Thursday, April 11, 2013

Evening News Interviews: The Korean Peninsular Crisis

Ladies and gentlemen, if you're in the neighborhood of the Tri-Cities I'll be on Fox Tri-Cities and WCYB tonight during their evening broadcasts being interviewed on the current crisis on the Korean peninsula and what it could mean in the near future.  Tune in!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Second Essay on Holocaust

This second essay on the holocast was presented tonight on the campus of the University of Virginia's College at Wise as part of our observance of Holocaust Rememberence Week.  Think of it, if you will, as art and theology built on science and philosophy. 

--------------------------
 
This is the second year I have been asked to speak on the subject of the Holocaust here at our little college in the deep mountains.  I am honored and I am humbled.  Thank you for having me.

Tonight I will ask some questions and then I will try to answer them.  The questions will be short, the answers longer.  I will not restrain myself to academic formality tonight, so my apologies if I lapse into emotion, into agony and wrath.  There is much to account for because tonight we speak of evil and of the victims of that evil. 

When?

When my grandparents were children a democratic-republic in central Europe collapsed into one-party rule. There was little meaningful resistance to this revolution at the time. 

By the time my grandparents were in their early teens this central European state had conquered without war vast tracks of eastern Europe, justifying it in terms of reunion even though it was creating a polity of a type that had never existed before. 

When my grandparents were teenagers this central European state was rampaging across three continents – to the west they conquered, and to the east, and the south, and the north.  Violence they brought this time, fire and murder and steel.  What they could not conquer they hurled weapons against; what they could conquer they stole. They were ruthless.  Land, they cried, we must have land, and the dull soil must give to the breaking waves!

At the same time they were writing laws, always writing laws, but the laws were not just. They were cruel and insane and vile.  Men, the laws declared, are not created equal – they are not endowed with certain inalienable rights – they are not entitled to equal protection under the law.   

When my grandparents were young adults there was a great war, a war fought in every ocean, and in the air, in deserts and tundra and forests and fields and cities by folk from every continent and horrible machines that rendered soldiers into demons and sailors into leviathans.  But within the central European state and the lands that it held something insidious was happening, a secret that was not a secret and men and women began to disappear, first behind cloth and paper, later behind brick and stone, and later still into the black smoke that hung over all the world. 

When my grandparents were in their late twenties men in olive green business suits charading as uniforms were tearing apart the central European state, rolling it up like a rotten carpet, exposing the horrors swept under the cloth.  And some of these men found camps, places of barbed wire and concrete and angry dogs and bastards with skulls on their hats and in these places, these little gates to little hells, they found many men and women and children.  Some of them were among the living dead.  Others, I fear, were simply dead.

And the men in olive wept, and they shared their bread, and my people, the American people, began to understand the greatest of sins, the foulest of goblins, the demon Genocide. 

The war ended.  Five years later my parents were born.  Twenty-six years after that, I was born. Thirty-three years after that my niece was born.  Three years after that is now.

Who?

There were butchers, and bakers, and candlestick makers.

There were painters and dancers, musicians and writers.

There were businessmen and nuns, politicians and housewives.

There were cooks and waiters, barkeeps and brothel-owners.

There were scientist and mathematicians and poets.

There were soldiers and servants, police and convicts.

There were philosophers and rabbis and priests.

There were liberals and conservatives and communists.

There were cantors and pastors, diplomats and whores, those who knew love, those who knew forbidden loves, and those who knew nothing of love.

There were sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers and aunts and uncles and nephews and nieces.

There were children and old men, crones and babies, lovers and fools, saints and sinners.

And I ask you, were it not for their names, or their faiths, or their allegiances, well-confirmed behind cloth badges and in elaborate documents, who would know the killer from the killed save by their acts?

There were butchers, and bakers, and candlestick makers

What?

The goal was plain to hear, to read, or to see to anyone willing to know it. There were peoples.  These peoples were, apparently, Wrong.  Some of them loved the Wrong People.  Others worshiped in the Wrong Way.  Yet others held to the Wrong Philosophies, flew the Wrong Flags, went to the Wrong Meetings. And some made that most grievous mistake of having the Wrong Ancestors. 

Such poor choices.

And the goal, my friends, was to destroy these wrong people. 

But not just to destroy.  Pull out the weed but leave the root, the idea of the weed, and it shall sprout again.  No, the Wrong were not merely to be destroyed in body.  The Wrong must, it was decided, be purged from the consciousness of the Right, their beliefs ridiculed and twisted and ultimately discarded as myth.  Murder?  No, the Right did not commit murder – they dehumanized their enemies first, made them un-human, mere animals to be used up and discarded whenever it was useful.   There is no murder where there are no men and women and children – only a bit of slaughter, a culling of the herd. 

Horror.

And so the Right told the Wrong what they must wear, and what they might not wear.

And so the Right told the Wrong they may not do certain jobs. 

And so the Right told the Wrong that they may not live in certain places.

And so the Right told the Wrong that they may not go certain places.

And so the Right told the Wrong that they must never leave certain places.

And so the Right told the Wrong that they must get onto trains.

And the Right took the Wrong and they stripped them of their clothes, and the Wrong were shorn of their hair. 

And the Right took the property of the Wrong, what little they had managed to carry onto the trains.

And the Right divided the Wrong into those who would die now and those would linger as slaves. 

Those to the left were poisoned and burnt while music played.

Those to the right were robbed of their names, emblazoned now with numbers in dark blue ink under pale skin.  They were clothed in sackcloth and they worked until they fell dead, or they were murdered on a whim, or

until the men in olive uniforms came, and found them. 

The Right ran away, and the men in olive and the men and women and children in sackcloth ran together.

And they wept.
 

Where?

It happened in Germany and Austria. 

But it also happened in France and Italy and Denmark and Bosnia and Latvia and Poland and the Netherlands and Belgium and Norway and the Czech Republic and Albania and Serbia and Bulgaria and Romania and Hungary and Moldova and Lithuania and Estonia and Russia and the Ukraine and Belarus and Greece.

Of course it had happened before, to different people.  And again, to others. 


Why?

There are, I am told, seven deadly sins. 

Lust is one of these.  To lust is to crave carnal desires, to be overwhelmed by the biological desires that scream through our blood on the wings of hormones and our baser instincts.  This is why we rape and ravage and destroy needlessly.  This is why we crave violence and fear – in others, usually, that we may experience them without threat to our persons.  This is why we push the weak aside like the cuckoo fledgling that murders its weaker adopted siblings, pushing their eggs or their flailing bodies from the nest.  

The evil kill and rape and dominate because it sates, for a time, their primal urge to do harm. 

Gluttony is another of the sins – it entails the willful consumption of more than one, or a people, needs merely to satisfy one’s base desires regardless of the needs of others.  To be gluttonous is the steal from the weak to feed the strong.

