U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Tuesday that if North Korea attacks South Korea, the U.S. would intervene to ensure Pyongyang’s defeat.

His comments come at a time of increased tension in the Korean Peninsula, which led to exchanges of fire over the Demilitarized Zone in the past few weeks. Since then the situation has calmed down, but Carter’s pronouncements are some of the strongest that the U.S. has made on the subject, write Eugene Scott and Barbara Starr for CNN.

U.S. Defense Secretary Warns North Korea Of Certain Defeat

Carter issues strong warning to North Korea

“We need to make sure that the North Koreans always understand that any provocation with them will be dealt with and that they stand no chance of defeating us and our allies in South Korea,” Carter said. He was speaking to U.S. troops around the world via a webcast, and responding to their questions.

“It’s probably the single place on the world — in the world — where war could erupt at the snap of our fingers,” he told them.

Although the U.S. and South Korea have been allies since the Korean War, U.S. officials do not usually make such outspoken comments on the subject of war between Seoul and Pyongyang.

Last week top U.S. military figures looked over plans to defend South Korea against North Korean attacks, in preparation for the sudden start of conflict between the two neighbors.

Threat of conflict constantly bubbling under the surface

Earlier this month it seemed as though conflict was imminent as North Korea began building up and partially mobilizing its army. However war was averted following Monday’s compromise with South Korea, with both sides agreeing to step back from the brink of war.

The situation in the Korean peninsula appears to be continually balanced on a knife edge. The latest flashpoint was related to propaganda broadcasts which South Korea was blasting over the border via loudspeakers.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un issued a specific deadline for the cessation of the broadcasts, which in conjunction with military buildups led to worries about Pyongyang’s intentions.

A deal was later reached for the end of the broadcasts, and tensions have been reduced.

North Korea continues to work on nuclear weapons

North Korea has consistently refused to engage in negotiations designed to halt its nuclear program. Pyongyang already has nuclear weapons, and missile technology which can hit any part of South Korea.

Scientists continue to develop missiles, with the aim of being able to strike the U.S. mainland. Evidence of long-term nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Iran was discovered recently, and despite the recent signing of a deal with Tehran, Pyongyang has definitively ruled out a similar agreement.

Officials appear to be totally committed to the development of nuclear weapons despite the dire state of the North Korean economy. The country is currently suffering a terrible drought which has had a huge impact on agricultural production, further reducing the quality of life of citizens.

Despite widespread hunger, recent defectors from North Korea report that support for Kim Jong-un remains solid. Although it is officially a closed country, a steady stream of desperate souls attempt to cross into South Korea or China in search of a better life.

South Korean propaganda tries to break Kim’s control of information

One reason for continued support for Kim is the stranglehold that the regime holds on information flowing in and out of the country. Ordinary North Koreans have no access to the internet, and the elites that can get online only do so under strict supervision.

South Korea maintains a Reunification Ministry which works to unite Korea, but the Kim regime has become one of the world’s longest-lasting dictatorships. The recent incident related to propaganda broadcasts would have struck a chord with Kim because his continued rule relies on controlling information.

Although Seoul may wish for the downfall of Kim and the reunification of Korea, it cannot push too hard. Pyongyang has very little to lose, and plays off its reputation as an unpredictable rogue actor in the international sphere.

All signs point to a planned missile test to mark the 70th anniversary of the ruling Worker’s Party in October. Analysts have noticed signs of an upgrade to North Korea’s missile launchpad at Sohae, and are worried that the successful testing of a long-range missile could dramatically strengthen North Korea’s hand.

Despite U.S. assurances that it would intervene to guarantee victory for South Korea in the event of a new Korean War, that threat becomes a little riskier if Pyongyang has missiles which could strike the west coast of the United States.