Hopes that North Korea's new, young leader Kim Jong Un might usher in a new era of openness and reform in that erratic, repressive country now seem a distant mirage. It disappeared with North Korea's detonation of a nuclear device underground in February.
Since then, North Korea has issued a string of incendiary remarks, that the armistice accord ending the 1950-53 Korean War "would be completely nullified" and redeclaring a "state of war" with South Korea.
Kim Jong Un's military provocations and amped-up rhetoric come, not coincidentally, at a time when northeast Asia has a host of new leaders. China's new leader, Xi Jinping, came to power in November. South Korea's first woman president, Park Geun-hye, was elected in December. So was Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe.
President Barack Obama also has a new national security team, with Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed at the end of January and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at the end of February.
That's a lot of moving parts, leaving much room for costly miscalculation.
It is tempting to dismiss Kim Jong Un as an irrational, rogue leader. But Philip Yun, who participated in high-level U.S. government negotiations with North Korea between 1998 and 2001 and is the current executive director of Ploughshares Fund in San Francisco, pointed out to me that North Korea's actions of the last three months "are well-gamed out and planned."
The new North Korean leader is testing the other new leaders, he said: "Kim Jong Un and his cabal are probing how the new governments in Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo as well as the U.S.'s just-placed national security team react to steady, increasing pressure from the North."
Yun points out several reasons why he might do this. Kim Jong Un is young (about 30) and, in a Confucian society that respects age, he needs to prove himself.
North Korea always steps up provocations and rhetoric when the United States and South Korea conduct their annual war game scenarios for defending the Korean Peninsula, which this year go from March 1 through the end of this month.
He also is deliberately testing to see if any of the new leaders or others in the international community might recognize North Korea as a de facto nuclear weapons state like India and Pakistan. Fortunately, the international community has stood strongly against this ploy.
But Kim Jong Un's ultimate aim is to test whether the new national security team in the United States is willing to move past the 60-year-old armistice accord to negotiate a peace treaty that gets U.S. troops out of Korea currently 28,500. That remains a nonstarter unless North Korea dismantles its nuclear weapons program.
Some, such as University of Texas, Austin, professor Jeremi Suri in an April 12 column in the New York Times, argue irresponsibly for a pre-emptive strike on North Korea. Before anyone deigns to take that idea seriously, just remember the Bush administration's idea for "a quick, lightning-like operation in Iraq."
Yun's approach is better: "The U.S. must respond firmly, but with care and nuance."
It is doing that. To reassure South Koreans and Japanese allies, the United States has included B-2 and B-52 bombers in the war games going on now. It has positioned Aegis anti-ballistic missile ships near South Korea and Japan. It has moved a missile defense system to Guam.
The U.S. Treasury has stepped up its financial squeeze on banks and companies around the world that do business with North Korea, with the aim of preventing nuclear-related materials from entering or leaving North Korea.
The United States also has made a priority of working with China, which remains North Korea's strongest ally and chief source of food and fuel. Though China previously resisted strong sanctions against North Korea, it voted for a U.S.-backed U.N. resolution to strengthen international sanctions after the February nuclear test. In early April, China's leader Xi Jinping said, "No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains."
Russia, which has a port at Vladivostok, not far from the North Korean border, has not been a big player. But Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he is "worried about the escalation on the Korean Peninsula, because we are neighbors." He urges "everyone to calm down and start to resolve the problems that have piled up for many years there at the negotiating table."
Obama, in an interview aired Tuesday on NBC, emphasized that the immediate U.S. aim is containment so "we can move into a different phase in which they try to work through diplomatically some of these issues."
Kim may be responding. On Wednesday, in what passes for a lull in tensions on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea said: "If the U.S. and the South enemies genuinely want dialogue and negotiation, they should take these steps." The message called for an end to the U.S.-South Korea war games and the latest U.N. sanctions. Those are unrealistic demands, of course, but may be North Korea's way of saying it wants to end the current hostilities. The task of denuclearization remains.
With Kim, like his father and grandfather before him, it appears we're in for a long haul to get beyond periodic provocations and stalemate. The aim of a free, unified Korea remains as distant as it was during the post-World War II partition.