On the face if it, the launch of a medium-range ballistic missile by North Korea on Sunday is yet another reckless provocation by its leader Kim Jong-un. Last year, the Kim regime tested at least a dozen missiles and even vowed to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile that could hit the U.S. Each time the tests have triggered angry and anxious responses from world leaders, particularly from Japan, South Korea and the U.S. The UN Security Council has already imposed a host of sanctions on the country. But neither sanctions nor warnings issued by other powers have had any impact on North Korea’s bellicose behaviour. There is a method in Pyongyang’s madness; a hidden pattern behind the aggressive posturing and frequent violation of international law. The latest missile test, the first after Donald Trump became the U.S. President, comes at a time when he was hosting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This is not the first time North Korea is challenging a new U.S. President with a weapons test. In 2009, a few months after Barack Obama took office, Pyongyang conducted an underground nuclear blast. Mr. Obama saw it as a provocation and responded with the tightening of international sanctions on the country.
Mr. Obama’s hardline approach, however, did little to alter North Korea’s aggressive weapons programme. Mr. Trump is now facing his Obama moment. North Korea was not one of his top priority areas. But it has now stormed into the President’s first set of foreign policy challenges. His immediate reaction was marked by measured restraint, in sharp contrast to his response to the recent missile test by Iran, which has been “put on notice” by his administration. That may be because Mr. Trump knows that the stakes are higher as North Korea is a nuclear power. As in the case of his predecessors, he doesn’t have many options to address the Pyongyang challenge. Sanctions are already in place. The regime is already isolated. War is out of the question as North Korea could directly target America’s allies in East Asia with nuclear weapons. One less explored and apparently feasible idea is to get China, which still has some leverage over Pyongyang, on board and engage the Kim regime diplomatically, without removing the sanctions. However erratic a regime’s actions may seem, the first lesson in international diplomacy is to deal with nation states as rational actors. Sanctions are effective only when they are used in carrot-and-stick mode. Responding to North Korea’s provocative posturing with counter-provocations will yield hardly any diplomatic dividend.