Faced with North Korea's defiant nuclear activities, the United States has put long-range bombers on alert and warned that all options - including the use of military force - remain on the table in dealing with the crisis.
Pyongyang, in turn, has threatened an "all-out war."
The heated rhetoric, while not viewed as a sign of imminent conflict, has raised a provocative question: Does Washington have viable military contingencies for North Korea?
Strictly from the standpoint of military capabilities, US commanders are confident that American and South Korean forces would prevail in any conflict against the North's large but obsolete Army of 1 million. Still, in political terms, the cost in lost lives of civilians and troops would be so tremendous that, in fact, the military option is all but unfeasible, defense experts say.
"The problem in Korea is not really whether we have the proper weapons or technology, but the devastation that would occur to South Korea if there was a conflict," says Bates Gill, a Northeast Asia security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here. "It's really a political issue with Seoul, and that's why you hear the constant refrain, 'We will solve this diplomatically.' "
Specifically, North Korea has an estimated 500 long-range artillery tubes capable of raining 5,000 or more rounds per hour on downtown Seoul. This conventional force alone could devastate the city, home to 10 million people and a hub of the nation's economy, defense experts and US officials say.
"In effect, North Korea can hold Seoul hostage," says Peter Brookes, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and until recently the Pentagon's deputy assistant secretary for Asia. Indeed, during a 1994 standoff over its nuclear program, Pyongyang threatened to turn Seoul into a "sea of flames."
At the same time, North Korea is believed to have one or two nuclear devices and long-range ballistic missiles capable of striking Asian countries such as Japan and possibly parts of America, according to US officials. It is unlikely that Pyongyang's Tae-Po-Dong missiles could deliver nuclear payloads at present, but they could carry chemical or biological weapons, says Michael O'Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution here.
Given North Korea's potential for retaliation, US surgical airstrikes to destroy Pyongyang's nuclear reactor at Yongbyon would also be highly risky, analysts say. Moreover, such strikes may not succeed in eradicating the North's nuclear program, they say. "Taking out the one facility at Yongbyon with cruise missiles does not shut down the North Korean nuclear program - it's not like [Israel's 1981 attack on the nuclear reactor at] Osiraq in Iraq," says Mr. Brookes. "They may have one to two weapons and a clandestine highly enriched uranium program."
As a result, US military strategy toward North Korea in the short term appears aimed primarily at bolstering conventional forces in the region to deter any aggression by Pyongyang - particularly as the United States prepares for an invasion of Iraq.
"We certainly have identified forces that could potentially be deployed to the [Asian] region ... as a prudent measure to deter," says Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis.
Today, for example, as the Japan-based USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier battle group deploys to the Middle East region, the USS Carl Vinson is crossing the Pacific to Asia. If US ground troops slated for a Korean contingency head to Iraq, US bomber aircraft may fill in for them in Northeast Asia. "You can maintain an identical posture without having identical forces," says Commander Davis.
American military forces are sized and arrayed to be able to conduct major combat operations in "overlapping time frames" in two theaters such as North Korea and Iraq, according to US defense policy, while "setting the conditions for a regime change" in one of them.
In light of the sobering military scenarios, the Bush administration top priority is to resolve the crisis on the Korean peninsula diplomatically. Several initiatives are under way. Today, the 35-nation board of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is scheduled to meet in Vienna to consider a resolution to inform the UN Security Council of North Korea's breach of its nuclear safeguards agreement with the IAEA.
The Bush administration has pressed for multilateral talks with North Korea aimed at resolving the crisis, urging Russia and China, in particular, to play an active role. Yesterday Beijing called instead for a US-North Korean dialogue.
Still, negotiations with Pyongyang are unlikely to end the pattern of blackmail and broken agreements, defense experts say. "It's a bad option, but the least-bad option," says Mr. Gill. "It will be more of the same again."
Some US officials, notably Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have warned of the high stakes of failure. If unchecked, Pyongyang could make material for six to eight nuclear weapons by summer and sell them - possibly to terrorists, he says.