When Kim Jong-un took his father’s place as “supreme leader” of North Korea there was some hope that the new boy-dictator might open up his aggressive, isolated and often starving state. Alas, barely more than 12 months later – after one satellite launch, one rocket test and, now, an underground nuclear explosion – such optimism is less credible than ever. Even allowing for a new leader’s need to consolidate power at home, the case for Mr Kim as a budding reformer is becoming impossible to make.
In technical terms, this week’s nuclear test – the country’s third – is the most concerning yet. If the technology has indeed been miniaturised, as Pyongyang claims, the possibility it might fit onto the missile launched successfully in December cannot be discounted. Hardly less discouraging is the belligerent brinkmanship so reminiscent of Mr Kim’s father. With new leaders in the US and China, and a president-elect about to take office in South Korea, the younger Mr Kim has chosen his moment to grab the global limelight carefully.
What now? The UN Security Council met to discuss the international response. But it is hard to see what more options are available, given the extensive sanctions already in place. Threats of “further isolation” from, among others, William Hague will certainly weigh little. After all, without a nuclear programme, Mr Kim might no longer be isolated, but he would also be ignored.
The only card not yet played is in the hands of China. And there are signs of increasing frustration from North Korea’s most significant ally. Having warned Pyongyang off further nuclear tests, Beijing took the rare move of calling in North Korea’s ambassador to express “strong dissatisfaction”. That is not enough. China must act on its threat to “reduce assistance”, by cutting back oil shipments, say. Only then will Mr Kim’s attempts to strut the world stage be checked. The latest provocation is, then, best understood as a test for Xi Jinping. The Chinese Premier must not let it pass.