It is easy to dismiss North Korea’s latest outburst as just more attention-seeking bombast. Even as Pyongyang was claiming that its armed forces are in “combat posture”, ready to attack US bases in Hawaii, Guam and even the American mainland, accompanying photographs of military exercises (overseen by a suitably sombre-looking Kim Jong-un) suggest little beyond the most basic hardware.
The youthful Mr Kim’s need to shore up his position, barely more than a year after inheriting one of the world’s nastier dictatorships, explains much. Not only must the new “supreme leader” see off challengers from within North Korea’s perhaps sceptical military; he must also prove to his brutalised, often starving, people that threats from “foreign imperialists” must take precedence over, say, early promises of improved living conditions.
What better than to conduct a nuclear test, and then use the resulting slap on the wrist from the international community as an excuse to ready the troops, tear up the non-aggression pact with Seoul and release incendiary propaganda about, for example, Barack Obama perishing in a nuclear onslaught?
To recognise Mr Kim’s strategy does not remove its sting, though. His regime may not yet have the know-how to launch either an attack on the US or a nuclear assault. But it is pressing ahead with atomic weapons, and it is only one step away from a skirmish with the South.
The situation is a tricky one. Such threats cannot simply be ignored. And yet, the more isolated Pyongyang becomes, the more likely it is to lash out. It is here that China comes in. North Korea has long been an ally, thanks to its position as a buffer against the US-influenced South. But the relationship is rapidly becoming a liability. That Beijing’s patience is wearing thin is evident in its agreement to extra sanctions after last month’s nuclear test. Blunt economics have so far failed to rein in North Korean aggression, however. It is time for China’s new President, Xi Jinping, to talk Mr Kim down.