The threats from North Korea present a major challenge for U.S. and South Korean leaders. They have warned North Korea that any hostile action will be met with a military response. At the same time, both governments understand that an escalation of the conflict could lead to an all-out war. As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, the situation demands a delicate combination of military and diplomatic maneuvers.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: You might think alarm bells would be sounding in Washington, given the North Korean warnings: war is coming, foreign embassies should be evacuated. But when they talk about North Korea, U.S. officials are sounding like an exasperated parent responding to a child's tantrum. At the White House yesterday, spokesman Jay Carney said the United States would not be surprised if North Korea actually carries out a missile test.

JAY CARNEY: We have seen them launch missiles in the past, and the United Nations Security Council has repeatedly condemned them as violations of the North's obligations under numerous Security Council resolutions, and it would fit their current pattern of bellicose, unhelpful and unconstructive rhetoric and actions.

GJELTEN: If the North Koreans do launch a missile, the United States would have to decide whether or not to shoot it down. On the eve of a launch in 2006, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said U.S. forces would do so only if the missile was headed toward U.S. territory. But after the North Koreans shelled a South Korean military base in 2010, U.S. and South Korean leaders resolved to respond more aggressively to such incidents in the future. They drew up what they called a counter-provocation plan, and this year they knew the plan might be put to a test. The United States and South Korea stage joint military exercises every year around this time and North Korea always gets upset.

This year, there's a new leader in the North determined to make an impression. So the United States and South Korea decided it was important to signal their readiness to respond to hostile action and the exercises included an especially dramatic show of force, including stealth bombers. The reaction from the North has been especially aggressive. General Walter Sharp, until last year the commander of U.S. forces in Korea, says the whole sequence of events shows how challenging it is to deal with all the demands and the contingencies and the risks on the Korean peninsula.

GENERAL WALTER SHARP: That's why there's been a lot of effort over, you know, two and a half years now to build this counter-provocation plan because that's a hard balance of: a strong response, don't escalate.

GJELTEN: But be prepared to go to war. U.S. officials, say the counter-provocation plan and the U.S. show of force send three separate messages: the South Koreans see the U.S. military is standing behind them; the North Koreans find out what they'd face were they to start something; and China sees how high the stakes are and why it may need to rein North Korea in. Here's how the U.S. and South Koreans would react if the North Koreans launched even a limited artillery strike against the south, like what they did in 2010. Instantly, General Sharp says, South Korean troops would fire back.

SHARP: I mean, that is immediate. I mean, literally, as artillery's coming in on you, you want artillery going back to try to take out what's taking you out.

GJELTEN: The idea here: self-defense. If North Korea were then to escalate, Presidents Obama in Washington and Park Geun-hye in the Republic of Korea would decide how to respond.

SHARP: There are options that people have worked and thought through that could very quickly be brought to President Park and President Obama to say, OK, here's what happening, here's what we're seeing and the rest of North Korea, you know, are they coming up on war footing or not type of thing. Here's some options for what you could do.

GJELTEN: That's the escalation scenario, and it leads to all-out war. So, now that the show of force and resolve signals have been sent, it's time for another message: that war should be avoided. Here's State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland, reassuring Americans by reading a statement from the U.S. embassy in the Republic of Korea.

VICTORIA NULAND: We have no specific information to suggest an imminent threat to U.S. citizens or facilities in the ROK. So, the goal there was to be calming, obviously.

GJELTEN: That message to calm down, coming at what seems like an especially dangerous moment, was likely meant to be heard on all sides. A month's worth of messages tailored for an unstable corner of the world. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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