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The people of Japan were shocked early Tuesday morning when they awoke to government warnings alerting them to take cover. North Korea had fired an intermediate-range ballistic missile across the northern part of Japan, they were told.

This latest provocation is maddening. Kim Jong-un, North Korea's leader, keeps testing vehicles for delivering nuclear weapons, in spite of United Nations sanctions and threats from the United States. The missile that went over Japan, he says, is just the beginning of a "Pacific operation." More to come, in other words.

U.S. President Donald Trump responded with a tweet on Wednesday saying, "Talking is not the answer!" If it was meant to be scary, it didn't work. His defence secretary, Jim Mattis, said shortly afterward that "we're never out of diplomatic solutions."

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Explainer: North Korean missile program: What's happened so far, and what could happen next

The problem is, though, that both men are right. North Korea does not appear to be much interested in talk; it wants the world to know, sanctions be damned, that it is getting close to being able to fire nukes across the Pacific.

But talk is going to have to be part of any solution. Either the U.S. continues trying diplomacy, bolstered by showy military exercises, in an effort to contain Mr. Kim's ambitions, or it launches a risky preemptive strike that would lead to all-out war and likely kill millions of people on the Korean peninsula.

Between these two options, the first one is obviously preferable. The latter verges on the unimaginable.

The general consensus is that Mr. Kim's goal is defensive, with a nuclear arsenal serving as a guarantee against Washington overthrowing his regime.

At the same time, however, any nuclear aggression on his part would lead to his regime's absolutely assured annihilation. The hope is that a nuclear-armed Mr. Kim, feeling more secure but having more to lose, would become more cautious rather than emboldened.

That, however, is a slim hope. It's why no one wants North Korea to become the newest nuclear-weapon state. But no one has yet come up with a rational solution for preventing it. The world may be wiser to start talking about an outcome that looks increasingly inevitable, absent a willingness on the part of Washington and Seoul to launch a war involving millions of casualties.

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