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Published: Wednesday, 2/13/2013

North Korean test

North Korea fired off its third nuclear test Tuesday, challenging the world’s patience with another provocative act.

This device was smaller and lighter than ones used in the previous two tests. The troublesome country, under its leader Kim Jong Un, seeks the capacity to fire a nuclear warhead farther — perhaps to the United States.

North Korea may have annoyed China sufficiently to prompt a strong reaction. China’s new president, Xi Jinping, could see the test as a way for North Korea to measure the length of the leash Beijing keeps it on. Because of its desperate poverty, North Korea depends on Chinese fuel and food.

China condemned North Korea’s action, but has not exerted strong pressure. Most constructively, China has called on North Korea to renew its suspended contacts with the six-party group — the United States, Japan, Russia, South Korea, China, and North Korea — that has provided a forum for discussing Pyongyang’s nuclear program and other subjects.

To discourage North Korea’s growing nuclear capacity, the United Nations Security Council has applied economic sanctions. The most recent penalties came in response to a satellite launch by North Korea last December.

Because Mr. Kim has stated that an improved economy is his top priority, the sanctions are biting hard. But Pyongyang said Tuesday’s underground test was a response to the recently increased sanctions — suggesting a depressingly cyclical process.

The best outcome would be an early return to the six-party talks, with China leading the way. China’s new president probably does not want his reputation tarnished by a demonstration of North Korean recalcitrance, and likely would welcome a diplomatic triumph early in his tenure.

It is a long way from North Korea to the United States, and the Asian country’s achievements in long-distance warhead delivery technology have been decidedly unimpressive. Still, it is in Washington’s interest to start talking again.

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