You don't have to be an area expert to know that the guy running North Korea is a nutcase. It is conventional wisdom that the 'Dear Leader' Kim Jong Il is a few tacos short of a value pack. He wears the glasses and generalissimo outfit that is the uniform of wacko, egomaniacal despots everywhere. Everyone held their breath a couple months back when he made a trip to the hospital after a stroke, praying he would or wouldn't come out alright.
And now the North torpedoes a South Korean military vessel. The results are in and it's pretty clear cut: they did it. So, what happened? I can imagine a scenario in which an ill- or mis-informed North Korean vessel was under the impression or was told that a South Korean vessel had passed into their waters. Maybe it had, maybe it hadn't. It may be that the order came all the way from the 'Dear Leader' or was given by the vessel's commander alone. The point is this: we'll never know. Just like in the Tonkin Gulf that triggered a huge escalation of the Vietnam War over four decades ago.
If you're a crackpot dictator you aren't going to say a mistake was made. You're going to say that it was planned, that we meant to do it, and we're feeling great about it. Case in point: Saddam Hussein. When asked by his FBI interrogator after his capture why didn't he just say they didn't have WMD's and comply, Saddam said that he couldn't. He had to let America and Iran think he had them. He could have saved Iraq and himself a lot of problems, but hey, he's a crackpot dictator. He thought we were bluffing. (By the way, in case you didn't know, they never had WMD's after the first Gulf War.) You cannot count on North Korea acting reasonably in any way, shape, or form to step back from the brink of a civil war with the South that will suck America in as well. Even now that it seems China may step in to wag it's finger at the North, don't expect any sort of public back down from the North.
To be clear, we would defeat North Korea if it came to military action. There should be no doubt about that. The North's soldiers outnumber all soldiers in the South, ours and South Korea's, by something like three to one. However, our first advantage, as always, is that we have superior soldiers. The South's military is no pushover either. We also, as usual, possess the technological advantage. The biggest difference between us and them: our troops are not starving and actually still believe in their country. If we were to go to war with North Korea, we would win because North Koreans will stop fighting once it becomes clear the regime has no control over them anymore. But it would still be an extremely deadly, dirty fight.
The question is: should we? The answer is no. If we give North Korea the space, the opportunity to back down without admitting they screwed up and saving face they'll take it and we can avoid a third war in Asia. As a former soldier, I'm not afraid of a fight, but it has to be worth the lives of many young men and women. Perhaps a time will come to go to war with North Korea: this isn't it. The 'Dear Leader' will suffer from another stroke or some other health problem soon. No man lives forever. We shouldn't sacrifice the lives of our troops or our South Korean allies at the whim of a crackpot dictator. If we give them a way to stand down, they will take it. We should only go to war when it is legitimate, necessary, and justified. Now is not such a time.