Associated Press
South Korean villagers watch smoke rising from South Korea's Yeonpyeong island near the border against North Korea.

The world's hermit kingdom is busy again trying to draw attention to itself like a petulant child who refuses to play by the rules. North Korea made headlines over the weekend when its leaders showed an American scientist a sophisticated uranium enrichment plant with what officials claim are 2,000 new centrifuges. Then it brought the peninsula to the brink of disaster Tuesday by attacking South Korea's Yeonpyeong island.

One senior adviser in Washington called North Korea, "the land of lousy options." That certainly applies to these crises. The Obama administration must react strongly, but not with such strength that it touches off what would be a disastrous war. Unlike Saddam Hussein, North Korean's Kim Jong Il is serious about developing nuclear weapons, and he might just be crazy enough to use them.

U.S. leaders said they were not surprised by news of the enrichment plant. North Korea's aims and motives under the leadership of Il have been clear for years. But the plant is a disturbing development in this long ongoing drama. Put in the context of Tuesday's attack, it becomes a worldwide crisis.

As has been apparent for many years, a peaceful answer to North Korea's belligerence will involve a strong dose of Chinese leadership, the source of 57 percent of North Korea's imports.

So far, China's leaders have seemed reluctant to do anything that would push Korean unification or that might promote instability and lead to a rush of Korean refugees across the border. But those concerns are rapidly becoming irrelevant as North Korea becomes more aggressive. The Obama administration needs to persuade China that destabilization may occur more readily without China's assistance.

North Korea's internal problems are staggering. It suffers from chronic food shortages and lack of supplies, as well as environmental degradation. The CIA estimates its per capita gross domestic product is a mere $1,900. Even adopting the type of reforms that have led to economic growth in China would involve opening North Korea to the outside world. That would expose its people to the prosperity of the rest of the world and to the reality of their own desperate conditions.

Despite this, Il apparently wants to be a world player in the worst way. The way he treats his own countrymen is a clue as to how he would treat the rest of the world if he had the power. So is this latest attack, coming on the heels of last spring's attack on a South Korean navy vessel.

It is an indictment of Karl Marx that the remaining leaders who profess to follow to his ideology, Il and Cuba's Castro brothers, preside over impoverished nations far behind the times. Il, however, poses a particular risk because of his reckless aggressiveness, grand designs and apparent mental instability.

The Obama administration has to begin brandishing its big stick, even as it convinces China that it may hold the only key to keeping an unthinkable disaster from unfolding.