McCain: "Serious" threat of accidental war with North Korea

Warning that an accidental war could break out on the Korean peninsula, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Sunday on "Face the Nation" that news that North Korea is expected to go ahead with a missile launch signals "a catastrophe of enormous proportions."

In anticipation of an missile launch expected around April 10, South Korea's Navy has moved destroyers with interceptor missiles into position to counter any incoming fire, CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan said on the program, and Japan reportedly has plans to do the same. McCain said the ambiguous intentions of North Korea's new young leader Kim Jong Un could trigger war.

"I don't know what kind of game this young man is playing - it is obviously brinksmanship," said the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee. "More than once, wars have started by accident. This is a very serious situation."

If a war did break out, McCain said, "have no doubt about it: South Korea would win; we would win if there was an all-out conflict. ... We've seen the cycle over and over and over again for last 20 or 30 years. [North Korea] confronts. There's crisis. Then we offer them incentives - food, money. While meanwhile, the most repressive and oppressive regime on Earth continues to function."

McCain said what happens next will depend largely on China, whose relationship with North Korea, a senior official tells CBS News, is at a historic low.

"China can cut off their economy if they want to," McCain said. "Chinese behavior has been very disappointing, whether it be on cyber security, whether it be on confrontation on the South China Sea, or whether it be their failure to rein in what could be a catastrophic situation."

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Clinton-era Secretary of State Madeleine Albright agreed that China holds the key that will either unlock a war or keep the regional tensions at bay.

"The Chinese hold a lot of the cards here," Schumer said, appearing with McCain. "They're by nature cautious, but they're carrying it to an extreme. It's about time they stepped up to the plate and put a little pressure on this North Korean regime."

Albright, who visited North Korea in 2000, said America's task at hand is to persuade China that "they don't need to be afraid of a denuclearized Korean peninsula."

"They can't want to have a nuclear power on their southern border," she said of China. "They certainly don't want the refugees. I think this may sound difficult to do but necessary - is to persuade them that the North Koreans are not the buffer for them that they think it is; that [South Korea and the United States], because we are in an alliance, have no hostile intent there."

Albright echoed McCain's observation that North Korea's history shows a pattern of threats. And while the United States "should not panic" this time around, she said, she lauded "prudent defensive measures" by President Obama and his administration: Following Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's decision to delay an intercontinental ballistic missile test, Gen. James Thurman - the top U.S. military commander in South Korea - canceled a trip to Washington to testify before Congress.

"I think primarily this is about Kim Jong Un trying to establish his position internally: A lot of this is domestically motivated in terms of whether he's in charge of, or the military is in charge, or the people around him are in charge, and I think we have to see it from a domestic political perspective," she said. "We are doing both defensive aspects and also diplomatic, so I think we're handling this the right way."

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    Lindsey Boerma is senior video producer for CBSNews.com.

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