North Korea's latest affront to the world, what may have been an underground nuclear test, seems to have rattled the nerves of the administration of President Barack Obama.
It appears that the Pyongyang regime may have set off an underground explosion on Monday in an area near its border with China. Given the blast's size and the fact that North Korea's nuclear program is the signature of the government of President Kim Jong Il, this act seems to be another provocative example of North Korea's defiance of world opinion, United Nations resolutions and international efforts to rein it in.
The underground test comes only weeks after North Korea undertook what it called a satellite launch but which appears in fact to have been a test-fire of a new longer-range rocket. Whatever it was, all three stages of it splashed into the Pacific Ocean.
The years-long six-party negotiating effort, involving China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States, remains suspended. Nor has the Obama administration taken any particular steps to try to engage North Korea on the bilateral level. This is in spite of Mr. Obama's having pledged to tackle a number of America's problems that can be attributed to lack of communications with parties concerned, including Cuba, Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and North Korea.
What there is to watch now is the possibility of U.S. and other overreaction to the North Korean action. There might be some temptation on the part of the United States to do so, perhaps seeking to justify the retention of the some 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea in the face of the growing need for them elsewhere. South Korea, with the world's 15th largest economy, is fully capable of defending itself. Mr. Obama will need to find 30,000 more troops to fulfill his pledge to beef up the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan while the slow withdrawal of some 134,000 U.S. troops in Iraq has yet even to begin.
North Korea possesses no weapons capable of reaching the United States. The response to Monday's blast from the countries within its range -- Japan, Russia and South Korea -- has so far been relatively restrained. While China and Russia have condemned the test, it is not certain that they would agree to tougher U.N. Security Council measures aimed at North Korea. There is some speculation that the underground blast, coming on the heels of the rocket firing, is in fact a piece of a process of succession under way in North Korea, as ailing leader Kim Jong Il steps aside in favor of someone, perhaps his son Kim Jong Un fronting for North Korea's military leaders.
The best posture for the United States at present, in spite of sometimes rabid calls for a military response, is watchful restraint. There is no direct threat to our country in North Korea's actions; the tune in terms of the response to Monday's blast should be called by the country's immediate neighbors, not America.