The evil consume all that they come across because it is, they imagine, their right – they are gluttons because they could be.

ENVY and Avarice are the third and fourth sins.  The greedy covet that which is not theirs, that which they did not build, that which they have no title to, that which justice would deny them.  They see their neighbor prosper through their work and curse them. 

The evil are thieves, whether sneaking or bullying, they are rapacious.  

SLOTH is the fifth sin.  The slothful refuse to work, refuse to do their share, refuse to earn their keep – they prefer to live as parasites, exploiting the labors of others, repaying them only in disdain.  They refuse to improve themselves – they malinger in their intellectual, moral, and physical filth.

The evil are lazy and in their laziness are compelled to steal what is not theirs.

PRIDE is the sixth sin. Those who have submitted to hubris have decided that they must be not merely great, but greater than others – they build not to build, but to dominate the minds, spirits, and wills of others.  They seek not to lead, but to rule; not to accomplish but to eclipse. 

The evil are prideful and willingly tear down the works of others, and their person, that they may stand a little taller.

The seventh sin is WRATH.  All of us desire things which we do not have; all of us desire not to experience cruelties we nonetheless must experience.  In pain we are born, in pain we live, and in pain we die.   The dissonance between our desires and our reality constantly threatens to push aside our minds and unleash pure, unadulterated hatred.  And if this is allowed, it must have vent. 

The evil are wrathful and they unleash their rage at not being gods upon those who they may – the weak.

These are the sins of the genocides.  They are complex, overlapping, unequal in their portion in different men, different women, and different children, but collectively they are the sins of the genocides.  This is true not only in the case of the Germans and their allies, of whom we have spoken tonight, but of all genocides, no matter their race, no matter their faith, no matter their language, no matter their politics. They are filth not because of some inherent flaw, but because they unrepentantly sin. 

But these sins are not enough.  The genocides may be resisted, their lust opposed, their cravings denied, their wrath opposed.  To do this is, fundamentally, the duty of the just, if they are worthy of the name. And this is why there is another sin we must speak of.   A sin too often left off the lists of the great faiths and the tableaus of stained glass or paint.   
 
ACEDIA.

Apathy is its common name, a willingness to accede to the wills of others, knowing that their wills are evil, their intentions vile, without resisting.  It is not a sin of commission, but of omission – it is the sin of looking the other way, of ignoring the weak in their moment of dire straits. 

The genocides, it seems, must carry the knife, but the world must look away.  And this, my friends, is the foul truth. 

Postlude

Holocaust is not merely a historic phenomenon.  It is not an artifact of the past.  It is not a conceptual horror.  It is real and it continues.  It may be stopped, but only if we confront it.  We must, individually and collectively, realize certain truths to achieve this, however:

1.

The human capacity to sin is absolutely a part of our makeup and it shall never be purged – to purge it would necessitate the greatest genocide imaginable.

2.

The only manner in which we can imagine eliminating genocide is through education – education allows us not to be free of the impulses that compel us towards cruel policies, but it does allow us to overcome those impulses. We are responsible for speaking truth – truth to the weak, truth to the power – knowing there are sometimes consequences for this and accepting them readily.

3.

When others refuse education or are denied it and, giving in to their horrible impulse, throw themselves into the business of genocide we must resist them, each in our own way, but actively and without fail.

And finally:

4.

When all is done, and order is restored, we must find a way to forgive the genocides.  Otherwise we ourselves, or our descendants, will seize upon that grain of hatred and it shall blossom into a pearl of wrath and the cycle shall again envelope us. 

Let us now take a minute to sit or stand, as the mood takes us, and hold vigil.  Let us honestly spend a moment in mourning and lamentation.   Let us remember and, when we’re ready, forgive.  If you pray, by all means pray.  If you don’t pray, by all means, meditate.  Later, tonight, go home, sleep, rest, find peace.  We have work to do tomorrow.

 
Thank-you.  Good evening.

Monday, April 8, 2013

An Essay on Holocaust (2012)

This week each year it has become customary to memoralize those lost in the Holocaust of the Second World War.  Today I spent most of my non-teaching time writing an essay to present this Wednesday on the campus of the University of Virginia's College at Wise, which I will share after its first reading, but I thought it would be appropriate to share the essay I wrote last year for the same purpose.  Below is what I call, simply, An Essay on Holocaust, delivered in 2012.

1.

As I teach my students about the politics that transpire both between and within nations, gradually, over days or weeks or months, you can see them building to the inevitable questions that have no satisfactory answers. 

There is a process, you see, by which a dissonance emerges, when what they know about human political nature begins to conflict with what they believe about ethics and justice; a moment when this irreconcilable intellectual the scientist must step aside for the human.   

I spend my days teaching young people, people who have spent their entire lives being taught to love, to share, to obey the rules, to embrace difference.  I teach these young people, primarily and preeminently about evil.  I teach them about our capacity for destruction and cruelty and violence, our innate desire to dominate and rule and objectify one another, our monstrous, innate desire to obliterate that which is alien, dissimilar, and distinct.

Dr. Smith, they ask, how could people do that to other people?

Dr. Smith, they ask, how could people let them do that to their families, their friends?

Dr. Smith, they ask, are they all gone?

How do you respond?  How should I respond? 

They need to know the truth, I conclude, unfettered, unbleached.  The truth, it liberates us, prepares us to defend our fellow human and, when feasible, our principles.  But I know that the truth is horrible and simple, and sits in your belly like an iron walnut. 

If I am feeling morbid and a little funny, I quip something – humans are monsters, perhaps, and I allude to Charybdis or the Beast of Gévaudan.  If I am feeling like an apologist, I will try to convince them (and myself) that humans are ethical beings, capable of profound good and creativity and sensitivity and that this propensity, somehow, counter-balances our fouler humors.  But if I am honest, I say a prayer for the Melians, and I begin to quote Thucydides. 

You may not know about the Melians – this is understandable, for as a people they were utterly destroyed, their women and children sold into slavery, their men slain, their city colonized by men and women of foreign lands.  This was done to them by our intellectual ancestors, the civilization that, more than any other, is typically regarded as the wellspring of everything ethical that constitutes that culture we call “the West”: Athens, the Mother of Democracy.  I won’t bore you with the details – you can easily find them in any copy of The Peloponnesian War – but I will tell you that the Athenians were kind enough to explain to the Melians, before besieging them and putting them to the sword, why they must choose between the loss of their state’s freedom or utter obliteration.  The Athenians said:

. . . . the standard of justice depends on the equality of power to compel and that in fact the strong do what they have the power to do and the weak accept what they [must]. . . . it is a general and necessary law of nature to rule whatever one can.  This is not a law that we made ourselves, nor were we the first to act upon it when it was made.  We found it already in existence, and we shall leave it to exist for ever among those who come after us. 

