While the country's trading of artillery shells with its southern neighbour yesterday is cause for alarm and condemnation, it should not serve as an excuse to be cowed by the regime¿s bluster or to abandon efforts to peacefully contain its nuclear ambitions.
Pyongyang's predictable fit
Provocations from Pyongyang are as old as hermetic North Korea itself. While the country's trading of artillery shells with its southern neighbour yesterday is cause for alarm and condemnation, it should not serve as an excuse to be cowed by the regime's bluster or to abandon efforts to peacefully contain its nuclear ambitions.
Too much is at stake to take North Korea's bait.
Like most aspects of Kim Jong-il's foreign policy, the timing of this latest taunt - the firing of shells at a South Korean island near the nations' disputed sea border, killing two and injuring more than a dozen - fits a pattern. So often when talks are in the air, the repressive government launches a show of its military might.
The resumption of six-party talks was intended to help defuse this crisis. Yet these efforts, convened in 2003 to walk Mr Kim down from the nuclear ledge, are again in jeopardy. At the weekend, an American scientist reported that North Korea was operating a "stunning" new uranium enrichment plant near its main Yongbyon atomic complex. The revelation has already prompted the US envoy Stephen Bosworth to call off planned talks until North Korea halts its programme. As a White House spokesman put it, the US won't talk "simply for the sake of talking".
Such a response is understandable, but ultimately unhelpful. China, seen as too cosy with its regional trading partner, is eager to return to the negotiating table. North Korea could certainly use the aid that the five members of the conference are looking to deliver in exchange for a nuclear hiatus. But only a new round of US-led diplomacy, and possibly tougher sanctions backed by China, will make this assistance possible.
There is a sense that North Korean sabre rattling may be more a cry for economic relief than a desire to return to war. Equally plausible is the belief that aggressive acts are intended for a domestic audience, meant to bolster the bona fides of Mr Kim's son, who has been named his successor. Finally, some see the North's acts as an attempt to gain leverage ahead of anticipated discussions, whenever they may occur.
Whatever the truth may be, there is much at stake in how the world - and most importantly the US and China - respond to the petulant antics of an unpredictable nuclear power.