When Kim Jong-un became North Korea's leader after his father's sudden death last year, the West responded with the wariness that naturally attends unexpected events in closed countries. But there was a flicker of hope, too – hope that a new leader, from a new generation, who had, it was reported, studied abroad, might abandon the paranoia, dismantle the secrecy and allow North Korea to take its place in the modern world.
Some early signs were encouraging. The new Mr Kim showed a friendlier face, at least to the cameras. The power struggle some had forecast did not materialise, as the new leader smoothly took the chairmanship of the military commission and shuffled the top brass. A wife was introduced, and a former family cook told a positive tale in Japan.
But in April, North Korea conducted a long-range missile test – the very fact of which conveyed a negative message abroad, even though the test itself failed. Now this week's successful test, while cause for rejoicing in Pyongyang, has injected a disturbing element of uncertainty in an already unstable region.
Whether the prime purpose was to test a three-stage rocket or, as North Korea insists, to launch a weather satellite hardly matters. Pyongyang already has a nuclear capability and the missile technology is interchangeable. Nor is the timing likely to have been coincidental – just before both the anniversary of Kim Jong-il's death and South Korea's presidential election next week. No wonder North Korea's neighbours, including China, evinced trepidation, as did many others further afield.
One response would be, as suggested by Beijing, to revive the moribund six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear programme, if only to re-establish a regular channel of communication. But the prime responsibility must now be on Pyongyang to demonstrate that its intentions are peaceful – if that is what they are. Kim Jong-un raised hopes that he could be a North Korean leader of a different and more positive stamp. The missile test may have boosted his authority at home, but it has raised serious doubts about his good faith abroad.
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