Back in May 2012, Peter Brookes of the American Foreign Policy Council said that "North Korea is a wild card -- and a dangerous one at that." He predicted that the inexperienced Kim Jong Un would want to appear "large and in charge," for internal and external consumption. In December, Pyongyang launched a long-range ballistic missile -- one that South Korean scientists later said had the range to reach the U.S. West Coast. Unlike the failure of the previous missile launch in 2009, it managed to put a satellite into orbit.
The last two such launches have been followed by nuclear weapons tests -- in 2006 and 2009. Recent satellite images of the weapons test site analyzed by the group 38 North show continued activity there.
So the decision becomes a political one. Does Kim continue to appear "large and in charge" by ordering another test? Or have the extensive reshuffles and demotions of the past year already consolidated his position, allowing him to focus on the country's dire economic situation?
China-Japan island dispute to simmer
It's been a while since East Asia has thrown up multiple security challenges, but suddenly North Korea's missile and nuclear programs are not the only concern in the region. There's growing rancor between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea, which may be aggravated by the return to power in Japan of Shinzo Abe as prime minister.
Abe has long been concerned that Japan is vulnerable to China's growing power and its willingness to project that power. Throughout 2012, Japan and China were locked in a war of words over the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands, with fishing and Coast Guard boats deployed to support claims of sovereignty.
In the days before Japanese went to the polls, Beijing also sent a surveillance plane over the area, marking the first time since 1958, according to Japanese officials, that Bejing had intruded into "Japanese airspace." Japan scrambled F-15 jets in response.
The islands are uninhabited, but the seas around them may be rich in oil and gas. There is also a Falklands factor at play here. Not giving in to the other side is a matter of national pride. There's plenty of history between China and Japan -- not much of it good.
As China has built up its ability to project military power, Japan's navy has also expanded. Even a low-level incident could lead to an escalation. And as the islands are currently administered by Japan, the U.S. would have an obligation to help the Japanese defend them.
Few analysts expect conflict to erupt, and both sides have plenty to lose. For Japan, China is a critical market, but Japanese investment there has fallen sharply in the past year. Just one in a raft of problems for Abe. His prescription for dragging Japan out of its fourth recession since 2000 is a vast stimulus program to fund construction and other public works and a looser monetary policy.
The trouble is that Japan's debt is already about 240% of its GDP, a much higher ratio than even Greece. And Japan's banks hold a huge amount of that debt. Add a shrinking and aging population, and at some point the markets might decide that the yield on Japan's 10-year sovereign bond ought to be higher than the current 0.77%.
Economic uncertainty in U.S., growth in China
So the world's third-largest economy may not help much in reviving global growth, which in 2012 was an anemic 2.2%, according to United Nations data. The parts of Europe not mired in recession hover close to it, and growth in India and Brazil has weakened. Which leaves the U.S. and China.
At the time of writing, the White House and congressional leadership are still peering over the fiscal cliff. Should they lose their footing, the Congressional Budget Office expects the arbitrary spending cuts and tax increases to be triggered will push the economy into recession and send unemployment above 9%.
A stopgap measure, rather than a long-term foundation for reducing the federal deficit, looks politically more likely. But to companies looking for predictable economic policy, it may not be enough to unlock billions in investment. Why spend heavily if there's a recession around the corner, or if another fight looms over raising the federal debt ceiling?
In September, Moody's said it would downgrade the U.S. sovereign rating from its "AAA" rating without "specific policies that produce a stabilization and then downward trend in the ratio of federal debt to GDP over the medium term." In other words, it wants action beyond kicking the proverbial can.
Should the cliff be dodged, most forecasts see the U.S. economy expanding by about 2% in 2013. That's not enough to make up for stagnation elsewhere, so a great deal depends on China avoiding the proverbial hard landing.
Until now, Chinese growth has been powered by exports and infrastructure spending, but there are signs that China's maturing middle class is also becoming an economic force to be reckoned with. Consultants PwC expect retail sales in China to increase by 10.5% next year -- with China overtaking the U.S. as the world's largest retail market by 2016.
Europe's economic outlook a little better
No one expects Europe to become an economic powerhouse in 2013, but at least the horizon looks a little less dark than it did a year ago. The "PIGS' " (Portugal, Ireland/Italy, Greece, Spain) borrowing costs have eased; there is at least rhetorical progress toward a new economic and fiscal union; and the European Central Bank has talked tough on defending the Eurozone.