A North Korean soldier surveys the scene on the South Korea side of the Military Demarcation Line on March 13, 2013, at the Joint Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone.

A North Korean soldier surveys the scene on the South Korea side of the Military Demarcation Line on March 13, 2013, at the Joint Security Area of the Demilitarized Zone. (Jon Rabiroff/Stars and Stripes)

North Korea has never been short on bluster, and tensions on the Korean Peninsula are always simmering, waiting to boil. But the current confluence of events raises concerns that it wouldn’t take much of a spark to set off a confrontation that could quickly spiral out of control.

North and South Korea both have neophyte leaders eager to avoid any perception of weakness, and the North has a history of staging provocations to test the mettle of new presidents in Seoul.

The U.S. and South Korea are staging their largest annual joint exercises, with American B-52s and a nuclear attack submarine brought in as a clear show of force to the North, although China has warned that such actions are more likely to antagonize Pyongyang than persuade it to back off.

There’s also the possibility that the North could see Washington, weary of protracted conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and now dealing with heavy cuts to defense spending due to sequestration, as hesitant to get involved in a new battlefront.

Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter tried last week to assuage any South Korean concerns about the U.S. commitment, saying it will continue to provide to South Korea “the extended deterrence offered by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, and we will ensure that all of its capabilities remain available to the alliance.”

As usual, the biggest question marks are about North Korea and whether it would really be willing to launch a major attack that could bring the full force of American retaliation. The general thinking in South Korea is that another border skirmish or small-scale provocation is more likely, setting the stage for Seoul to let it slide again or risk escalating things into a major brouhaha.

Another possibility would be something like the cyberattack Wednesday on South Korean banks and top TV networks that is being blamed on North Korea.

With such a cloistered country, it’s difficult to analyze bottom-line strategy, or even know who’s really in charge. Is it the 20-something Kim Jong Un, following in the provocative footsteps of his father and grandfather? Or is he more of a figurehead, and the country effectively being run by a military cabal?

One thing seems certain: Pyongyang’s leadership is desperate to hold onto power, knowing that the consequences of losing clout could be death at the hands of its beleaguered populace, as has happened in other former communist countries.

North Korea has become an example of what decades of mass brainwashing can do, with its people being taught to worship the Kims — the communist world’s first and only dynastic succession — as godlike figures. Communications with the outside world are severely limited; any budding dissent is squashed.

Recent technological advances in the North’s stated goal of being able to strike the United States with nuclear weapons have been widely touted to the populace, particularly the powerful military, which gets the lion’s share of the poverty-wracked country’s limited resources. Recent propaganda videos have shown masses of smiling troops frantically wading waist-deep into waters just to get close to a boat carrying Kim.

While the military and the North’s elite live relatively well, that’s not the case for the majority, who toil in factories or on farms. Brutal labor camps are reportedly filled with up to 200,000 people who didn’t get with the program. Only one person has ever been known to escape the camps.

Long adept at brinksmanship to wrangle aid and concessions from the West, Pyongyang has really ratcheted up its rhetoric since making its first successful rocket launch in December and carrying out its third — and most powerful — underground nuclear weapons test.

There have been threats to turn Seoul and Washington into a “sea of fire” and threats to attack U.S. bases in Japan and Guam. Videos put the White House in the cross hairs and had the Capitol Dome exploding, though the capacity to strike that far still appears to be years away.

While North Korea has been making threats to use nuclear weapons since at least 1994, it has improved its potential to do so, although it still needs to be able to miniaturize a bomb to fit in a warhead. Pyongyang’s reported information sharing with Iran also is worrisome, as is the prospect that it might be willing to sell either technology or actual weapons to terrorist groups.

Reining in North Korea has proven to be an elusive goal. A 1994 “framework” agreement for Pyongyang to mothball its nuclear program in steps in exchange for aid worked for a while — until North Korea balked and went back to making nuclear bombs.

U.N. sanctions haven’t worked, other than to make North Korea angry and threaten retaliation. South Korea has tried to negotiate and has tried to engage the North by letting South Korean businesses set up shop in an economic zone just across the DMZ to take advantage of cheap North Korean labor. Although North Korea has declared the armistice that ended the Korean War to be invalid and stopped answering the DMZ hotline, it has continued to allow the businesses to keep operating and funneling in badly needed foreign currency.

In each case, the North has taken what it can get, then manufactured another crisis to trying to wrangle for more, banking that the U.S., South Korea and their allies would choose appeasement over conflict.

That likely is what is going on now — North Korea creating a crisis to set the stage for returning to the negotiating table, either through six-nation talks involving the U.S., South Korea, Japan, Russia and China, or — its real target — directly with Washington.

There is the possibility, though, that someone could make a miscalculation or misstep that could set off real conflict. It’s unclear what would happen if things escalated rapidly.

Would China back its troublesome “little brother,” as it did during the Korean War six decades ago? Beijing likes having a buffer with capitalist South Korea, but it also has shown signs that its patience with Pyongyang’s constant provocations is wearing thin, going along with the latest U.N. sanctions.

The U.S. military has studiously tried to avoid getting dragged into the war of words between the two Koreas, downplaying each of North Korea’s threats. But its moves to beef up anti-missile defenses in South Korea, Japan and Alaska, and the use of B-52s and an attack submarine during the ongoing exercises show that it’s hedging its bets on peace.

Paul Alexander, Stars and Stripes’ Pacific news editor, has periodically covered Korean politics since 1994.

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