The Straits Times says

Testing times as N. Korea goes ballistic

It gave the world cause for concern when North Korea test-fired its largest and most lethal missile to date, after a 10-week lull. It splashed down about 1,000km from its launch site, in Japan's exclusive economic zone. This was Pyongyang's 16th test since February. North Korea has already blasted 23 missiles this year, an astonishing pace by any measure. Four missiles were fired simultaneously on a single day in March. What makes the latest test particularly worrisome is that if the missile's trajectory had been lowered, its flight path could have covered a substantial part of the continental United States. Make no mistake. Even without a lethal payload, the projectile carried a sharp message to Washington: be afraid.

And whether threatening a neighbour or distant power, North Korea's aim of putting its arsenal through its paces, is that it wants to be taken seriously. A military programme, such as the one it is swiftly pursuing, never stops with a single test of either bomb or delivery vehicle. Weapons builders need to know that missile shields will withstand the heat of re-entering the earth's atmosphere and that missiles will land with reasonable accuracy. Hence the insistence on testing missiles of varying levels of endurance, and explosives of multiple strengths. Once the North Korean programme began, there was a certain inevitability that it would progress to its conclusion. This is the dark prospect facing the world should another rogue state decide to follow suit.

What now? Pyongyang indicated that it is satisfied it now has a sufficient range of weapons and delivery mechanisms to deter the mightiest. In short, it believes it is a de facto nuclear power. US President Donald Trump, who led the expected chorus of global condemnation over the test, said the US will "take care of it".

In reality, aside from further tightening of the sanctions noose around Pyongyang, firmer steps to chain North Korea's nuclear ambitions are fraught with difficulties. Certainly, a pre-emptive attack makes little sense since the North will rain unthinkable horror not only on its southern sibling, but perhaps Japan as well.

That narrows the options available. But to let North Korean leader Kim Jong Un go unpunished would only be to pardon the outrage perpetrated by this 33-year-old nuclear upstart. Since an attack is unthinkable, at least under current circumstances, further isolation of the regime and cutting of all economic ties must be weighed.

Eventually though, the US, Japan and South Korea will need to find a way to talk with Mr Kim. It can only be hoped that his perceived armour of deterrence will lead to a saner path. Instead of edging remorselessly towards a grave crisis, he should hold a frank and coherent discussion with all the major parties on ways to achieve a durable peace on the Korean peninsula.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 02, 2017, with the headline 'Testing times as N. Korea goes ballistic'. Print Edition | Subscribe