On several occasions since 2013, crashed North Korean drones have been discovered in strategically significant areas in South Korea. Do North Korean drones represent a threat to Korean security? How is North Korea likely to use drones against South Korea and why? To answer these questions, this paper develops a framework that explains when violent drone-based provocations are more or less likely to occur by drawing on the logic of reputation and the historical pattern of North Korean coercion. It argues that North Korean drones are no cause for panic, but are a potential threat. The paper proposes that drone-based provocations are more likely when: 1) its relations with the United States and South Korea are openly hostile, and 2) the alliance has either a recent history of restraint when challenged with coercion or a recent history of bluffing when challenged. Conversely, North Korean provocations are less likely when: 1) its relations with the United States and South Korea are amicable or 2) its relations with the United States and South Korea are hostile but the alliance has a recent history of standing firm when challenged with coercion. Provocations are motivated by hostile relations, but become possible only when North Korea believes it can conduct them without meaningful consequences. The likelihood of North Korean provocations, therefore, hinges on North Korean perceptions of alliance resolve. The paper concludes that the alliance’s approach to North Korea may result in the use of drones to conduct a limited attack on South Korea if a strategy based on this framework is not developed to prevent it. It also recommends the alliance begin work on counterdrone concepts and capabilities to mitigate vulnerabilities and improve the alliance’s ability to detect, defend, and counter-attack in this new domain of competition.
Keywords: Drones, robotics, provocations, reputations, strategy