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Anchored by Jake Tapper, The Lead airs at 4 p.m. ET on CNN.

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April 1st, 2013
06:18 PM ET

If North Korea's rhetoric escalates to war, it would be the last on the Korean peninsula

His people are starving, his economy is a mess, so what is North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's new plan for success? He is declaring all out war with South Korea, talking about beefing up his nuclear arsenal, and calling the United States names, like "boiled pumpkin."

The defense department is calling this nothing more than "war-mongering rhetoric." But National Security officials behind closed doors may think this is something more serious.

If I were representing the administration, said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, I would pass the message privately to China and North Korea "that if this escalates to a war, this will be the last war on the Korean peninsula, because the United States would not stop until all of Korea is unified under the south."

Haass said Kim's war of words is most likely just rhetoric, with "probably a 10% chance that it is not."

That is why B-2 aircraft and U.S. ships are headed to the region, added Haass, to signal North Koreans and the Chinese that the U.S. takes the threats seriously.

The North Korean leader is messing with a superpower, leaking images of his attack plan, and essentially picking on the biggest kid on the playground. Last week on "The Lead with Jake Tapper," former defense secretary William Cohen said any North Korean shelling of South Korea would bring a vigorous response from the U.S., and ultimately lead to the north's destruction.

Kim "is trying to consolidate his position," said Haass. "He has four stars on his shoulder but that doesn't make you a serious general... He's trying to gain attention, gain strength at home."

The problem facing Kim is deciding when he can declare victory, said Haass. Can the young leader get away with rhetoric, or will he need to do something more? If it is the latter, South Korea will retaliate, leading to an escalating situation that would involve the United States.

Echoing something that has been said by several experts, Haass said China needs to step up.

"Probably two-thirds of the fuel and goods transiting in and out of North Korea go across Chinese territory," said Haass. "If suddenly the border guards, and customs officials developed a case of the flu, and the border were shut down for a couple days, I think North Korea would get the message loud and clear."

China is key in this situation.

"What happens in Beijing is at least as important, if not more important right now, than what happens in Pyongyang."

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