The State Department said Thursday the United States had to take necessary defensive steps in light of North Korea’s escalating threats, but emphasized that it can “change course” if North Korea tames its rhetoric…

Nuland also said that while the U.S. takes North Korea’s “bellicose threats” seriously, the situation on the Korean Peninsula “does not need to get hotter.”

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White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Friday that the administration would “not be surprised” if North Korea launches another missile as part of its pattern of provocations, amid reports that the regime deployed mid-range missile launchers to its east coast…

He added: “It would fit their current pattern of bellicose, unhelpful, unconstructive rhetoric and actions. We urge them to stop with the provocations.”

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Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro warned ally North Korea against war on Friday and described the current tensions on the Korean Peninsula as one of the “gravest risks” for nuclear holocaust since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Saying he spoke as a friend, Castro wrote in Cuban state media that North Korea, led by 30-year-old Kim Jong-un, had shown the world its technical prowess and now it was time to remember its duties to others.

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[A] groundswell of opinion is building within China that the nation should dump its unruly neighbor. A mainland Chinese journalist based in Hong Kong told me recently that her countrymen no longer think of North Korea as a close ally, as this is a “cold war mentality” with which younger people in particular no longer identify.

Deng Yewun, an editor of a Communist party journal, wrote in the Financial Times in late February that China should abandon North Korea. He was later suspended from his job for putting that strong opinion into print. Yet the Chinese government-run media is still not exhibiting much support of Pyongyang.

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Starting today, the Chinese could put an end to the grotesque farce that is the North Korean regime and, together with the United States, usher in the reunification of the Korean peninsula.

Should China’s leaders simply want the North Korean regime to stop launching missiles, after all, they don’t need to play around with sanctions. Nor do the Chinese have to respond to North Korea’s outrageous military threats with a show of air power, as the U.S. military has done. They could just cut off energy supplies or food deliveries to Pyongyang: They are the major supplier of both. And if they wanted real change in a regime that keeps tens of thousands of its people in concentration camps directly modeled on Stalin’s gulag, China could open its 800-mile border with North Korea. The resulting exodus would surely do for North Korea what the collapse of the Berlin Wall did for East Germany.

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Beijing wants Pyongyang to adopt Chinese-style economic reforms, as this would enable North Korea to wean itself off of Chinese support and become more stable. The United States and the rest of the international community would probably find this acceptable, too. So why doesn’t it happen?

Two reasons. First, North Korea is historically wary of Chinese influence, dating back to the inception of the country after World War II. According to Andrew Scobell, a China expert at the RAND Corporation, founding leader Kim Il Sung (Kim Jong Un’s grandfather) actually purged ethnic Korean Communists who studied in China, fearful that they constituted a potential fifth column. And when global Communism cratered following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, North Korea increasingly embraced juche, or self-dependence, as a national ideology. As Scobell notes, “North Korea just isn’t comfortable with China’s dominant role in its economy.”

Secondly, the Kim regime fears that implementing reforms might reduce its grip on political power, even though this hasn’t happened (yet) in China. Pyongyang has experimented with small-scale reforms in the past, but has always stopped well short of abandoning its command-style economic system. Why? Scobell says that “they’re afraid of reforming the regime out of existence.”

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North Korea poses a more credible threat to South Korea and Japan than to the United States. But a threat to those countries is, at least in some respects, a threat to the United States, since we have provided both countries with security guarantees – a commitment reiterated and made explicit recently by Secretary of State John Kerry.

Why is it in U.S. interests to make a threat to them automatically a threat to us that we have to handle?
South Korea has twice as many people as North Korea and an economy that’s 40 times larger. Japan has a population five times that of North Korea and an economy more than 100 times larger.

Both South Korea and Japan have ample resources to provide for their own security, particularly with respect to any conventional threat posed by North Korea.

