PANIC, pause; panic, pause: that seems to be the world's reaction to the increasingly unstable behaviour of North Korea.

The latest outburst is no different.

Ever since President Kim Jong-un came to power a year ago the country has been in a constant state of tension due largely to its reckless policies. As well as defying international disapproval by continuing the development of nuclear technology and testing ballistic missiles, Kim has spent hugely on his armed forces at a time when his country's economy is in serious disrepair.

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All this has alarmed his regional neighbours, especially South Korea and Japan, and has led the US to counter the threat of aggression by deploying additional armed forces to south-east Asia. However, despite Kim's increasingly bellicose rhetoric, an immediate outbreak of hostilities is unlikely for the very good reason that any war would be a prelude to Kim's demise as North Korean leader. That being said, it should never be forgotten that the US went to war against Iraq 10 years ago on a much flimsier pretext: like Saddam Hussein, Kim is an erratic autocrat, but unlike him he really does possess nuclear weapons.

Clearly, this state of affairs cannot continue. Not only is it an unsettling diversion, at a time when the world has more serious issues to consider in Syria and elsewhere, but there is always a danger that one day Kim will carry out his threats.

Using force is not an option as it could spark a wider conflagration, but the time may have come to exert serious economic pressure against North Korea. Here, China has a role to play. It is the only player in the region with sufficient clout.