North Korea now has not only a crude nuclear weapon but technology that could be developed into a delivery system for a nuclear warhead. That is far from posing an imminent threat. But the successful launch on Wednesday of a small communications satellite, seen as a thinly disguised missile test has, understandably, provoked a wave of condemnation and alarm among the almost friendless hermit state's neighbours. It violates UN Security Council resolutions banning North Korea from developing ballistic missile and nuclear technology, and is likely to trigger action threatened after a failed attempt last April. Council members have already expressed strong condemnation.
Even Beijing, Pyongyang's only major ally, felt compelled to issue swiftly a rare note of concern and urge compliance with UN resolutions. Informal discussions have begun on expanded UN sanctions, which could include blacklisting more North Korean entities, banning travel by officials and freezing their assets. A lot depends on the way China and Russia vote, given that China has called for caution and moderation to avoid an escalation that could destabilise the Korean peninsula.
The launch followed a familiar pattern, with Washington appealing to Beijing to use its influence with Pyongyang to bring about a change of heart. The outcome is a reminder that Beijing has limited sway with the North Koreans.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has completed a project begun under the rule of his late father and consolidated his position with the powerful military, which has undergone a shake-up since he took over a year ago. It strengthens his bargaining position for concessions in return for halting nuclear and missile development. This may be a more positive climate for hopes that North Korea would change its spots with a change of leadership and engage more constructively with the outside world. It is time for China, leader of the six-nation talks on nuclear disarmament of North Korea, to persuade its friend to return to the negotiating table.