With rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula dominating the headlines, just how serious are the North's threats? Let me state up front that I believe the likelihood of war breaking out is extremely low. Furthermore, despite the media hype, North Korea (even with its nuclear program) does not pose a serious threat to the direct security of the United States.
That being said, the situation is nonetheless potentially very dangerous for our South Korean allies, for U.S. troops and citizens in South Korea, and for American foreign policy interests in the region.
The conventional wisdom holds the Kim Jong Un's bluster is precisely that; most experts believe that this is either just North Korea doing what North Korea does (i.e. making threats until they receive concessions – usually in the form of monetary or food aid) or is being motivated by domestic politics (i.e. attempts by a new and very young dictator to solidify his control over the country and, in particular, it's military).
These are, of course, not mutually exclusive explanations and it may well be some combination of the two that account for the North's bellicose behavior. However, no matter how unlikely, we can't entirely rule out the possibility that something else—something far more dangerous—is afoot.
A colleague of mine recently pointed out that we really don't know what Kim Jong Un thinks or believes. Most feel that his relative youth and time spent in Europe make him a potential reformer (at least by North Korean standards) and that once he has firmly established his own position the "real" Kim will come out. But, with the possible exception of Dennis Rodman, do any of us really know what's going on inside his head?
Perhaps he is crazy…or even suicidal. Maybe he believes his own rhetoric and won't back down when the time comes, as his father did so often before. Though unlikely, it is a possibility that we must consider. A much greater danger comes from the potential for miscalculation.
Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, knew precisely how far he could push without provoking a military response from South Korea or the United States. Does the younger, less experienced Kim know where this line is?
The current government of South Korea seems far less likely to tolerate any sort of military aggression by the North and would probably retaliate in-kind. Such a scenario could easily spiral out of control and lead to all-out war involving the United States.
And while there is no doubt the U.S. and South Korea would ultimately prevail in such a conflict (and that the result would mean a unified Korea and an end to the North Korean state), the North could initially devastate the South and, in particular, Seoul, a city of over 10 million.
One key difference this time around is that both China and Russia seem to be less willing to put up with North Korean posturing. China occupies a very different place in the world today than it did during the Korean War and, while the Chinese would presumably prefer not to have a unified and democratic Korea (and the possibility of U.S. troops) on their border, it seems even less likely that they would want to go to war with the United States on North Korea's behalf.
So while outright war on the Korean Peninsula still seems extremely unlikely – and the U.S. is not directly threatened - it is, nonetheless, a real and frightening possibility.
Opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Andy Rapp, Q-TV, Delta College, or PBS.