As though Asia did not have problems enough, North Korea's mercurial young leader has added his share - and a hefty one at that - by declaring the testing of an atomic device. The fourth in a series of nuclear tests that seem to come with tedious regularity every three years or so, this one has drawn particular notice because of its claim, received with widespread scepticism, that this was a miniaturised hydrogen bomb. Regardless of whether the boast is true or just another one of those dreams Mr Kim Jong Un feeds his people, it nevertheless signifies a lurch towards an altogether dangerous new path for East Asia, more so because the United States, Japan and South Korea have all said that they had no prior inkling of the test blast.
The world has reacted understandably with horror and condemnation at this wanton breach of United Nations Security Council Resolutions. South Korea, a treaty ally of the US that has steadfastly desisted from developing nuclear weapons and stands for the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, is faced with an altogether new situation. So, too, Japan, which is only a few more minutes away for one of those missiles that the North tests regularly, aside from being the only nation in history to have suffered a nuclear attack. Singapore has expressed "grave concern".
Even China, the North's ally, has been critical of the tests although it has fallen silent lately, despite entreaties by South Korean President Park Geun Hye for a more robust stand by Beijing.
What of Mr Kim, who seems to be playing to old rules inherited from his father and grandfather? A concatenation of events shows that not all is going well for his regime. The execution of a powerful relative last year suggests discord within the family. The death of Mr Kim Yang Gon, a "close comrade", in a purported road accident six days before the nuclear test remains an unexplained factor. Externally, Chinese President Xi Jinping has shown a marked distaste for the young Kim, ignoring him while meeting Ms Park of South Korea no fewer than six times. Increasingly, the world is staring at not just an isolated nation but one governed by an isolated figure.
The kindest view of the blast, therefore, is that it was an attempt to attract Washington's attention and convince it to open meaningful talks with Pyongyang on the lines of its deal with Iran. Mr Kim may also be playing to hardliners within the regime and trying to consolidate his position ahead of a Workers' Party Congress this summer.
Be that as it may, his actions cannot go unpunished because they could destabilise an entire region. Seoul has asked for stringent new UN sanctions. The demand is entirely justified. Bejing must not only endorse them in the Security Council, but also help implement the sanctions, even if they risk causing a regime change in Pyongyang, which, for now, seems unlikely.
This article was first published on January 19, 2016.
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