With "the risk of renewed hostilities" in the Korean Peninsula, which appear "higher than at any time in the past 60 years," Patrick M. Cronin of Foreign Policy wonders what the war between the Koreas would look like.
There is no single red line that, when crossed, would trigger war, but the potential for miscalculation and escalation is high. North Korea has a penchant for causing international incidents -- in 2010 alone it used a mini-submarine to sink the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan and shelled South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island. The brazen and unprovoked killing of military personnel and civilians shocked many South Koreans, some of whom faulted then-President Lee Myung Bak for a tepid response. The new president, Park Geun Hye (South Korea's "Iron Lady") is determined not to echo that weakness and has vowed a strong response to any direct provocation. Meanwhile, the United States, via the annual Foal Eagle and Key Resolve exercises, has many troops, ships, and planes on maneuvers in the region and, as an additional show of resolve, flew long-range B-2 stealth bombers from Missouri to Korea and dispatched F-22 fighter jets as well.
The desire to show strength, the fear of looking weak, and the presence of tons of hardware provides more than enough tinder that a spark could start a peninsula-wide conflagration. An accident -- such as a straying missile, an incident at sea or in the air, a shooting near the Northern Limit Line or the Demilitarized Zone -- could trigger an action-reaction cycle that could spiral out of control if Pyongyang, running out of threats or low-level provocations, were to gamble on a more daring move. It might calculate that a bold gesture would sow doubt and dissent in South Korea, drive a risk-averse United States to back down and restrain its eager ally, and hand China a fait accompli in which Beijing has no alternative to protecting its upstart neighbor. It might be very wrong.