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Via Gallup:

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Last spring, South Korea announced it was developing new ballistic and cruise missiles, noting that the latter could “fly through Kim Jong Un’s window.” The North Koreans took that statement very, very badly. They interpreted it as a very deliberate threat to decapitate the North Korean leadership and responded with a very vitriolic campaign depicting Lee Myung Bak as a dead rat. Clearly, the South Koreans had found a sensitive spot, which they pushed again a few weeks ago when they released more footage of ballistic and cruise missiles, noting again that window-sized targets were in play. The North Koreans have issued a series of statements that make very clear how serious they take threats to decapitate the North Korean government.

The current situation, then, strikes me as particularly dangerous. The North Koreans have grown used to provoking the South Koreans with relative impunity. 2010 was a very rough year, with the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. The South Koreans are clearly tired of taking a beating at the hands of the North Koreans, although I worry that all this talk of precision strikes is an escapist fantasy. North Korea could easily push South Korea too far, leading the South Koreans to dramatically escalate the situation in a way that would be dangerous and unpredictable. Taking a shot at Kim Jong Un and the rest of the leadership might sound like a good idea over coffee and donuts during a simulation — but South Korea better not miss in real life.

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Let’s say that the North decides to fire its new mobile KN-08 intermediate-range ballistic missile, capable of reaching U.S. bases in Guam. An X-band radar based in Japan detects the launch, cueing missile defenses aboard Japanese and U.S. ships. The U.S.S. Stetham, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer equipped with Aegis phased-array radars, fires its SM-3 missiles, which hit and shatter the KN-08 warhead as it begins its final descent. The successful intercept is immediately touted internationally as a victory, but, now desperate for tactical advantage that will allow it to preserve its nuclear and missile programs, the North Korean leadership orders an assault on South Korean patrol vessels and military fortifications built after the 2010 shelling incident.

The regime feels safe in striking out along the maritime boundary because the two sides have repeatedly skirmished in the area in the past 15 years. But President Park, determined to show backbone, dispatches on-alert F-15K fighter aircraft armed with AGM-84E SLAM-Expanded Response air-to-ground missiles to destroy the North Korean installations responsible for the latest assault. For good measure, they also bomb a North Korean mini-submarine pier as belated payback for the sinking of Cheonan. North Korean soldiers and military officers are killed in the attack. Pyongyang vows a merciless response and launches a risky salvo of rockets into downtown Seoul, in hope of shocking the Blue House into seeking an immediate cessation of fighting. But far from ending the tit-for-tat attacks, North Korean actions have now triggered the Second Korean War.

U.S. and ROK Combined Forces Command implements a pre-arranged plan — perhaps using submarine-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles and Massive Ordnance Penetrator bombs dropped from a B-2 — to eliminate North Korea’s two major missile launch facilities: Tonghae in the northeast and Sohae in the northwest, both of which are fairly close to the Chinese border. North Korea responds with more rockets and Scud missiles, accompanied by North Korean Central News announcements suggesting that they could be armed with biological agents. China, seeking to restrain all sides, pours troops and materiel across the border to protect its interests and instigates a secret plan to replace Kim Jong Un with a senior general who understands the North’s total dependence on its only ally. The resulting confusion leads to a belief that North Korea, and not just the Kim regime, is collapsing. Meanwhile, the United States quietly embarks on a secret mission to secure North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

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Unless North Korea wants to be annihilated, its leadership has to find a way to climb down from its current wave of provocative rhetoric. But one of the CIA’s former top Pyongyang analysts thinks dictator Kim Jong-un will order a limited strike on South Korea — as a way to actually tamp down hostilities.

“North Korea will launch an attack,” predicts Sue Mi Terry, a Columbia University professor who served as a senior analyst on North Korea at the CIA from 2001 to 2008. The attack won’t be nuclear, she thinks, nor will it be a barrage from the massive amounts of artillery Pyongyang has aimed south.

Instead, Terry believes, “it will be something sneaky and creative and hard to definitively trace back to North Korea to avoid international condemnation and immediate retaliation from Washington or Seoul.” This, she thinks, is what counts as de-escalation in 2013 from the new regime in Pyongyang: a relatively small attack that won’t leave many people dead.

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