Fighting words: Cooler heads must prevail in the Korean peninsula

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North Korea, South Korea, the United States and the United Nations Security Council have cooked up a dangerous situation in East Asia that could conceivably result in war if people aren't careful.

North Korea has recently carried out new rocket and nuclear tests, torn up (again) the Korean War cease-fire agreement in place since 1953, threatened a nuclear attack on the United States and made menacing noises about developments on the Korean peninsula, including a joint U.S.-South Korean military exercise scheduled to begin today.

Its approach can be taken seriously or it can be considered a rite of passage for its new leader, young Kim Jong Un, or both. Either way, it isn't comforting in terms of prospects for peace in the region.

South Korea's new president, Park Geun-hye, the daughter of a previous hard-line president of that country, is also in the process of trying out her wings as a leader. Her own country's military posture toward North Korea is undoubtedly influenced by the continued presence in South Korea of some 28,500 U.S. troops, remaining from the war 60 years ago -- the situational equivalent of an older brother protecting a younger one who is yelling insults at the playground bully.

Last Thursday, in response to North Korea's continuing rocket tests, the U.N. Security Council placed more economic sanctions on an already staggering country, aimed at its feeble banks, industries and other institutions. Security Council action against North Korea is not new, but this time China, North Korea's main protector, signed on, too.

A day later, the leaders of North Korea and South Korea used some of the most bellicose language in years and threatened to destroy each other.

The fact that the United States is now holding military exercises with South Korea can be seen as questionable behavior on America's part. Washington will argue that the exercises have been scheduled for a long time and that to postpone or cancel them would be seen as encouragement to even more outrageous behavior on Pyongyang's part. It is also worth noting, however, that the Pentagon is busily seeking new financing, consistent with President Barack Obama's announced pivot to Asia in U.S. policy and the end of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but in the face of sequestration and other U.S. budget-cutting.

A war in East Asia that either North Korea, South Korea or the United States started would be an extremely undesirable development, disproportionate to the real threat that Pyongyang's posturing poses. Most mothers tell their children not to poke a hungry, angry animal but to step back instead. North Korea is a sad case, but definitely not worth a war.

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