If North Korea soon tests another missile or even, as some reports suggest, a fourth nuclear device, it will be a sign of regime weakness and clumsiness, not strength and cunning. Pyongyang may be able to stage the ultimate festivals of synchronised human movement, but under Kim Jong-un it is losing its touch at choreographing a crisis.
A Musudan missile or nuclear test would of course have its own negative implications for regional and global security. But importantly, it would not amount to an immediate provocation to armed conflict.
That would make a test a kind of face-saver for the North Korean leadership after weeks of hysterical war talk. Perversely, it could help ease the risk of impending conflict. But another missile or bomb test would also deepen China's newfound exasperation with its errant 'ally', potentially ending China's policy of tolerance.
I hasten to add that I don't think any outsider really knows what's going on in North Korean strategic calculations, if indeed calculations they are. And of course it would be a further failure for non-proliferation diplomacy and in that sense a win for Pyongyang if the regime gets to test yet more prohibited weapons in defiance of the UN. But even if a missile is launched or a bomb tested on Kim Il-sung's birthday this 15 April, it's hard to imagine that everything we have witnessed towards that point has simply been about fulfilling some intricate North Korean game plan.
Instead, much of what has happened seems like an improvised stream of belligerent words and destabilising deeds. If there was a plan, it may have undergone some desperate changes, which suggests how rattled the regime may be by the degree of international – including Chinese – opposition to its actions and the unexpected starkness of America's deterrent signaling.
It's hard to make sense of the sequence of threats. One day North Korea is calling for all-out nuclear war, yet a day or two latter it suddenly mutes the hysteria to the prosaic level of obstructing South Korean workers and restarting the Yongbyon reactor. Then, as an afterthought, comes a new scare tactic in the shape of supposed concern for foreign diplomats' safety. Next it shuts its main economic link to South Korea by withdrawing its own workers from the Kaesong joint industrial zone, which challenges any notion that the belligerence is in part a show to entrench a new breed of economic reformers within North Korea by affirming its security credentials.
Now the North Korean leadership needs to find some kind of face-saving spectacle before it can declare victory. Only, the regime doesn't want that to be an actual war, which it knows would be suicide.
Of course there are still risks of miscalculation which could lead to conflict, although recent US signals of restraint make that less likely. We are not out of the woods yet. But even if this ever was really a war crisis – and I suggested last week that perhaps it wasn't – the highest point of risk has passed.
Still, there will be plenty of lessons to be learned from this tense episode. One is about the insecurity and strategic unsteadiness of the Kim Jong-un regime. His coercive diplomacy seems to be a caricature of his father's and grandfather's (if such a thing is possible) and even more dangerous because of it. It is hard to see how young Kim could have done more to end China's policy of tolerating his country's perilous behaviour, and Xi Jinping is not amused. This cannot but harm North Korea's interests in the longer term.
Another lesson may prove to be about how hard it is for America to reassure its Asian allies without goading an adversary into war. The US military may well have been following a playbook of graduated signals of resolve, but at some point last week the balance may have begun to tip too far – the cost in terms of destabilisation and threat began to outweigh the benefits in terms of stability and reassurance. Deterrence still has a place in 21st century Asia, but it is getting much more complicated.
Photo by Flickr user Joseph A Ferris III.