Might is right, it would seem, to many (or most) human beings.  If we are strong or rich or of the right faith or ideology, it is evidence that we are the better beings, our natures’ superior, our actions absolutely justified by the laws of God and nature.  And if we are superior, if we are ideal, then other men and women are hardly men or women at all, but rather they are sub-human, cattle, to be used, diminished, and swept aside when necessary, convenient, or desirable. 

Horror. 

2.

 

Once upon a time, there was a man named Adolf whose name meant “noble wolf.”
 
I am not going to humanize him, to spin yarns about his childhood and psychology and drug abuse and repressed emotions.  Not tonight.  Tonight he is beneath this dignity. 

The man named Adolf lived in the time of industry, a time of conquered space and vast bureaucratic machines, and he would bend the technologies affiliated with these to his ends.  Millions of men and women and children, that is to say, human beings, would die at the hands of these technologies, wielded by other men and women who, for whatever reasons (and there were many), served the will of the man named Adolf.  The largest number of these people were of the Jewish faith, though they were not alone, and they were consumed as by a fire or, indeed, within fire.  Every form of torture, every variety of murder, every device of sadism was employed to dehumanize and eliminate the people of the Jewish faith.  And while the man named Adolf was not entirely successful, he nearly was, and the atrocity he and his lieutenants and soldiers and police and bureaucrats and businessmen and engineers and farmers and bakers and maids and mothers and fathers and yes, even children, perpetrated was without equal in all of the thousands of years of recorded human experience.   

This kind of murder, this scale, has its own name.  We call it genocide – the intentional murder and obliteration of a people, both physically and culturally. 

I have said that this genocide, that of the people of the Jewish faith of Germany and the territories occupied by Germany during the 2nd quarter of the Twentieth Century, was unequalled, unlike any other horror conceived of by the minds of men and women previously or since.  And this event is why we are here, together, tonight, in this place; why we leave the luxuries of our homes and intentionally discomfit ourselves; why we cry, why we rage.  It is enough cause for humanity to collectively rend our clothes and wear sackcloth for generations.  It is just that we mourn, that we feel guilt, that we feel anger. 

But it is not enough. 

3.

There were, among the ancient Greeks, two principle forms of sacrifice.  The first, and the most common, was the practice of “dining with the gods.”  In that form of sacrifice the gods would be provided with a portion of a flesh and poured libations of wine.   The remainder would be consumed by those who made the sacrifice. 

More sacred and infrequent, however, was the holókaustos, a term which literally means “the burning of everything,” in which every part of a donation was consumed in fire, leaving nothing behind for the penitent save ashes to be swept from the bed of an altar.  This term came to be adopted by men and women of the Jewish faith in the age of Hellenization as a synonym for the korban olah, the burnt offering made at the Temple of Jerusalem. 

The Jewish people, the users of the strange word holocaust, eventually quit using it in the present tense.  The temple, the only place sanctified for the holocaust, was torn down by an empire which decided that it must take steps to destroy the Jews, who frequently rebelled against their rulers, by obliterating the center of their faith and scattering them to the wind, unwilling migrants across three continents.   The word was not forgotten, however, and the people did not lose themselves. 

This was not easy.  Everywhere the Jewish people went they were persecuted; their clothing proscribed, their movement restricted, their economic opportunities limited.  They were persecuted, libeled, and blamed for natural and economic disasters.  They were tortured and imprisoned, their belongings seized, their places of worship torn down, their holy books desecrated, their lives forfeited.   Yet over and over, they recovered.  Sometimes they hid from their persecutors, sometimes they flew from them.  But always they endured as a people.  And typically, once the plague had dissipated or there was a change of regime, they would be invited to again inhabit the places the formerly populated.

This was the cycle, apparently without end, that marked the years of the Jewish experience after the fall of the Temple and the Diaspora. 

But then, many, many years later, after untold centuries of persecution and exploitation, that evil man I mentioned earlier, the wolf, decided once more to call for the destruction of the people of the Jewish faith.  But his vision was not one of dispersing; he did not seek to force them to integrate into a society or merely deprive them of their property.  He sought Die Endlösung – the Final Solution – an end to the cycle of violence and reconciliation to be achieved by the complete annihilation of the Jews as a faith and as a people.

And every science and art was turned towards the goal of murder with incredible efficiency, and the monsters found it was good. 

Knowing this is still, I fear, not enough.

4.

The murder of millions of people of the Jewish faith, and along with them untold numbers of Romani, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, socialists, communists, disabled persons, Slavs, Freemasons, and other folk condemned as Untermenschen, had no meaning.  It was, I fear, the industrial product of profound hate compounded with willful ignorance and logistical genius.  Those men and women and children did not die for some great purpose hidden from our eyes and minds.  They were robbed of their freedom, their innocence, and their lives for absolutely no reason of note.  There is no justification.

But we, the men and women and children who live to see the genocide of the 1930s and 1940s for what it was, we may, if we are wise enough and have resolution enough, endow the loss of these millions with meaning.  Perhaps we have learned something, even if we have not put our learning into perfect effect; we may not be willing to abolish genocide from the face of the earth, but perhaps we at least have the courage to acknowledge it for what it is.  We have given the sin a name, it seems, but only once we, as a species, had experienced it in its full flower, its perfect, terrible form. 

Six million Jewish folk died.  Their deaths we call the Holocaust.   The man named for a wolf did not call it this, nor did his retainers.  We so name it – in recognizing its evil, in recognizing that this horror is, we transform the meaningless into the meaningful, the unholy into the sacred, and we are better for their sacrifice.

5.

These are the genocides of my life, 36 years of mass murder. 

From 1965 until 1990 the Arab government of Chad killed some 10,000 members of the Sara, Hadjerai and the Zaghawa people.  The total number killed isn’t clear, but was clearly in the tens of thousands. From 1968, eight years before I was born, until 1996 the Guatemalan civil war resulted in the deaths of over 200,000 people – the military of Guatemala was responsible for almost 95% of these deaths, and almost 85% of the victims were ethnic Maya.  Also, from 1968 until 1979 Equatorial Guinea was the site of the attempted genocide of the Bubi people by the Fang people under the leadership of Nguema regime – there were approximately 80,000 deaths.  From 1972 until 1986 Uganda was torn apart by successive genocides carried out by the government against the Lango, Acholi, European and Asian Ugandans, Karamoja, Baganda, and Banyarwanda – approaching 600,000 are estimated to have been killed.

From 1975, the year before I was born, until 1979 nearly two million people were murdered in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge.  Also, from 1975 until 1999 the Indonesian government carried out an active military campaign against the Maubere people, further reinforcing this with intentional efforts to reduce their population by starvation – 150,000 people died.

