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The United States regularly flies U-2 spy planes out of a base near the border that North Korea views as provocative. U.S. and South Korean soldiers frequently conduct patrols along the DMZ, often at night, that bring them into potentially dangerous proximity to their North Korean counterparts.

The three countries’ militaries are at their most active right around this time of year.

Each year North Korea’s 1.2 million troops, most of them based south of Pyongyang, mobilize for their December-to-April training, which is followed by a lull in the spring and summer as they return to the fields to help plant and harvest. After a brief respite following Kim Jong Il’s death in mid-December, the winter training cycle is just reaching its peak.

This is also when the U.S. and South Korea hold their biggest war games. Some 200,000 South Korean and 13,000 U.S. troops are taking part in the annual Foal Eagle maneuvers that began this week and run through April.

North Korean media have slammed the exercises as an “unpardonable infringement on our sovereignty.” On Friday the Supreme Command of the Korean People’s Army expressed outrage over the drills and threatened to wage a “merciless sacred war.”

This year’s Foal Eagle is the first since Kim Jong Un assumed power, so Pyongyang’s reaction is being closely watched for signs of how the world’s youngest commander in chief, believed to be in his late 20s, will lead.

Several U.S. commanders interviewed by the AP said there have been no significant incidents. But they added, that doesn’t mean there won’t be.

“We don’t know what is going to happen in the next month or two months,” said Lt. Col. David Rayman, commander of the 25th Fighter Squadron at Osan Air Base, 60 miles (100 kilometers) from the border. “We are always exercising. We’re training to the worst-case scenario.”

He said his squadron trains in chem gear and gas masks. “We don’t do that in the states. We’re not doing that in Afghanistan. It’s a different war.”

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All sides have good reason to avoid another full-on fight. The 1950-53 war killed at least 4 million people, including civilians and troops from the two Koreas, China, the United States and other United Nations combatants. South Korea’s response to the incidents in 2010 was conspicuously measured, and the tensions gradually eased.

Diplomatic efforts to calm the situation continue. This week North Korea, which is believed to have enough weaponized plutonium for four to eight atomic bombs, agreed to freeze most nuclear activities in exchange for food aid from the United States.

But what if cool heads don’t prevail?

Scenarios for how a war with North Korea could unfold range from frightening, if it stays conventional, to catastrophic, if it goes nuclear.

Bruce Bennett, a northeast Asia strategy expert and senior analyst for the RAND Corp. who has advised the U.S., Japanese and South Korean militaries, said any number of triggers could touch that fight off.

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