalition war machine enough to cease their brinkmanship activities. This assumption may well be false, as the DPRK arrogance may not become apparent until after the point of no return.

RTJ Red Teaming Law #19: “Arrogance is both the nemesis and the target of good red teaming. Your adversary thanks you for your overconfidence.” It is easy for the most powerful organizations and countries to fall into the trap believing that adversaries fear a head-to-head engagement. The arrogance of trusting the assumed strength and safety of dreadnaughts, the Maginot Line, and rear areas were crushed throughout the history of war. The belief in your organization or military’s ability discounts the tenants of the great Baron Carl von Clausewitz and his tenants on war (or business, depending on how cut-throat you’re feeling). Just because the ROK and U.S. forces could (presumably!) make quick work of the North Korean military discounts the multitude of competing political factors in this international dispute. A good red team will tackle this issue of organizational arrogance and ensure that the potential for disaster is avoided. When you’re the biggest show in town, it is easy to overlook the possibility that a smaller and less complex adversary could ruin your week.

RTJ Red Teaming Law #22: “Unexpected surprise is what happens while you’re waiting for the expected surprise. Think tanks and pundits specialize in expected surprise.” Failing to explore unpleasant courses of action will consistently leave you and your organization ripe for the unexpected surprise. The ability to preplan the scenarios that put you in a disadvantageous position allow an organization the flexibility in thought and agility in crisis action to prevent paralysis in the event of the unexpected surprise. As tensions continue to heighten on the peninsula, the possibilities of cross-border incidents and nuclear tests are expected surprises. The unexpected surprise could entail a nuclear strike on Guam or Japan, or North Korean tanks speeding south for Seoul. Preparing for potential future realities and determining how those situations might affect an organization is the end goal of the red team when dealing with irrational actors.

Mike Denny is a contributing editor at Red Team Journal.