By BUNN NAGARA
THE Korean peninsula enters the weekend with the highest security alert called by US and South Korean forces since the North's first nuclear test in 2006.
On Friday, North Korea launched its fifth missile test in defiance of the international community, although the projectiles average only 130km in range and are of doubtful quality. International responses to these tests must retain a cool level-headedness to avoid any dangerous overreaction.
The two Koreas have fought deadly skirmishes at sea in 1999 and 2002. Both occurred in June, the peak of the crab season in hotly disputed waters around the maritime border zone.
The season is more than incidental, because fishing fleets from either side can claim infringements on sovereignty and trigger military action. The crowded sea can also make the fishermen hostages in a military face-off.
As tensions now escalate all-round, fighting can easily acquire a momentum of its own.
Yet paradoxically, the current scenario is least likely to see a clash if North Korea can help it. This is primarily because the state under an ailing Kim Jong-il is at its weakest.
Regardless of Kim's mental condition at any time, the military is neither senseless nor suicidal particularly given his physical state at this time. The military can be quite happy to part company with Kim once he is about to part company with this world.
The Korean People's Army is currently grounded in some basic realities. One is that it cannot survive anything more than another skirmish with any combination of foreign powers, and another is that once Kim is gone, all options are possible and negotiable.
Given an unlikely civilian successor, least of all from any of Kim's three sons, the army has figured more prominently in the impending power succession. Yet any general may not last long as successor, ironically because of the Kim family's inter-generational personality cult.
Bluster for domestic audience
Meanwhile the government's bluster effectively confirms the hollowness of the state. It speaks to a domestic audience in evoking political loyalty and national pride, and even the posturing to a foreign gallery is a play to the domestic audience.
Pyongyan's description of its missile tests as "self-defence measures" gives a clue to its real position. It has become a thorn in its neighbours' side in hopes that a thorny creature is less likely to be picked on by other powers.
At worst, the recent missile displays had been product testing for foreign markets. Proliferation of missile technology may justify sanctions, but not a hot war.
North Korean officials today are likely to walk sideways away from direct confrontation. The question of escalation then hangs on how crabby South Korea, Japan and the United States choose to be in reacting to Pyongyang.
If Seoul harbours a sense of wounded pride, it may overreact and help trigger an unnecessary confrontation. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak can be a right-wing ideologue more aggressive towards the North than his predecessors.
Tokyo may take its cue from Seoul, since Koreans are supposed to know other Koreans better. A conservative Prime Minister Taro Aso seems only too ready to concur with any hardline anti-Pyongyang stand Lee might offer.
Washington therefore needs to be careful not to trip over any such gaffe and fall into another quagmire.
There are essentially three ways to play the situation with a boisterous North Korea.
One is to ignore its tantrums and carry on as before. However, that might cause it to display more brinkmanship that can take it over the brink.
The second way is to overreact, and give Pyongyang every reason to fight even when that goes against its own better judgment.
The third option is the middle way of playing along, feigning disgust and taking appropriate if predictable action like sanctions. All of this would be within the provisions of international law, and none of it would be unexpected by Pyongyang.
This is the most realistic option for individual countries and the UN Security Council.
Kim's terminal condition reflects that of the state under him. The task of responsible governments and international institutions is to avoid a needless conflagration, while preparing for a peaceful transition including a controlled implosion.
Pyongyang's current rhetoric includes the declaration that the truce of the Korean War is already dead. Former South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun, who signed a comprehensive agreement with Kim in 2007, died a week ago.
It is now up to the international community to emphasise life, rather than risk more death and destruction.