Avoiding 'Korean War II'

North Korea's threats mainly aimed at South Korea.

A South Korean protester closes his eyes as he holds a sign during a press conference denouncing the U.N.'s new sanction against North Korea, near the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, March 8, 2013.

A South Korean protester holds a sign during a press conference denouncing the U.N.'s new sanctions against North Korea.

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North Korea does not have a habit of making idle threats. A string of military engagements dating back to 2010, combined with increasingly aggressive rhetoric in the last week, means the United Nations, the United States and South Korea must tread carefully in dealing with the truculent regime.

New sanctions from the United Nations were met with statements of vitriol from Kim Jong Un and the North Korean establishment on Friday.

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"Second South Korean War is Unavoidable," reads a headline on the official state news service. The statement concludes with, "Should the U.S. ignite a war in the end, it will cause flames of justice to flare up like an erupting volcano in which the aggressors will perish and the cursed Military Demarcation Line disappear for good."

South Korea and its allies' ability to practice restraint will be tested as the notoriously reclusive dictatorship continues its slog toward a functional nuclear weapon.

"It does not appear that North Korea could easily engage in a full scale war," says Yong Won Yu, military correspondent for Seoul-based newspaper Chosun Ilbo. "However, local provocations, such as the Cheonan warship sinking and the Yeonpyeong Island attack, can occur at any time."

The South Korean warship Cheonan sank off the coast of the Korean peninsula in March 2010. An international investigation concluded it was likely struck by a torpedo from a North Korean submarine. In November of that year, North Korean artillery fired upon the populated Yeonpyeong islands in disputed waters due west of the Korean Demilitarized Zone. South Korea conducted military exercises in response and returned artillery fire.

Neither incident led to protracted escalation. But that could change in 2013.

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There is no definitive information on the state of the notoriously reclusive country's military. The entire country suffers from across the board shortages: Many North Korean defectors complain of widespread hunger among the armed forces. Almost all of the country's heavy equipment came from the Soviets or China and is decades old. And pilots' flying hours are heavily restricted due to little or no fuel.

North Korea simply does not have the infrastructure to deploy large scale military personnel overseas, says Yu.

"However, it is possible for North Korea to launch a long-range missile attack on a foreign country," he said in an E-mail to U.S. News, translated from Korean. North Korea has large numbers of artillery tubes based in caves and other fortifications near the South Korean border. The United States has invested in significant counter-measures, as a result.

North Korea's capabilities have deteriorated significantly over time, says Daniel Sneider, associate director of research at Stanford's Asia-Pacific Research Center. However, that does not mean they aren't "extremely dangerous."

"The scenario I worry about, and I think people who are much more knowledgeable than I worry about, is North Korean leadership for a variety of reasons may want to carry out the scale of things as in 2010," Sneider says. "Not a full-scale attack—they're not launching full-scale war – but do something to test the resolve of the new government in the south."

"They often provoke to see what the reaction is, and to increase their bargaining leverage one way or another," he says.

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South Korea elected its first female president, Park Geun-hye, last December. Kim Jong Un, after roughly a year in power, likely still seeks to assert his position among the internal military establishment and regional powers.

Despite likely eye-rolling from the military elite toward certain diplomatic visits in recent months, North Korean generals will likely obey all orders from Kim Jong Un and his relatives. "The North Korean elite depends upon whatever legitimacy they derive from the family's rule," says Sneider.

"I'm not worried about a big war. I'm worried about an escalation that gets out of control. Then all sorts of things are possible," says Sneider. In the case of attacks, South Korea likely won't simply return fire but will plan other attacks.