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The most recent missile flight over Japanese air space only underlines the notion that North Korea's weapons offensive is a problem that begs for a solution – and for imagination.

A military confrontation has dangers; Pyongyang has nuclear weapons, too. Sanctions seldom work; they are porous and usually hit innocent people rather than decision-makers. China likely won't intervene effectively; its eyes are elsewhere and the status quo suits its leaders. No 21st-century problem needs a deus ex machina as much as the crisis involving North Korea and its deadly weapons program.

With provocations and rhetoric escalating on both sides, tensions are growing worldwide. South Korea is making defensive provisions, Americans are talking about missile-defence schemes, the Japanese – who have foresworn a military for two-thirds of a century – are re-examining their national-security profile. Contemporary news reports show worry is warranted – but history provides some comfort that a resolution may be realizable.

In the meantime, two popular theories are in collision.

The first is the notion, burnished by the Second World War experience with Nazi Germany, that negotiations are a prelude to appeasement and that self-absorbed dictators feast on the weakness of peace-seeking leaders of democracies. Like all readings of history, that lesson has its limits, and they were reached to tragic end in the American experience in Vietnam, where five American presidents, heeding what they considered the teachings of the Munich capitulation of 1938, believed that adventurism if not aggression – in that case a Communist insurgency based in North Vietnam but with the backing of the Soviet Union and China – needed to be blunted by American military involvement.

The second is the notion, burnished by the final president caught in the Vietnam quagmire, Richard Nixon, that the daring card to play is the diplomatic card. And thus the 37th president – elected to the House of Representatives as a hardliner in 1946, promoted to the Senate in 1950 as a fierce opponent to Communism, and catapulted to the vice-presidency in the 1952 election as an unrepentant Cold Warrior – travelled on presidential peace missions to China and the Soviet Union in 1972.

For sometimes it is the unlikely turns in the diplomatic dance that change the foreign-policy whirl.

In the first months of the Nixon administration, White House chief of staff H.R. (Bob) Haldeman told national security adviser Henry Kissinger the President "actually seriously intends to visit China before the end of the second term." The response of Mr. Kissinger, who had not yet become Secretary of State: "Fat chance." Not long after, Mr. Nixon travelled to Romania and became the first American president to visit a Communist country since Franklin Roosevelt's trip to join Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill at a Second World War summit in Yalta in the Soviet Union.

In February, 1972, while Democratic rivals were campaigning for their party's presidential nomination in the snows of New Hampshire, Mr. Nixon travelled to China and, to the great distress of his helpless opponents, was able to offer a toast to the Shanghai Municipal Revolutionary Committee proclaiming, "This was the week that changed the world."

It took an aging anti-Communist and an aging Soviet system to produce detente in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan, whose early presidency was marked by bellicose rhetoric toward the Communists in Moscow and a surge in defence spending, provided an ear to Mikhail Gorbachev.

"We can debate and disagree," Mr. Reagan said, "but there is never a sense of animus when the arguments are over." The two forged the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and set the stage for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty completed in the last days of Mr. Gorbachev's rule. Today, Mr. Reagan is broadly given credit for bringing the Cold War to a conclusion.

The American experience in Cuba has taken a definite and decisive turn since the United States was engaged in the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Long a topic of American political discussion – Americans had their acquisitive eye on the island country to the south almost as long as they had for Canada to the north – the two most important recent developments have been without military action.

In the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, John F. Kennedy was able to force Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to withdraw ballistic missiles from Cuba, only 145 kilometres from the American mainland. The success came from a combination of a naval quarantine and quiet diplomacy, plus a secret agreement to remove American missiles from Italy and Turkey later.

Mr. Kennedy's views evolved dramatically during the 13 days of the October crisis. "The 1930s taught us a clear lesson," he said in his national television address at the beginning of the episode, explaining, "Aggressive conduct, if allowed to grow unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war." As the crisis approached its dramatic denouement, Mr. Kennedy was telling his brother the opposite: "I am not going to push the Russians an inch beyond what is necessary."

A half-century later, president Barack Obama, born 14 months before the onset of the missile crisis, moved toward regularizing relations with Cuba, which had come under Communist rule before he was born. President Donald Trump has indicated he will turn back parts of the Obama initiative, forged with Fidel Castro's brother, but it is incontrovertible that relations between the United States and Cuba have lost their hostile edge.

No one knows how the confrontation between Mr. Trump and Kim Jong-un will proceed in the weeks and months ahead. Perhaps there will be bilateral negotiations, or maybe a regional summit. A third party could intervene diplomatically. Mr. Trump once suggested he might even be willing to meet the North Korean leader.

Months ago, during the presidential transition, Mr. Obama warned his successor that North Korea will be the biggest foreign-policy crisis of his presidency.

So it is. But Washington needs to remember that it is also the biggest crisis of Mr. Kim's leadership, perhaps more defining for the Korean leader than for the American. Diplomatic specialists in North America tend to conceive of this as a challenge that must be handled by the Trump team, but is pre-eminently a challenge for Pyongyang.

It is, to be sure, a test of determination for Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump. But – for both of them – it also is a test of imagination.

North Korea fires a missile over Japan's northern Hokkaido far out into the Pacific Ocean, ratcheting up tensions after Pyongyang's recent test of a powerful nuclear bomb. Jane Lanhee Lee reports.