Between 1978, the year my little brother Trevor was born, and 1991, the Amharic Derg of Ethiopia killed over 100,000 members of the Eritrea, Tigray, and Oromo peoples.  From 1982 until the present day the Matabele people have been seized upon by the Zimbabwean government – at least 20,000 are estimated to have died.  Between 1983 until 2005 Arab Sudanese carried out genocide against the Nuer, Dinka, Christians, and Nuba of the Nuba region, killing some two million people in the process.  From 1986 until 1989 Iraqi Arabs, as part of the al-Anfal Campaign killed some 200,000 Kurds, Assyrians, Shabak, Yazidi, Jews, and Mandeans. 

The peak of this particular episode of violence was on my twelfth birthday when the city of Halabja was attacked using chemical weapons.  Around 5,000 Kurds, mostly women and children, died. 

Between 1990 and 2003 some 100,000 Krahn, Gio, and Mano peoples were killed by various participants in the Liberian civil war. From 1991 until 2005 Algerian Arabs of the Islamic Armed Group (GIA) carried out a policy of genocide against Berbers; at least 50,000 were killed.  Between 1992 (when I got my driver’s license) and 1995 Serbs, Croats, and Bosniak, fighting in the former Yugoslavia, killed around 200,000 other Serbs, Croats, and Bosniak.  Beginning in 1993 and continuing until 1995, and then again from 1996 to 2006 the Hutu and Tutsi people engaged in wars of mutual genocide in Burundi – half a million people are estimated to have died.

In 1994, the year I graduated from high school, the Hutu people of Rwanda killed around one million members of the Tutsi people.  Also in 1994 some 80,000 Hutus and Banyamulenge were killed in the Congo by the Kabila and their allies. 

From 1998, the year I graduated from college, until 2003 the Second Congo War raged on.  During that war the Mbuti Pygmies were hunted, killed, and eaten by participants from both sides of the conflict and active campaigns were conducted by the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo who were nicknamed Les Effaceurs – The Erasers.  It is unknown how many died, as no records were kept of the atrocities by either side or by the Mbuti.

Between 2000, the year I received my master’s degree, and 2007, the year I received my PhD, the government of Cote d’Ivoire and the Bete people carried out systematic attacks on the descendants of Malian and Burkinan émigrés, as well as the Dioula and other groups from the southern provinces.  Approaching 10,000 people died.  Between 2003 until the present day, in the region of Darfur, Sudanese Arabs killed some 300,000 Zaghawa, Fur, and Massaleit.

This is not a comprehensive list. 

Such a formal and cold and scientific sentence, eh?  This is not a comprehensive list. 

It does not mention the Tuaregs of Mali; the Sahrawi of Morocco; the Tiv, Hausa, Yoruba, and Ogoni of Nigeria; the Zulu and Xhosa of South Africa; the Küng and Lozi of Namibia and Botswana; the Yanomami of Venezuela and Brazil; the Aché of Paraguay; the Diola of Senegal; the Maya of Mexico; Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazara, and Pashtuni of Afghanistan; Shiites, Christians, Baluchi, and Sindi of Pakistan; Shan and Karen of Myanmar; Uighur and Tibetans of China; Tamil and Sinhalese of Sri Lanka; Acehnese, the peoples of Irian Jaya, Moluccans, and Sulewesi in Indonesia; members of the Muslim faith in India; or the Chechens, Armenians and Azerbaijani throughout the Caucus Mountains. Nor does it list the Cham and Vietnamese and Chinese of Cambodia; the Hmong of Laos; the Kosovar of the former Yugoslavia; the mutual attempts at terror and obliteration by the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and the Palestinians and Israelis in that strip of land west of the Dead Sea.  Indeed, it mentions not the Karachai, Meshketians, Balkars, Crimean Tatars, Ingushi, and untold other peoples of the former Soviet Union, nor the Christians, Druze, Shiites, and Sunni of Lebanon and their efforts to collectively destroy one-another; the Iranian efforts to crush Kurds and Baha’i and concurrent anti-Kurdish efforts by the states of Turkey and Syria. 

I do not even mention the politicides, the killings aimed at destroying ideologies.

I do not mention the mass murder for the sake of sexual identity. 

These are the holocausts that I share a responsibility for, not in their execution, but in my failure to prevent their execution.

6.

Tonight, we stand vigil, here in the quiet ancient mountains, and our minds dwell on the agonies suffered and inflicted on our species by our species.  Tonight we mourn, we lament, we remember things we did not experience directly.  And we remember the sacrifice in hopes that perhaps we, as a species, as a people, can learn to live without such barbarisms.  If you pray, by all means pray.  If you don’t pray, by all means, meditate.  Later, tonight, go home, sleep, rest, find peace.

For tomorrow we fight against those who would demand more victims, more sacrifices.

Thank-you.  Good evening.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The 2013 Korean Peninsular Crisis: An Overview and Analysis

I have been getting a lot of questions, both online and in the classroom, about the current crisis on the Korean peninsula.  People are nervous and, honestly, that is understandable.  Thus I’m going to try to, insofar as I’m able, summarize the situation by answering a series of questions. 

What is the historical background?

Answering this question could become a very long story very easily.  Instead, I’m going to do my best to give you the quick and dirty version. 

In 1894 the Chinese and Japanese fight a war over the destiny of Korea (generally known as the First Sino-Japanese War).  This conflict marks the first major military victory of the Japanese since they had begun modernizing and the ultimate shift of hegemony on the peninsula from the Chinese Empire to the Japanese Empire.  The next year China formally recognizes Korea as a wholly independent polity, owing it no allegiance.  After several years of intrigue, the Japanese finally formalize their control over Korea in 1910, annexing it wholly.

Korean nationalists will struggle against the Japanese, whose colonial occupation is generally regarded as profoundly barbarous, for the next 35 years, but ultimately all of these efforts will fail.  Korea will only achieve independence again with the American victory over Japan in the Second World War in 1945.  Unified Korea was only to be a pipe dream, unfortunately, since the Soviets, entering the Pacific War in its last moments, managed to shift troops from the Eastern Manchurian front (of what is today northeast China) into Korea, essentially dividing the nation along the 38th parallel. 

Little agreement emerged between the Soviets and Americans in their effort to determine the political destiny of Korea.  Eventually, in 1947 the United Nations passed key resolutions which called for self-determination referenda in both the north and south of the peninsula.  No elections were held in the north, however, and in the south the Republic of Korea was established as a distinct government.  A few months later Kim Il-Sung declared the formation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north.  Gradually over the next two years border skirmishes increased in scale and cost until finally, in 1950, the North invaded the South with Soviet and Chinese support, reinforcement, and approval.

