Is North Korea about to start World War III? AS ROGUE STATE RAMPS UP FIGHTING TALK..
IT is easy to see North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as a joke figure, and to dismiss his puffed-up posturing about bombing the US as bluster.
And it is true there is no chance of a North Korean nuclear missile flattening New York, Manhattan, Washington or LA any time soon.
But with a 900,000-strong army, a terrifying chemical arsenal and a leader with a very itchy trigger finger, the fragile situation in Korea could explode into a devastating war.
And international concern is mounting. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, himself a former South Korean foreign minister, has called for direct talks with North Korea to contain the situation.
The United States responded to North Korean threats with a quiet demonstration of its enormous military might, sending B-52 and B2-stealth bombers for training flights over North Korea.
These are platforms for US strategic nuclear weapons, sending an unmistakable signal that the regime is playing with fire.
The US also deployed F-22 stealth bombers and moved an Aegis-class warship to the region. The battleship is equipped with the capability to intercept ballistic missiles.
Yesterday North Korea announced that it was restarting the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, shut down in 2007.
The reactor produced the plutonium for the country's nuclear devices. Although it will take up to a year to restart, the announcement is significant because currently North Korea only has enough plutonium for about six nuclear devices.
It wants to make clear it will develop its nuclear arsenal, integrate it fully into its defences and will not give up nuclear weapons. In Washington and South Korean capital Seoul, the atmosphere remains calm. There is no evidence North Korea is mobilising its forces. Every day South Korean workers travel to the special industrial zone in Kaesong across the border as if nothing had happened.
Washington and Seoul remain convinced that North Korea cannot afford to start a major conflict which could only end with the destruction of its regime.
But the risk of war is real. There are 900,000 North Korean soldiers deployed across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas.
They are equipped with more than 17,000 artillery pieces and 3,500 main battle tanks. In the event of armed conflict, the Korean People's Army will be raining artillery projectiles on to downtown Seoul while advancing across the DMZ.
The North also possesses significant quantities of chemical weapons. While it cannot win a war, it can cause enormous damage and loss of life even without nuclear weapons. It also has about 100,000 special forces trained to infiltrate the South in the event of war.
The current crisis is dangerous because both sides have already reached the limit of what can be achieved through military signals, and have no way to reduce tensions.
Washington and Seoul do not want to reward Kim Jong-un with any concessions or even talks as they have done previously.
Normalisation of relations remains off the table as long as North Korea maintains brutal prison camps where 200,000 of its political opponents are incarcerated and denies basic human rights to its own population.
In the mid-90s a severe famine resulted in the deaths of three million people in the North while its government did nothing at all to alleviate their suffering.
In the past, North Korea has used small-scale attacks, such as the killing of American soldiers in the DMZ or the sinking of the South Korean frigate Cheonan and artillery attacks on Yeonpyeong island in 2010 to reinforce the diplomatic pressure.
Since then, the South Korean military has changed its policy. It is determined to respond to any attack by North Korea with a much larger military response targeted both at the units that fired and command centres in the capital Pyongyang.
North and South Korea are still technically at war as there is no peace treaty and South Korea never signed the ceasefire agreement at the end of the Korean War. Any miscalculated step could trigger a military conflict that could spiral out of control.
Many are now looking to China for keeping its "client state" under control. China rescued North Korea from total defeat in the Korean War in the 50s.
At that time General MacArthur wanted to use nuclear weapons against targets in China to force their withdrawal from the war but was overruled by President Truman and removed from command. Although China has provid id d ed a security China has provided a security guarantee for North Korea since then, it is no longer the case that it will support North Korea's military adventures.
Thus, China has called for calm and restraint on all sides.
In the past China temporarily suspended shipments of oil and food to North Korea. So why not now? The answer is that Beijing is concerned about the outbreak of a major conflict on the Korean peninsula that could result in millions of refugees flooding into China.
Worse still, it could suck China itself into a military conflict with the United States. Beijing is treading very carefully now because it fears further pressure on North Korea will cause the situation to get out of control.
So far there has been no clear indication of what Kim Jong-un wants to achieve. The most likely explanation is that there are serious divisions within the leadership.
By responding harshly to the condemnation of his missile and nuclear tests in the United Nations Security Council, Kim is demonstrating that he is up to the job of confronting the United States and South Korea.
Ban Ki-moon is right. China and the United States need to work together to establish some framework for dialogue with North Korea to defuse the crisis.
This might be enough for Kim Jong-un to declare victory without achieving any substantial concessions and allow for renewed engagement with North Korea.
and Any false step could trigger a conflict that could spiral out of control
FIREPOWER J South Korean tanks in action
THREATS J North Korea's Kim Jong-un
MARCH PAST 3 Military parade in Pyongyang