Given the mutual bluster, threats and sabre-rattling we got used to from Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, it may be hard to credit the air of sweet reasonableness that has spread over the Korean peninsula in recent weeks leading to the weekend announcement of an end to weapons testing by the North. The potential for a reversion to confrontation is all too evident. Pyongyang has a long record of reneging on agreements and its announcement contained no mention of a reduction in its arsenal that includes missiles which can hit Japan and South Korea even if it stops development of ICBMs aimed at the USA. But, for the moment at least, this seems a moment when the different interests of the main players have been brought into alignment, not only Trump and the two Koreas but also the big beast in the region – China.
Overthrowing the clichés about the two countries being as close as lips and teeth, Kim Jong-un played the naughty younger brother towards the People’s Republic after taking power in Pyongyang in 2011. He eliminated (sometimes physically) China’s main contacts as he purged the leadership, ignored calls from Beijing to stop tests and made his point by firing off weapons to coincide with big ceremonial occasions staged by the neighbour across the Manchurian frontier. That played nicely into the stand-alone nationalism he cultivated and which the missiles and nuclear programme helped to support. When it came to the nitty gritty of food and energy supplies, North Korea was able to count on a flexible attitude by Chinese companies and banks to sanctions while the leadership in Beijing debated whether to continue its traditional tolerant attitude or to bring to greater pressure to bear.