-Analysis-

As Kim Jong-un again edges the world closer to an unthinkable nuclear showdown, the tribulations of a humble music store owner in Berlin may help explain why it's so hard to figure out what to do with North Korea.

German daily Die Welt spoke last week with Andreas Schmucker about a court case pending against him after he sold a flute and a clarinet to three North Korean tourists in 2015. Within a matter of days, German authorities had informed him that he had violated a European Union trade sanction against North Korea that forbids the sale of luxury goods, including musical instruments. The penalty is up to five years in jail.

Five years for a clarinet seems a little extreme, though Schmucker — who was unaware of the EU embargo on musical instrument sales — almost certainly won't serve any time. But what is no less relevant from this tale is the reality that three citizens of the so-called "hermit kingdom" were touring the streets of Berlin.

Is Kim Jong-un a veritable madman or just a skilled poker player?

No, the Pyongyang puzzle is not easy to solve. The sound heard early this morning by residents of Hokkaido, Japan, was of missile sirens, not music. North Korea had successfully launched a missile over the northern island. Although this is the third time in recent history that Pyongyang has fired a missile over their neighbor, the other two times — in 1998 and 2009 — were satellite launch vehicles. This time, the missile appears to be a Hwasong-12, a newly developed intermediate range ballistic missile.

The world reacted quickly. South Korea immediately ordered a live bombing exercise, in a show of "overwhelming" military force. Japan called on the U.S. to increase pressure on North Korea, calling the missile an "unprecedented threat." Experts urged the U.S. government to forget diplomatic talks and crank up the sanctions. While an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting was called, U.S. President Donald Trump — who had responded with incendiary threats after Pyongyang's previous missile tests — released a more nuanced statement early Tuesday.

When it comes to North Korea, the world seems at a loss. Is Kim Jong-un a veritable madman or just a skilled poker player? Should Trump really prepare to unleash "fire and fury" or open up secret back-channel talks? Tighter sanctions or more clarinet shoppers in Berlin?


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