Significantly, the test comes at a time of political transition in China, Japan and South Korea, and as Obama begins his second term. He will likely have to tweak his State of the Union address due to be given on Tuesday.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is bedding down a new government and South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, prepares to take office on Feb. 25.
China too is in the midst of a once-in-a-decade leadership transition to Xi Jinping, who takes office in March. Both Abe and Xi are staunch nationalists.
The longer-term game plan from Pyongyang may be to restart talks aimed at winning food and financial aid. China urged it to return to the stalled “six-party” talks, hosted by China and including the two Koreas, the United States, Japan and Russia.
Its puny economy and small diplomatic reach mean the North struggles to win attention on the global stage - other than through nuclear tests and attacks on South Korea, last made in 2010.
“Now the next step for North Korea will be to offer talks... - any form to start up discussion again to bring things to their advantage,” said Jeung Young-tae, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
EU member Denmark called on China to step up to the plate and use its influence at the Security Council to rein in its ally, using unusually blunt language.
“This deserves only one thing and that is a one-sided condemnation,” said Foreign Minister Villy Sovndal.
“North Korea is likely the most horrible country on this planet.”