The North, it should be noted, legitimated their war by calling for another round of elections and, upon sending diplomats into the South who were then arrested, considered themselves vindicated.

Shortly thereafter the United Nations formally called for an intervention (via the Security Council mechanisms) on behalf of the South – the vote could have in theory been forestalled had the Soviets been present to exercise their veto, but they were boycotting the meeting. The United States and many other nations would respond with a massive series of assaults, largely rolling back the North Korean forces despite Soviet air support and bolstered troops of Chinese citizenship but Korean ethnicity.  The Americans would approach the Yalu River, generally considered the northern border of both the peninsula and North Korea proper and their victory seemed assured until China, worried that the Americans would press their advantage and continue on into PRC territory, provided massive troops in the form of “volunteers” in support of the North (their response was likely legitimate given the public assertions of General Douglas MacArthur who was vocal in his support for such an action). American and allied troops were rolled back leading to a conflict that largely remained a stalemate, each side pressing from time to time but never achieving strategic victory. 

This stalemate was probably essential to the history of the world over the next several years – it demonstrated that the respective capabilities of the Soviet and Western blocs were roughly equivalent and it demonstrated that the Americans and Soviets were both likely to remain restrained in their use of weapons of mass destruction during the Cold War.  It also began the pattern of war-by-proxy that was to dominate great power politics in the late 20th Century. 

Finally, in 1953 the parties involved signed an armistice agreement which formally concluded fighting but their armistice failed to have a permanent follow-up in the form of a declaration of peace, meaning that the ROK and DPRK remain at war today.  The boundaries of the two states were set roughly along the same 38th parallel that marked the pre-war frontier, though it was to become buffered with a demilitarized zone (DMZ) that remains the key major potential fracture zone as it is intensely fortified with antagonistic forces and substantial defensive and offensive infrastructure on either side of a two and a half mile wide strip of land.

Since then the North and South have been constantly at odds – they have had around sixty militarized skirmishes (according to a quick glance at the Correlates of War project’s figures - you also might want to check the narratives) since the signing of the armistice despite the emergence of the ROK as a democratic-republic, the end of the Cold War, and several changes in head of state in the North. 

What is the legal status of the two Koreas?

First, both states are recognized governments with membership in the United Nations – though both as full members only since 1991.

Secondly, both states are formally at war with one another – no peace treaty was signed at the conclusion of combat operations, only an armistice.  Technically even this level of pacificity is no longer valid, however, as only a few weeks ago North Korea unilaterally ended the Armistice – though South Korea has asserted that it does not recognize the dissolution. 

What are the United States’ treaty obligations in the region?

The best way to tackle this question, as I see it, is to take it on a state-by-state basis.  So, here we go.

The People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation

The United States has no formal alliance with either China or Russia, but it does have significant cooperation and information sharing agreements with both great powers and, with regards to the Korean Peninsula, insists that all major agreements be developed in a six-power framework (North Korea, South Korea, Russia, China, Japan, and the United States). 

The six-power framework is a fundamental working principle for American policy makers for two very simple reasons.  First, it guarantees that all of the great powers in the region are satisfied (or at least can accept) any significant diplomatic agreement before it is signed and ratified.  This is important – the Korean peninsula (much to the chagrin of the Korean people, I might add) is a profoundly strategic location – look at it on any map and it is easy to understand why it, perhaps more than anywhere else in east Asia, is necessary for maintaining geopolitical order in the age of global strategy and economics, what with four three of the most powerful states within a stone’s throw, its geographic nature as, essentially, a mountain chain in the middle of the northeast Asian seas.  Add in the United States (who is, functionally, everyone’s neighbor) and the lingering instabilities of the Cold War machinations of these powers and it is no wonder that the peninsula is at the core of regional politics.

The Republic of China (Taiwan)

Relations with Taiwan are profoundly complicated – officially the United States does not recognize the independence of Taiwan or any right thereto generally or in intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations.  Nonetheless, the United States still functionally regards the polity as an ally.  Our relations with Taiwan are governed by two key policy statements.  First, the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), passed into law in 1979 in coordination with the transfer of American diplomatic relations to the People’s Republic of China, basically asserted that even though we’re not using the word ally anymore, Taiwan is still clearly our ally.   It is a classic example of the rather significant silliness that defines much of the language of diplomacy.  The second are defined in Reagan’s “Six Assurances” issued in 1982.  The Assurances form a sort of “Taiwan Doctrine” that, by and large the United States has stuck to since Reagan’s assertion, even though Reagan himself didn’t issue them publically, they were never issued in a written form by the United States, and they have been subtly reinterpreted by each administration.  They are, essentially:
(1) The United States has never agreed to set a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan;
(2) The United States is not obliged by treaty or promise hold prior consultations with the PRC regarding arms sales to Taiwan;
(3) The United States has never agreed to mediate disputes between the PRC and Taiwan;
(4) The United States could not be pressured to revise the Taiwan Relations Act;
(5) The United States has never altered its position regarding sovereignty over Taiwan; and
(6) The United States will never exert pressure on Taiwan to negotiate with the PRC
Of course, the third tenant is frequently violated, though not in a spirit that undermines Taiwanese sovereignty, and the fourth has been tested several times by the State Department which has repeatedly attempted to get Congress to do just that.

Additional Resources: 

"Taiwan-US Relations," The Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States

The State of Japan

To say that the United States is an ally with Japan is a gross understatement.  Indeed, the Japanese-American War, more commonly known as the Pacific Campaign of the Second World War, is better understood as an exception to the generally positive relations between the polities since the Meiji Reformation – especially given the efforts of Theodore Roosevelt and his Japanese counterparts to establish what can only be understood as an unconstitutional secret alliance with Japan in the early 20th Century that resulted in both American machinations to help the Japanese in their negotiations with Imperial Russia at the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War, later reinforced by the Washington Treaty of 1922 which, even though it was later denounced by the Japanese (who withdrew from it in 1934), ultimately established them as one of the de jure great naval powers along with Britain, the United States, Italy, and France.

After the conclusion of the Second World War Japan would be formally occupied until 1952 by American forces .  After the Treaty of San Francisco (signed 1951, effective 1952) went into effect Japan regained its sovereignty and also became a strategic ally of the United States (initially under the 1951 security treaty and then reinforced in the Mutual Cooperation treaty of 1960).  The Japanese-American alliance system is rather one-sided – Japanese defense is guaranteed by the United States but Japan is not required to comparably respond to an attack on the United States – a provision which is entirely logical given that the Japanese constitution forbids Japanese involvement in warfare (though this provision comes increasingly under scrutiny as Japan reevaluates its national interests as a great power).  Put simply, if Japan is attacked by an outside power, the United States is legally obliged to intervene on its behalf.

