Over the past fifteen years, Pakistan has demonstrated how nuclear weapons can allow a country to engage in limited hostilities without triggering all out war. It has also shown that once a nuclear-armed state initiates hostilities, the international response will focus on restoring stability, with denuclearization reduced to a secondary goal.

The Pakistan model may provide North Korea with a dangerous option for breaking the diplomatic stalemate that’s been in effect since denuclearization talks were dissolved in 2009. Since then, in a strategy known as “strategic patience,” the Obama administration has insisted that unless Pyongyang wants to discuss its prior commitments to denuclearization, our governments have nothing to talk about. A limited conflict could change that calculus and compel talks instead about how we can live with a nuclear North Korea. To that end, Pyongyang may well be looking to take a page out of Islamabad’s playbook.

In 1999, just one year after its successful nuclear tests, Pakistan’s military launched a limited, conventional war when it occupied the Kargil-Dras sector of Kashmir. In the three months that followed, hundreds of thousands of Indian and Pakistani military personnel were mobilized, and thousands of them died. After the conflict nearly escalated to a nuclear exchange, Islamabad withdrew in humiliating defeat.

Although Kargil was an embarrassment to Islamabad, it focused the world’s attention on establishing some semblance of stability in the region. In March 2000, President Bill Clinton made the first visit of an American president to Pakistan in 30 years, where he called on the country to work “to prevent escalation, to avoid miscalculation, to reduce the risk of war.” Ever since, the United States has forgotten about putting the nuclear genie back in the bottle, and focused on securing Pakistan’s weapons against terrorists and confidence building measures.

Whatever Pakistan’s leadership learned from the Kargil Conflict, the fiasco did not dissuade Islamabad from using violence to pressure India on Kashmir and other disputes. In the years that followed, Pakistan escalated its longstanding support of proxy fighters and terrorists.

In December 2001, a five-man team organized by Pakistan-based terror organizations Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed attacked India’s Parliament, killing seven in a shoot-out while the building was occupied by senior Indian officials. This attack triggered a months-long standoff in which both militaries were again mobilized and more than a thousand personnel died. After months of international pressure, the two sides stood down, eventually reaching a formal ceasefire in late 2003.

Indian authorities were frustrated by the delays when its military mobilized for the 2001-2002 standoff with Pakistan, as well as the international pressure that built during those weeks not to retaliate against Islamabad. In response, officials in Delhi announced in 2004 a military option called Cold Start, under which Indian armed forces could respond to future attacks in a number of days, before international pressure could be brought to bear, or Islamabad could fully mobilize its nuclear arsenal. Cold Start was intended to put Pakistan on notice that future provocations could be met with a near-immediate military response with the intent of crippling Pakistan’s forces before Islamabad could mobilize its nuclear arsenal.

In November 2008, the effectiveness of India’s new military concept was tested when another terror team attacked targets throughout the city of Mumbai, killing more than 150 civilians. The lone survivor among the attackers later told Indian investigators that the terrorists had received direct support from Pakistan’s military intelligence service. The Indians did not respond with Cold Start, which showed that in spite of their new doctrine India was reluctant to risk rolling the nuclear dice in response to future provocations by Pakistan.

In the latest tit-for-tat move, Pakistan tested a short-range tactical nuclear missile in April 2011, which it describes as a “quick response system [that] addresses the need to deter evolving threats.” This system would provide Islamabad with an additional option for countering India’s conventional military capabilities, and it also enhances the risk that a limited conflict could spiral out of control.

More than four years have passed since the Mumbai attack, but that does not mean that tensions have eased in South Asia. The “Line of Control” between Pakistan and India in Kashmir was breached about once every three days during 2012, and in an incident earlier this year, two Indians and three Pakistanis died in a brief skirmish. Sporadic attacks in Indian-controlled Kashmir have continued apace, punctuated by an October 2012 strike targeting a popular hotel in Srinagar.

This record of nuclear tensions and provocations highlights the challenges that the United States and its allies will face in managing nuclear-armed rogues. No analogy is perfect, of course, and there are countless differences between Pakistan and the regime in Pyongyang. Unfortunately, many of those differences augur even greater challenges for the United States and its allies in Northeast Asia.

Unlike Pakistan, Pyongyang does not have readily accessible networks of proxies through which it can operate. Although North Korea has sometimes utilized deniability—like the 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship, which was only proven by a months-long investigation, which Beijing and Moscow continue to dispute—future provocations are likely to involve direct military action. Such acts could trigger greater South Korean responses than Pyongyang intends or Washington wants.

In addition, North Korea has not suffered a humbling, Kargil-like defeat. Pyongyang’s recently installed leader, Kim Jong Un, very likely had a personal hand in the 2010 attacks against South Korea and may be overconfident in his ability to strike without triggering massive retaliation. Simply stated, the red lines for North Korean misbehavior, and what responses various provocations could incur, remain ill-defined at best.

Finally, in the fifteen years since Pakistan first tested nuclear weapons, it has suffered a coup, perennial instability, and multiple insurgencies. North Korean propaganda describes Pyongyang in far more stable terms, but the truth is that we enjoy little insight as to the health of the Kim family regime, which appears to have managed the latest succession through a series of internal assassinations and external attacks. North Korea may be not just unpredictable, but dangerously unstable as well.

At a recent conference organized by the German Marshall Fund, I asked one expert from an Indian think tank about what lessons she would offer the United States based upon a career of Pakistan watching. She observed that regimes like Pakistan’s and North Korea’s only survive if they maintain a posture of “projected irrationality.” They must demonstrate their willingness to escalate any conflict to nuclear war. By this measure, Pyongyang has already succeeded.

Nuclear weapons give rogue states options. With the bomb in hand, they can engage in terrorism or even limited conflicts under a nuclear umbrella. If we do not find ways to deny these options, we risk finding ourselves dealing with rogues like North Korea—or if it is allowed to go nuclear, Iran—on their preferred terms.

Although the Obama administration’s posture of “strategic patience” was a welcome break after years of bribing North Korea into negotiations without advancing denuclearization, it has ceded the initiative to Pyongyang. North Korea still rejects denuclearization, and Kim Jong Un knows that any conflict that does not result in all-out war could force us back to the negotiating table. We give Pyongyang too little credit if we assume that Kim and his generals cannot use their military as cleverly against us as Pakistan has against India.

The United States and its allies must ultimately choose between rolling back the North Korean threat and learning to live with it. Exercising patience will achieve little if it just provides more time for Pyongyang to perfect its nuclear weapons, thereby raising the costs of a future conflict. We have the tools to cripple North Korea—including financial strangulation, maritime interdictions, and military containment. The question is whether we have the will to use them.

No matter our next move, we had best brace ourselves for the prospect that like the many crises that have shaken the Subcontinent, there will be more to come in Northeast Asia.

Next Page