While Americans were busy enjoying the July Fourth holiday, news broke that North Korea had crossed another military milestone: its first successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. This missile, the kind that could theoretically be tipped with a nuclear warhead, could travel far enough to hit Alaska.
That's pretty worrying in and of itself. But the North Korean crisis is even scarier than you think.
That isn't because the country's supreme leader, 33-year-old Kim Jong Un, is totally irrational — a "crazy fat kid," as Sen. John McCain once termed him. Instead, it's that the impoverished North Korean regime is deeply insecure, so worried about its own survival that it is willing to go to dangerously provocative lengths to scare the United States and South Korea out of any potential attack.
When you combine this insecurity with the opaque nature of the North Korean regime, you have a situation that could easily spiral into outright conflict in the event that one of North Korea's frequent military provocations (like the missile test) goes awry. Given North Korea's massive conventional military and unknown number of nuclear weapons, conflict on the Korean Peninsula would cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives.
That's not to say that war between the US and North Korea is likely, even after the new missile test. It isn't. Rather, it's that the risk of a catastrophic conflict is much higher than anyone should feel comfortable with, arguably more likely than anywhere else in the world.
Here at home, many are preoccupied with the fight against ISIS and, before that, the Iranian nuclear program. North Korea gets far less public attention, but it is a literally existential threat to two of America's closest allies, Japan and South Korea. And it doesn't seem like there's any solution in sight.