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.
Towards the end of last year, along with the volleys of insults between the White House and Pyongyang, things began to change. Kim announced in November that the weapons programme had reached its goals – even if that was not the case, this enabled him to declare victory and call a halt at a time of his choosing without losing face at home. At the same time, it was important for him to build fences with China as he opened up his Olympic diplomacy and summits were set up with Trump and President Moon of South Korea.
So, last month, Kim took his armoured train to Beijing to meet Xi Jinping. Beijing had shown the limits to its patience with a clampdown on exports at the start of the year. Fresh from consolidating his own power at the Communist Party Congress last October and the annual plenary session of the legislature in March, Xi was in no mood to put up with further waywardness from the Young Leader – a former US ambassador says that the new helmsman saves his choicest expletives for the Young Leader. It was time for a sharp shock with a virtual halt in Chinese supplies of petroleum, coal, steel and motor vehicles. Kim got the message. When he met Xi, he was photographed dutifully taking notes as his host adopted his master’s voice.
Annoyed as it may have been by the North in recent years, China has no wish to see the Korean imbroglio being settled by reunification under the aegis of a US-allied South. It wants the North to remain a buffer zone, with security guarantees but it wants any solution to the crisis to be in terms that suit China.
This weekend’s announcement from Pyongyang that the North would now focus on economic development rather than weapons is right up its street. The development of low-cost Special Economic Zones under Chinese tutelage with investment from the South and further afield, has been one of Beijing’s aims for years as a balance to the rising cost of manufacturing in the People’s Republic, itself. Better economic relations with the South as the result of détente would also be a useful weapon in China’s growing trade confrontation with the US. Politically, the prospect of an inter-Korean settlement backed by Washington and Beijing but side-lining Tokyo would suit Beijing’s regional aims. Chinese policy-makers may also calculate that they could stack up chips on the trade front with Trump by giving a helpful shove to the Korean peace process, using a linkage the President invoked last year.
Japan’s initial reaction to the announcement from Pyongyang showed a degree of anxiety, but the other players seem well content with the course of events. Kim has moved seamlessly onto the diplomatic stage since playing his Winter Olympics card and setting off the current round of activity. Moon has been freed to pursue the “sunshine” policy towards the North he has always espoused. Trump sees progress for all, and was notably modest in not claiming credit for himself in his reactive tweet to the Pyongyang shift. Xi can count on benefits to come as part of his wider regional ambitions. Nobel Peace Prizes glow in the distance. But, first comes the hard part as they all get down to brass tacks.
Jonathan Fenby is China Chairman at the TSLombard research service and author of The Penguin History of Modern China