The Republic of Korea

The ROK, or South Korea, has formally been an ally of the United States since 1953 when the two nations signed American/ROK Mutual Defense Treaty.  The treaty asserts exactly what its name infers – that the United States and South Korea are will, in the event of an attack on one, the other is obliged to respond in force.  Given the disposition of American forces in South Korea (just shy of 30,000 troops, typically), this means that any attack on the South would draw the US into a shooting war instantaneously, one which it is well-equipped to carry on given its forces in Japan, throughout the Pacific, and in American territories and states (Alaska, Hawai’i, and Guam in particular).

What is the stance of the Chinese?

This is a difficult question to answer.  On the one hand, he PRC has always had a significant influence on North Korean political affairs – the two states were, in essence born of the same ideological fire and at virtually the same time and the PRC’s support was critical in guaranteeing the DPRK survived the Korean war.  That said, steadily since the end of the Cold War the PRC has been parting ways with its erstwhile neighbor – China has steadily integrated into the global political-economy ever more, strengthening its ties with intergovernmental organizations, steadily reforming its legal system, and generally normalizing.  The North Koreans, on the other hand, have merely deepened their autarky and closed disposition to the global political-economy.  They remain more practically and diplomatically isolated than any other state worthy of the name and their isolation is steadily increasing over time. 

Practically, the existence of North Korea has been useful to the PRC throughout its reform period (beginning with the 1978 principalship of Deng Xiaoping).  The DPRK, after all, kept American forces in large numbers in South Korea and Japan, meaning neither of those states felt it was necessary to radically increase the quantity and quality of their own forces, changing the strategic balance of the region (American forces, on the other hand, had a good relationship with China and their deployment anywhere in the world would only minimally alter the strategic balance given the rapid-response nature of the globalized US military with its high emphasis on logistics).  Yet gradually, as North Korea has pressed its brinkmanship agenda increasingly frequently and regularly over time, and as its policies have become seemingly more erratic over time, China has increasingly become less tolerant of the regime. 

The most significant assertions of the PRC that indicate this are, as far as I can tell, these:

(1) Official PRC statements that are favorable about the DPRK are increasingly ambiguous except with regards to the least strategically important issues (e.g. athletic and cultural exchanges);

(2) The PRC has increasingly become supportive of United Nations efforts to reign in and condemn the brinksmanship of the North Koreans; and

(3) The PRC has increasingly joined calls for non-proliferation on the peninsula in ever less ambiguous terms (especially, it seems to me, as Japan and the ROK have increasingly hinted that they are considering developing their own nuclear deterrents). 

The question remains however, how would the Chinese respond to a second modern Korean peninsular war – and the honest answer is it is difficult to say.  Best guesses are:

(1) It can be confidently said that the PRC would not present meaningful opposition to the wholesale crushing of a North Korean first-strike;

(2) With proper assurances and UN oversight the PRC would likely accept a unified Korea that remained an American ally assuming it remained nuclear-free, especially if Japan reiterated a similar plan;

(3) China might abstain from future UN sanctions against North Korea but is unlikely to veto them unless it considers them wholly unwarranted;

(4) China will not consider any first-strike assault on North Korea legally valid and will oppose such actions in the United Nations;

(5) China will likely take a leading role in relief and refugee efforts should the situation in any way, shape, or form grow worse;

(6) It is possible, though by no means definite, that the Chinese military would provide active support of American and Korean forces in the event of a war; and

(7) China’s principle concerns are that no nuclear war take place on the peninsula, that regional economic activity is minimally concerned, that neither Japan nor South Korea radically increase their strategic capabilities, and that it not be forced into the position of advocating a first-strike military action – a policy type which it has abjectly and definitively opposed for decades.                

Additional Resources: 

"China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea," The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China  



How is the United Nations involved?

Very simply put, the United Nations is a type of world government, not insofar as it may compel itself, but insofar as it is the only body under international law that is definitively allowed to determine when interstate compulsion is or is not legal, be it social, economic, or military in nature.  As such, the United Nations is the principal organ through which the associated powers have pursued their goals of a non-nuclear peninsula, the reactivation of the armistice, and general political normalization, almost exclusively through the use of extensive sanctions and isolation techniques.

The stance of the United Nations Security Council may be understood by reviewing its resolutions – most recent among these is S/res/2094 which, among other things, asserts that the UNSC:
1. Condemns in the strongest terms the nuclear test conducted by the DPRK on 12 February 2013 (local time) in violation and flagrant disregard of the Council’s relevant resolutions; 
2. Decides that the DPRK shall not conduct any further launches that use ballistic missile technology, nuclear tests or any other provocation; 
3. Demands that the DPRK immediately retract its announcement of withdrawal from the NPT;
4. Demands further that the DPRK return at an early date to the NPT and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards, bearing in mind the rights and obligations of States parties to the NPT, and underlines the need for all States parties to the NPT to continue to comply with their Treaty obligations;
5. Condemns all the DPRK’s ongoing nuclear activities, including its uranium enrichment, notes that all such activities are in violation of resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009) and 2087 (2013), reaffirms its decision that the DPRK shall abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes, in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner and immediately cease all related activities and shall act strictly in accordance with the obligations applicable to parties under the NPT and the terms and conditions of the IAEA Safeguards Agreement (IAEA INFCIRC/403);
6. Reaffirms its decision that the DPRK shall abandon all other existing weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programmes in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner
Pretty comprehensive – the UN not only wants North Korea to end its ballistic missile capability development and tests but also its nuclear weapons programs and (and this and is very critical) open itself up to ready inspection – no transparency, the rest honestly doesn’t matter much. 

Further note that while the UNSC isn’t discussing human rights or other provocations in this moment – though there are statements earlier in the document that assert that earlier humanitarian and security concerns are still matters of import and relevance.

Finally, and this is the dance – the vast majority of the document reiterates that not only do previous sanctions still stand but they are reinforced and – in particular states are required to actively seek out, seize, and generally undercut DPRK banking concerns and investments.  The message is clear – the UNSC has decided that North Korea no longer gets to have a modus vivendi absent its assimilation on non-extraordinary terms.  Will it work?  Time will tell, but certainly it has caused a change in North Korea’s interstate behavior – now they can’t skirt the interstate regime as easily, and finding themselves unable to get and manage liquid capital, they have turned to brinksmanship. 

Additional Resources: 


What do we know about the leadership of North Korea?

Less than one might imagine. Officially state power rests primarily with Kim Jong Un, son of Kim Jong Il and grandson of Kim Il Song.  We’re not certain when he was born and there is some ambiguity about what his name was at birth, though it seems that he changed it.  Equally, while he is in all the key pictures generated by North Korean propaganda services and unquestionably, like his father and grandfather, he is the core of the DPRK cult of personality, the question as to whether or not he is a figurehead and what factions, if any, he must cooperate and negotiate with to generate policy remains largely conjecture.  The problem is one of transparency – North Korea essentially has none – and totalitarian state security that prevents the development of human intelligence assets (estimates range as high as one in six North Korean citizens are connected to the state intelligence or security apparatus, in part explaining the scale of the DPRK’s prison camps).

