Strategic Horizons: Thinking the Unthinkable on a Second Korean War

Today, North Korea is the most dangerous country on earth and the greatest threat to U.S. security. For years, the bizarre regime in Pyongyang has issued an unending stream of claims that a U.S. and South Korean invasion is imminent, while declaring that it will defeat this offensive just as -- according to official propaganda -- it overcame the unprovoked American attack in 1950. Often the press releases from the official North Korean news agency are absurdly funny, and American policymakers tend to ignore them as a result. Continuing to do so, though, could be dangerous as events and rhetoric turn even more ominous.

In response to North Korea's Feb. 12 nuclear test, the U.N. Security Council recently tightened existing sanctions against Pyongyang. Even China, North Korea's long-standing benefactor and protector, went along. Convulsed by anger, Pyongyang then threatened a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the United States and South Korea, abrogated the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War and cut off the North-South hotline installed in 1971 to help avoid an escalation of tensions between the two neighbors. A spokesman for the North Korean Foreign Ministry asserted that a second Korean War is unavoidable. He might be right; for the first time, an official statement from the North Korean government may prove true.

No American leader wants another war in Korea. The problem is that the North Koreans make so many threatening and bizarre official statements and sustain such a high level of military readiness that American policymakers might fail to recognize the signs of impending attack. After all, every recent U.S. war began with miscalculation; American policymakers misunderstood the intent of their opponents, who in turn underestimated American determination. The conflict with North Korea could repeat this pattern.

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