At the close of the Second World War in the Pacific theater, representatives from two of the allies, the US and Russia, agreed to partition the formerly Japanese controlled Korean peninsula into two zones for which each would have occupation responsibilities. They arbitrarily bisected the peninsula at the 38th (nice round number) parallel and set up puppet governments. In the south, the US quickly turned over responsibility for governance to a relatively benign dictator. In the north, the Soviets installed an ego-maniacal communist who turned the social order upside down and created both a cult of personality and an offensively capable army around himself. Five short years after the cessation of hostilities against Japan and Germany, war was thrust once again into the world's lap. With tacit Soviet and Chinese approval, a North Korean army attacked south in June of 1950 and quickly overran Seoul and all but a small perimeter around Pusan at the southern tip of the peninsula.
The United States responded at the first attack with a feeble force scraped together from soft occupation forces in Japan. The Americans held the perimeter at Pusan long enough for MacArthur to assemble a couple of half strength divisions, one Army and one Marine, and conduct a classic turning movement with an amphibious landing at Inchon, to the west of Seoul. The North Korean army, overstretched and now facing the prospect of two American divisions astride its line of supply, collapsed and fled back north. MacArthur pursued all the way to the Korean border with China at the Yalu River.
The Chinese, threatened by an American offensive force poised on its southern border, sent several divisions across the Yalu against the Americans. Chinese soldiers were actually told that Chinese territory had been violated and they attacked believing they were repelling an invader. US forces fell back south under the Chinese onslaught and Seoul fell again to communist forces. Later UN (the US acting as the executive agent for a UN resolution passed when the Russian and Chinese ambassadors were not present to veto) forces recaptured Seoul and a stalemate developed along a line close to the original dividing line. The war continued in a trench warfare fashion reminiscent of France in 1915, until the signing of an Armistice in 1953.
No peace treaty was, nor has ever been, signed between the participants. Technically, a state of war still exists between the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the north and the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the south. Each maintains huge standing armies, facing off against each other across a narrow strip of land called the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ. The United States maintains a full strength Army division and significant air forces on the peninsula, with more ready to rapidly reinforce from Japan. The DPRK practices its plan for an assault south twice a year and conducts brazen reconnaissance of ROK territory. The ROK and the US practice their defense and counterattack twice a year and conduct brazen reconnaissance of DPRK territory. The DPRK maintains an enormous stockpile of chemical weapons and sufficient delivery systems to turn the southern half of the peninsula into a toxic waste land in a matter of hours. The US possesses an enormous stockpile of nuclear weapons and sufficient delivery systems to turn the northern half of the peninsula into a radioactive waste land in a matter of hours. Oh, and the DPRK probably has 6 to 12 nukes of its own to play with.
This stand-off has been in effect for 53 years. The ROK has prospered under a mostly democratic and completely capitalistic system of governance. The DPRK has starved and frozen under the most tyrannical cult of personality the world has ever seen. The conditions in the DPRK make Orwell's "1984" seem like a description of nirvana by comparison. The next time you see a TV picture of the DPRK's massive military on parade, look at how skinny and undernourished the soldiers are, and know that these are the people getting fed in the DPRK. Kim Jong Il stays in power by diverting every scrap of food and material to his military. The rest of the population eats tree bark.
As I write this, some media outlets are reporting that the DPRK is about to test- launch a new missile with range to reach the US. The US is threatening severe consequences if the missile is launched. Japan, which had a DPRK missile overfly its territory in 1998, is warning the DPRK, as well.
As one who has relatively recently served in Korea, I can tell you without exaggeration that the military situation on the Korean peninsula has been and remains much more tense and dangerous than the rest of the world is aware. I can also tell you that the current situation is much less dangerous than it seems, if everyone outside of the DPRK will see it for what it is. The DPRK is starving to death and Kim needs outside aid to stay in power. He as been off the free world's radar screen since 9/11 and this missile test is just the thing to get our attention, and with which to gain aid for falsely promised concessions.
We should not worry too much about the military implications of this missile launch. However, we should worry a lot about what happens to a million man army when the food runs out up north. An imploding DPRK has the danger of reaching its own critical mass and the effects of the resulting explosion will not only be felt on the Korean peninsula, but round the world like a social Krakatoa spewing a human ash cloud that will screen the sun and bring another year without a summer. This is in fact the ROK government's greatest fear--they have no desire to pay the huge cost of reunification with the north (the DPRK is in far, far worse shape than East Germany; and Germany has yet to fully regain it's economic and social vitality 15 years after reunification.)
Let Kim shoot his missile and ignore it. Or better yet, shoot it down as a test of our anti-ballistic missile systems. Then let's get smart and flood both the DPRK, and Cuba while we're at it, with blue jeans, iPods, and all other manner of consumer goods. We can beat the worst enemy by turning them into soft captitalists.