So, the frank answer is this: not a helluva' lot. 

The smart assumption is, however, that the DPRK is dominated by a relatively small cadre of military officers, all of whom are also integrated into the party infrastructure.  Kim is likely not as powerful as the official media have portrayed but he nonetheless has at least limited power (at the minimum on the scale of a head of state – he may not be writing the policies and laws, but he can interpret and influence). Of course, only time will tell.

Additional Resources: 


What is brinkmanship?

Brinkmanship is a genre of political strategy which may emerge when competing political forces have approached a rational stalemate.  Their respective capabilities do not need to be equal, but must be adequate to allow each to threaten injury to the other of a scale considered fundamentally unacceptable – a state since the Cold War generally described as mutually-assured destruction or MAD.

It should be noted, by the by, that MAD does not guarantee that one or more actors in a system will employ brinkmanship as a strategy, but it is a precondition.    

The actual strategy is one of stage-setting – when an actor desires a particular behavioral response from his, her, or their opponent they may choose to escalate their level of threat (apparent or real) to their opponent or opponents, ratcheting the tension between the actors to such a degree that they may rationally assume only two real options exist – make concessions or engage in war.  The latter of course is undesirable given the relative capabilities of the actors, so the success of the strategy requires brinkman to convince their opponent that they are willing to accept apparently irrational levels of injury in order to achieve their ends.  Put plainly, they either have to appear ideologically, religiously, or philosophically fanatical (e.g. Mao Zedong’s paper tiger rhetoric) or they must appear insane.  Indeed, the success of the strategy depends on the belief of the extorted actors that the brinkman hates his/her/their enemies more than they love his/her/their children (many thanks to Sting).

The problem with brinkmanship is simple – it ultimately plays out rather like an inverted version of the boy who cried wolf; rather, it is an example of the boy pretending to be a wolf, but the conclusion is ultimately the same – eventually audience of the liar stops regarding anything the liar says as valid – with unpredictable consequences.

Why have the North Koreans depended on brinkmanship in recent years?

The why is simple enough – the domestic and interstate institutional and structural conditions North Korea finds itself in make brinkmanship an appropriate strategy.  Let’s break it down.

First, North Korea has a powerful conventional military, though it is limited in its power projection – either none or too few of the expensive prestige weapons that allow the great powers to throw their weight around on an intercontinental scale (e.g. nuclear submarines, air-delivery nuclear devices, strategic bombers, and aircraft carriers).  Put simply, it could wreck significant havoc on nearby polities – South Korea, northern Japan, and if so inclined, parts of northeast China and southeast Russia.

Second, the North Koreans are devoid of most other forms of influence.  Their soft power is all but nil – no one admires North Korean culture, no one seeks to imitate its policies or institutions, and its propagandists are largely ignorant of the cultural data necessary to consciously influence non-North Korean peoples.  Their non-military hard power is – well, let’s be honest – they have no non-military hard power.  Their economy is in shambles, their agricultural establishment is horrendous, and they have no real banking sector.  What little real influence they have economically is shut down virtually at will by the great powers with – after all it is mostly black market.  In other words – they have almost no other options.

The Korean Peninsula at night; note the disparate development.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Suppositional Maximum Ranges of North Korean Developed and Developing Missile Systems
Source: The Federation of American Scientists
Nuclear Weapons

Third, if ever there was a totalitarian political system that could be described as Orwellian it was North Korea.  The population, from all observation, seems to be dividable in to three key categories – true-believers, those who effectively mimic true-believers, and those who are prisoners of the state.  The end result is that brinksmanship, for all of its disfunctionalism, is easily justifiable to the population of DPRK.

Fourth, North Korea is isolated.  Very isolated.  I do not mean to say it is disengaged from the interstate system, but it is short on friends.  Indeed, since the end of the Cold War in the Revolutions of 1989 to 1991, the Koreans really have only one significant interstate associate – the People’s Republic of China.  China’s relationship with North Korea has clearly become more tenuous over time, however, and there is real reason to believe that its calculation that North Korea is a valuable asset of influence in the region is being outweighed by its embarrassment of the association and the practical threat North Korea’s behavior represents to the status quo

What are North Korea’s military capabilities (absolute and relative)?

This is tough to say definitively, of course – the rational policy for the North Koreans is the same as everyone else when it comes to military capacity – reveal only whatever is necessary to affect a reasonable deterrence then keep all other viable capabilities secret.  Furthermore, I’m a political scientist who studies warfare but that doesn’t mean I’m a tactical or strategic expert – nonetheless, I’ll do what I can.

Oh, and of note – my principle sources for this information are the Federation of American Scientists and GlobalSecurity

Korean People’s Army

Korean People's Army (KPA) capabilities (professional, not reservists) are typically estimated at somewhere between 1,000,000 and 1.5 million active soldiers, including around twenty-five mechanized, thirteen armored, and thirty artillery brigades, as well as twenty-five special forces brigades. 

KPA Navy

The KPA Navy is largely a brown-water navy (meaning it is equipped almost exclusively for coastal and inland operations) with relatively low manpower resources – probably well under 70,000 non-reservists.  The Navy is largely focused on asymmetric capabilities, meant to use small, light, fast anti-ship missile boats to attempt to counter American, South Korean, and Japanese naval capabilities.  This strategy, similar to one employed by nations such as Iran who primarily fear the ire of an American naval encounter, is based upon the simple fact that North Korea cannot hope to match American naval superiority and therefore must rely on what is, essentially, a modified kamikaze coastal defense rationale. 

KPA Air Force

The KPA Air Force is relatively weak – while it does have approximately 70 bases throughout the DPRK these are not all well-equipped and many are not capable of support jet operations. There are six air divisions – three fighter wings, one transport wing, and one training wing that, in the event of a war, would likely be retasked to active combat ends. The fighter force is largely composed of MIG-17s (a 1950s craft), MIG-21s (a 1960s craft), and SU-25s (a 1980s craft), further supplemented with about twenty 1950s era IL-28s  stations a ten minute flight from Seoul.  The only role such an air force is likely to play would be in making one or possibly two rounds of sorties before South Korean, American, and allied forces destroyed both their ground support and the actual hardware itself.


Having weapons is not enough – a polity must have the ability to deploy them as well.  On the one hand this may be done with bombers, but since the mid-Twentieth Century this means of deploying strategic weapons has steadily fallen out of favor relative to ballistic and cruise missile technologies.

