Events over the past years have escalated tensions between the two Koreas to heights not seen since the cessation of conflict nearly 50 years ago. Regime changes in both nations, coupled with missile and nuclear tests on the part of the North and previous outbursts of violence over the past few years, have stoked the flames on both sides. The world watches as the two Koreas prepare for war — the Second Korean War, or, quite possibly, the Third World War.
If war was to occur, it would doubtless begin with the North pressing the advantage of surprise for as long as possible; Pyongyang's only hope for a positive resolution lies in the ability to force its opponents to withdraw before bringing their arms to bear. The North Korean forces, though numerous (1.1 million soldiers, 820 jets, and 4,200 tanks) are poorly fed and questions arise as to their combat readiness. Their technology is believed to date as far back as the 1950s and, in most cases, lack the necessary fuel to run. However, their soldiers are heavily indoctrinated from a young age and stand ready for combat. However antiquated, the North Koreans additionally possess significant numbers of conventional and missile artillery.
The artillery would be North Korea's opening move. They could launch 500,000 rounds of artillery on Seoul in the first hour of a conflict, while at the same time reaching out to Japan and across the Pacific with their missiles (whether the gambit would include a ground assault is open to conjecture, but highly unlikely). The South would respond in kind and, depending on the severity of the North's strike, could escalate into all-out war. In the event of escalation, the United States would step in to assist the South, with air and naval strikes on North Korean artillery positions, command and control networks, and communications, energy, and transportation capabilities. In all likelihood, the anti-North Korean coalition would be working to regain the initiative within three to four days. The response would be limited in nature, and limited to the purpose of paralyzing the North Koreans and preventing further escalation.
From this point on, there are far too many variables to account for, though the odds are obviously against North Korea defeating its neighbour and the military might of the United States. China remains a key player in the conflict, and it remains to be seen which side it would choose in the event of open hostilities. Externally, China continues to support North Korea, but its patience is stretching, specifically since heightened tensions between the Koreas have resulted in a rapidly growing American presence in the region.
Fortunately, according to Tom Gjelten, "when they talk about North Korea, U.S. officials are sounding like exasperated parents responding to a child's tantrum." The odds of an intentional attack are very slim — those of an accidental discharge leading to escalation, somewhat less so. A far more likely occurrence would be that of the regime collapsing, leaving large military stockpiles, including nuclear material, undefended. This possibility is made more serious since military simulations estimate at least 56 days and 90,000 troops would be needed to secure nuclear stockpiles.
North Korea and South Korea have been feuding for decades. These feuds have escalated in previous years, making conflict a real, though unlikely, possibility. War or regime collapse, however, would dramatically alter the balance of power in the region. It could also result in the proliferation of arms, conventional and nuclear, destabilizing the region, if not the world. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail in this dangerous staring contest.