It must be presumed that the latest dire rhetoric from North Korea, coupled with the live-fire military drills by the South close to the border, do not presage the Christmas present the world needs least: a new hot war on the Korean peninsula. The exercises by South Korea's forces are the largest ordered by the Seoul government this year, and follow the North's shelling of a South Korean island last month that killed two civilians. The South's understandable show of force in turn has drawn a warning – shrill even by Pyongyang's standards – that the Communist regime was ready to use nuclear weapons in a "sacred war of justice" against this "grave military provocation". The situation remains "highly complicated", the Chinese government has noted, in what must be a contender for diplomatic understatement of the year.
One of those "complications" is the delicate succession underway in the North, from the sickly Kim Jung-Il to his youngest son, Kim Jung-Un. Like most political developments in Pyongyang, the transition is shrouded in mystery. But the repeated aggressions by the North, stretching back to last March's sinking of a South Korean warship, fit in with a pattern of creating an external threat to rally the country in support of the regime.
Another "complication" is Pyongyang's craving for attention, which may have been only partially satisfied by this week's visit by Bill Richardson, the veteran US troubleshooter. Mr Richardson stressed that he is not an official envoy of the Obama administration – in other words, that his trip did not signify a new readiness by Washington to grant the North a resumption of the long-stalled six-nation talks on Pyongyang's nuclear programme.
Rightly, the US argues that such a move, without concrete prior steps from the North, would merely reward the latter for its bad behaviour. That behaviour grew worse in November with the revelation that North Korea has a functioning uranium enrichment facility, offering a separate path to nuclear weapons. The comfort is that unless the Pyongyang regime has a death wish, a full-scale new Korean war would serve no one's interest.