"North Korea's not that dangerous."
Wrong. There is no threat of war on the Korean peninsula because the United States and South Korea have deterred the regime for over six decades, or so the thinking goes. And the occasional provocation from Pyongyang -- full of sound and fury -- usually ends with it blowing up in its face, signifying nothing. So why worry? Two reasons. First, North Korea has a penchant for testing new South Korean presidents. A new one was just inaugurated in February, and since 1992, the North has welcomed these five new leaders by disturbing the peace. Whether in the form of missile launches, submarine incursions, or naval clashes, these North Korean provocations were met by each newly elected South Korean president with patience rather than pique.
The difference today is that South Korea is no longer turning the other cheek. After the North blew up the South Korean navy ship the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors in 2010, Seoul re-wrote the rules of military engagement. It has lost patience and will respond kinetically to any provocation, which could escalate into a larger conflict. Second, North Korea crossed a major technology threshold in December, when it successfully launched a satellite into orbit. Though the satellite later malfunctioned, the North managed to put the payload into orbit with ballistic missile launch technology that is clearly designed to reach the United States.
This development appears to validate former U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Gates's January 2011 claim that the regime was only five years away from fielding a missile that could threaten the continental United States. To make matters worse, Pyongyang conducted a third nuclear test in February, which appears to have been more successful than the previous two. Within President Barack Obama's second term in office, North Korea could well be the third nation (after Russia and China) to field a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile targeted at the United States. Moreover, the North has sold every weapons system it has developed to the likes of Iran, Pakistan, and Syria. That's worth losing sleep over.
But there's another point that is often overlooked: North Korea today can threaten all of South Korea and parts of Japan with its conventional missiles and its conventional military. The North can fire 500,000 rounds of artillery on Seoul in the first hour of a conflict. Stability has held for 60 years because the U.S. security alliances with South Korea and Japan make it clear to the North Korean leadership that if they attacked South Korea or Japan, they would lose both the war and their country. And, for half a century, neither side believed that the benefits of starting a major war outweighed the costs. The worry is that the new North Korean leader might not hold to the same logic, given his youth and inexperience.