North Korea’s latest nuclear test certainly raises the danger threshold; whether it could also provide cover for managing this escalating crisis remains to be seen.
The ballistic missile tested by North Korea on Nov. 28 flew higher than ever, and the government said its estimated range of more than 8,000 miles put the entire mainland United States in the crosshairs. That trajectory is open to dispute; the North could have fired the intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwason-15, with a light or no actual payload. Still, it flew higher and longer than a Hwason version the North tested in July. Experts are rightly worried about the resumption of Pyongyang’s rapid testing pace and its apparent ability to boost its military reach.
With the launch, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared, the North had achieved its goal of becoming a "rocket power." That, too, is not clear; the North still has not shown it has a warhead capable of surviving the intensity of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. Still, with an arsenal of nuclear weapons and a commitment to continue testing — even in the face of harsh economic sanctions — the North remains a serious and unpredictable destabilizing force on the international stage.
Pyongyang’s declaration, though, that it had achieved something of national ambition might create an environment to wind down the threat. There is no serious sign that President Donald Trump is prepared to accommodate a nuclear North; he escalated the rhetoric again after the test, denigrating Kim as "Little Rocket Man" and "a sick puppy." The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, continued the war of words. But the test might create some space for Kim to take a breath and for China, which has some leverage over the North, to explore grounds for trading off a testing moratorium in exchange for a loosening of sanctions.
Such an agreement seems farfetched in the current climate, but it could lead to the creation, at least, of confidence-building steps to manage the crisis. Like it or not, Kim has been consistent about the North’s ambitions to be treated as a nuclear power. The days of bombast from the West are over. The task now is to limit the North’s nuclear capabilities, and in the shorter-term, to create a mechanism for keeping North Korea and the United States from slipping accidentally into war.
Both sides have unrealistic expectations, and the threats and name-calling from both leaders have contributed to a dangerous level of suspicion and paranoia. It’s time for the administration to ratchet down the rhetoric and to send signals through China that a diplomatic solution is the only pragmatic one. That would allow the United States to retake the high moral ground and — more practically — to send a signal to the North about America’s intentions.