As Kim Jong-un ramped up tensions and rhetoric over the last few weeks in an attempt to shake off crippling sanctions and establish his bona fides with North Korea’s military clique, observers wondered how the new hereditary dictator could back down without starting an actual war.  The answer may come soon from a missile pad.  Officials in the US and South Korea are “highly confident” that North Korea will test one or possibly two of its medium-range Musadan missiles — in the direction of Japan:

U.S. defense officials are “highly confident” that North Korea is planing the imminent launch of a medium-range missile, echoing warnings from South Korea that the probability of Pyongyang carrying out its threat is “very high”.

Pentagon officials believe the rogue Communist state is preparing to fire one, if not two, Musadan missiles from its east coast. …

“According to intelligence obtained by our side and the U.S., the possibility of a missile launch by North Korea is very high,” South Korea’s Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se told a parliamentary hearing in Seoul, according to Reuters.

Musudan missiles could be launched “at any time from now,” he said.

U.S. defense chiefs have echoed that belief, acknowledging that North Korea has placed a Musadan missile – which has a range of roughly 1,800 to 2,100 miles, with a minimum range of about 400 miles – on its east coast.

The US Navy can respond “immediately” to any missile launch, the Senate was informed this week.  The question will be whether we want to do so.  If Kim is simply providing a fireworks show as an endgame to his brinksmanship, it might be better to let it fly, as long as it won’t hit anything but water. On the other hand, a demonstration of our missile defense system might not be a bad idea either, if for no other reason than to remind Kim and his military leaders that they don’t hold as many cards in their hand as they think.

NBC also reports that China has taken another step to remind North Korea of the same thing:

Meanwhile, Chinese authorities in the northeastern city of Dandong told tour agencies to halt overland tourism into North Korea, local travel agents said Wednesday.

“All (tourist) travel to North Korea has been stopped from today, and I’ve no idea when it will restart,” a travel agent in Dandong told Reuters.

That won’t help Pyongyang with its hard-currency shortage.  It’s most likely a temporary stoppage until tensions ramp down, but the timing is rather interesting. The US has begun to press China more firmly about North Korea, and this may be a subtle signal to Pyongyang that Beijing’s patience is coming to an end.  Or, it may just be a sop to the US.

Meanwhile, the timing on this is also … interesting:

NongHyup Bank, the banking unit of South Korean financial holding company NongHyup Financial Group Inc., said Wednesday its online banking system was paralyzed for an unknown reason.

The bank said that an error occurred at 6:30 p.m. at its operating system located in Anseong, 77 kilometers from Seoul. It plans to resume Internet transactions after 7:10 p.m., and identify the cause of the system failure.

NBC’s Brian Williams announced the start of the waiting game last night:

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Update: Commenter Unseen has a link that suggests North Korea ordered the border with China closed to tourists and other visitors, rather than the other way around. If so, this could be a snub aimed at Beijing rather than originating from there. Pyongyang had better be careful, because China’s the only friend they have, and the only one they’re likely to ever have.