North Korea fired off its third nuclear test Tuesday, and in the process tested the world's patience with another provocative act.
Even the fact that the device was smaller and lighter than the previous two was not encouraging. The troublesome country, under relatively new leader Kim Jong Un, is seeking the capacity to fire a nuclear warhead farther, some say to the United States.
On the positive side, North Korea may have annoyed China sufficiently to prompt a painful reaction. China's new president, Xi Jinping, may see the test as a way for North Korea to measure the length of the leash it is on with China. Because of its impoverished condition, North Korea is dependent on Chinese fuel and food.
China has joined other nations, including the United States, in condemning North Korea's action, but has not exerted strong pressure. Most constructively, China has called upon North Korea to renew its suspended contacts with the six-party group -- the United States, Japan, Russia, South Korea, China and North Korea -- that in the past had on its agenda Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program as well as other subjects.
There has been a problem in the world's efforts to deal with North Korea's growing nuclear capacity. To discourage it the United Nations Security Council has applied economic sanctions. The most recent penalties came in response to a satellite launch in December. Given that Mr. Kim, believed to be about 29, has stated that an improved economy is now his top priority, the sanctions bite hard. Pyongyang said Tuesday's underground test was a response to the recently increased sanctions, suggesting a depressing cyclical quality to all this.
The best outcome would be an early return to the six-party talks, with China, North Korea's patron, leading the way. China's new president probably does not want his reputation tarnished early by a demonstration of North Korean recalcitrance and would probably welcome a diplomatic triumph at this point in his tenure.
Washington should keep in mind that it is a long way from North Korea to the United States and that the Asian country's achievements in long-distance warhead delivery technology have been decidedly unimpressive.