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.
"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.
"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.
"Sanctions Against North Korea," Global Policy Forum
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.
Donald Kirk "North Korea's Kim Jong-Un Not Really in Control, Says Brother," Christian Science Monitor
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Armistice Break
The People's Republic of China and the Koreas
The Closing of Centers of North/South Economic Cooperation
Cutting the Hotlines
Military Capabilities (General)
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
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!