Utilizing these technologies involves developing two different types of capabilities – first, it must be able to target a point with adequate accuracy and secondly it must be able to move the warhead to that target in such a manner that is not destroyed en route.  The latter requires two types of strategic innovation – powerful propellants and engines on the missiles themselves and warheads miniaturized adequately to make them viable matches for the technology.

The bulk of North Korea’s missiles are believed to be short-range – typically with ranges of under 700 kilometers or 435 miles.  These use technologies that were largely developed during the 1980s, meaning they are reliable but largely “dumb” with limited guidance capabilities – around 500 are estimated to be ballistic (meaning they enter the upper atmosphere then turn towards their target, accelerating to ballistic speeds as they approach making interception extraordinarily difficult.  The DPRK is also believed to have between a dozen and three dozen medium range ballistic missiles with ranges of up to 1500 kilometers or a little under 950 miles. 


North Korea is also working on long-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) but their capabilities are considered to be largely incomplete or at research stages with no deployable arsenal. 

The ultimate practical problem presenting itself to the North Koreans is simply that the greater their desired range the smaller the viable payload and, frankly, warheads are heavy.  As such it seems frankly unlikely that the North Koreans have warheads that would allow them to hit targets outside of the Koreas with anything except conventional weapons – that does not mean they are not a WMD threat, merely that this threat is geographically restricted to an area where the fallout is likely to be nearly as dangerous to the North Koreans as to their targets themselves.

Biological Weapons

North Korea is a signatory of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) as of 1987 and is believed to generally have conformed to its tenants – in other words, it is believed tohave no active biological weapons programs.

Chemical Weapons

North Korea is believed tohave very extensive chemical weapons capabilities, both non-persistent (which might be dispersed on the frontlines of American and South Korean forces in the event of a first strike) and persistent (which might be deployed to targets in the rear, undermining Southern command capabilities). 


To put it simply, NorthKorea has nuclear weapons.  They’re just really not very good ones.  They’re big.  They’re heavy.  Their yields are pitiful when compared with the nuclear capabilities of even primitive weapons.  That isn’t to say there isn’t a nuclear threat, but it is to say that, for the near future, that threat is as low as a threat can be and still be considered a threat.

What would be the costs to North and South Korea, as well as the other relevant states (China, Russia, Japan, and the United States) if a second modern Korean war broke out?

Put simply, the greatest cost would be borne by the South Korean and North Korean peoples – an initial assault by the North Koreans would almost definitely devastate the economy and infrastructure, and possibly the population, of South Korea (Seoul would almost definitely be utterly destroyed, in particular), while North Korea would unquestionably fall, though likely not before its military forces, infrastructure, and urban centers were largely destroyed.  Should North Korea utilized a weapon of mass destruction the United States would likely respond in kind. The North Korean government would fall, but the costs of reintegrating it into the global political economy, probably under the aegis of South Korean reintegration, would be enormous and would largely be borne principally by the United States, the European Union, and Japan, though undoubtedly China, Taiwan, ASEAN, and Russia would attempt to take advantage of such a moment to increase their influence in the peninsula.  The United States would likely take significant military casualties, principally in the initial first combat at the demilitarized zone and in later large-scale landings and assaults into North Korean territory.  Should China participate against North Korea it is conceivable that missile attacks might be launched against Harbin, Beijing, Tianjin, Changchun, and/or Shenyang.  Should Russia participate, a similar fate might await Vladivostok. 

Japan is most likely to be targeted in military bases and major urban centers in Hokkaido and the smaller northern islands, If such a war started it would almost assuredly experience substantial casualties and infrastructural damage, second only to that sustained in the Koreas themselves, despite the fact that Japan would likely, until attacked (and possibly even after) not be considered a combatant.

Finally, while it is unlikely North Korean forces could attack American bases outside South Korea or the Japanese archipelago those areas within the realm of possibility include the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, the Hawai’ian Islands, and Guam.  More likely, however, is that the US (as well as Japan and Taiwan) would suffer concerted cyber-attacks and possibly tactical terrorist-attacks perpetrated by North Korean sleeper cells already embedded within those states.

What major policy changes, American, South Korean, and otherwise, might emerge as a result of this crisis?

Arguably the most important is simply this – the international community is likely to increase efforts at suppressing North Korean interstate banking capabilities and technology transfers, in essence actually enforcing existing UN and various national policies.  Furthermore, as time goes on both the Republic of Korea and Japan are increasingly openly talking about substantially increasing their strategic military capabilities – most tangibly with the adoption of limited, deterrence-based nuclear missiles (probably only short- and medium-range in the near-term) but perhaps also coupling this with substantial policy changes – especially if Japan amends its constitution to allow more active military power projection – which most likely would include the creation of denser regional military relationships, rather than simply depending on the bilateral relationship network with the United States.

What are the odds of a second Korean war?

It all comes down to this one for most of us – at least any other type of crisis lets us sleep – this one, well, not as much.  And to a degree, it is guesswork – I don’t have the data that our intelligence officers and diplomats have, but from what I have I’d say simply this: probably not.

Now, bear in mind – probably ain’t the same as “no.”  And I’d say it comes down to this – are the leaders, whoever they are, of North Korea willing to not only die, but to experience the complete failure of their state? The answer again is: probably not.  After all, this time there will be no Soviet air, logistic, or intelligence support and, equally, there will be no Chinese infantry reserves.  There is no chance of South Korea falling to North Korean political control, only that it can be hurt.   There is no chance of global ideology-based adulation, only the inevitable condemnation of history. 

Conclusion

To understand why, despite all this I still worry myself to sleep, I recommend you read two of the great pieces of literature from the Western tradition – first, the Melian Dialogue from Thucydides’ History of the PeloponnesianWar, and secondly the story of Samson from Judges 16 – one is the tale of choosing violence over negotiation even in the face of inevitable defeat, the other is a tale of choosing to, literally, pull the temple down on one’s head in a final, wrathful act of revenge.  

Addendum 

I am including a veritable plethora of links to major high-quality journalistic resources, categorized by their most prominent subjects.  This clearly is not an exhaustive list, but it is a start - I hope it is useful. 

General Overviews





















The Armistice Break




Attack Plans


Brinksmanship



The People's Republic of China and the Koreas






The Closing of Centers of North/South Economic Cooperation






Economic Elements



Cutting the Hotlines


Leadership




Military Capabilities (General)


Missile Capabilities








The North Korean Nuclear Weapon Program








South Korean Responses to the Crisis



The United Nations Responses to the Crisis





The United States' Responses to the Crisis











http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/world/asia/north-korea-threatens-us-over-military-drill.html

PS - Thanks to Steve Barber for a math-catch mistake with regards to nuke yields - this is what happens when you're bad at math and type too long!