Can North Korea get into a war, really?

It’s exactly a week since North Korea declared that it was in a “state of war” and the rhetoric seems to be only getting shriller.

Today, for example, North Korea moved a mid-range missile to the east coast of the country though it is believed not capable of striking the United States. There are also reports that the country’s military has been told to be prepared for war using “smaller, lighter and diversified” nukes.

But will the North Korean bark turn into a bite is the question being asked worldwide.

For those alarmed at the nomenclature of North Korea entering a “state of war”, it needs to be understood that the two Koreas have been in that state “technically” since the truce between them ended the 1950-53 conflict. And there has been a show of brinkmanship to no end for all these years, but the situation seems graver this time.

The sudden upping of the ante came after the imposition of UN sanctions on North Korea in the wake of Kim Jong-un ordering a third nuclear weapons test in February. Pyongyang had gone ahead and tested even though it was a breach of the UN mandate and despite warnings from its sole ally China.

Tension had also soared after the US and South Korean had held a series of joint military and aerial drills in which America had sent B-2 and B-52 bombers with capacity to carry nuclear weapons, as well as F-22 stealth fighters from Japan.

As admitted by the Pentagon, the United States has been party in fuelling fears with its additional plan to set up a military defence system in Guam, way ahead of its scheduled deployment two years later.

Though South Korea has been reiterating that the new threat from North Korea is only one more in the series that it has been issuing, Seoul would not want to be seen taking it lying down. The government had previously faced criticism for its response to the shelling of a South Korean island in 2010 and is now threatening to destroy statues of the ruling Kim dynasty in the event of any attack.

On North Korea’s part despite the threats, it is unlikely that Pyongyang would like to shut the Kaesong industrial zone close to its border in a hurry as it gives it access to USD 2 billion in trade per annum. The zone is a vital source of foreign currency for the country which is vastly impoverished. The North had once suspended operations at the zone but also ordered their prompt resumption.

Kim Jong-un knows well enough that starting a real war would mean certain defeat and more hardship for his people. South Korea has also reiterated that “the odds of a full-scale provocation are small” and the intelligence has picked no information on mobilisation of small Army units. Despite this, there are real concerns that a small false step could lead to a large conflagration.

It is for this reason that United States has publically acknowledged that it would be toning down the rhetoric, hoping it would ease tensions to some extent, even as it continues to monitor the situation closely.

Clearly, Barack Obama has his hands full already with sufficient problems at home and several open wounds in the world, to want to get embroiled in an over a half-century old conflict once again.

Meanwhile, Kim has recently consolidated his position by allocating key posts to his close confidants including the appointment of Pak Pong-ju as the Prime Minister. In the tightly-controlled regime, Kim Jong-un remains the final authority and the final decision, in this case also, is likely to be taken by him.