TOKYO -- North Korea continues to make provocative acts as it test-fires ballistic missiles despite fierce criticism from the international community.
At the same time, Pyongyang has continued calling for new South Korean President Moon Jae-in to improve relations between the two countries. The isolated, autocratic regime has launched ballistic missiles three weeks in a row since Moon took office, but simultaneously is casting an amorous glance at him.
What is behind this dichotomy?
North Korea has issued two messages, full of pretty words unimaginable in light of its recent provocations, through state-run media directed at the Moon administration. "We should join hands now and improve our relations to open a big road toward unification" and, "Joint work by the same people can pave the way for dialogue, cooperation, peace and unification." They came on May 19 and 27, respectively.
According to news reports by the North Korean government that were monitored by Japan's Radiopress, Pyongyang continues to denounce Moon's predecessor, Park Geun-hye, using harsh words such as, she is "a traitor who committed unforgivable anti-unification crimes." Yet, while North Korea lashes out at the current South Korean government's policies, it avoids criticizing Moon by name.
North Korea's messages include set phrases calling for the implementation of the 6.15 Joint Declaration and 10.4 Declaration, and thus shed light on the country's demands.
The 6.15 proclamation was signed at the first bilateral summit held by South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong Il, North Korea's supreme leader, in June 2000. The 10.4 Declaration was issued in October 2007 at the second summit held by South Korean President Roh Moon-hyun and Kim Jong Il, calling for the development of relations between the two countries and their peace and prosperity.
Starting with the 6.15 Joint Declaration, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moon-hyun adopted the so-called sunshine policy toward North Korea, launching major economic cooperation projects. Through the initiative, a large amount of money was funneled from South Korea to North Korea.
One such activity was the promotion of tourism centered on Mount Kumgang, a tourist site on the Korean Peninsula, which enabled North Korea to earn foreign currency totaling some $500 million over the course of about 10 years. North Korea then seized South Korean assets in the area, such as hotels and hot spring facilities, valued at about 320 billion won ($285 million at current rates) in total and used them to attract Chinese and other tourists.
Another key project was the Kaesong Industrial Complex in which South Korea invested some 550 billion won. Operations began at the end of 2004. At its peak, the industrial park employed 53,000 people and brought foreign currency worth $90 million to the Hermit Kingdom each year. South Korea paid labor expenses in dollars to North Korea -- money that was kept in the supreme leader's coffers -- while North Korean workers received wages in won.
In addition, South Korea provided North Korea since the 2000s with fertilizer and rice estimated to be worth more than 1 trillion won.
Funds also moved under the table. Speculation emerged that the South Korean conglomerate Hyundai group illegally sent $500 million to North Korea, which had demanded a return for the 2000 summit between the two countries. A South Korean court recognized that the transaction had involved a senior official of the Kim Dae-jung administration, revealing that South Korea essentially bought the meeting.
All the while, North Korea began to accelerate its nuclear and missile development programs as if timed with advances in economic cooperation between the two countries. The financial support was thus bitterly criticized because it was being used by Pyongyang for military purposes.
After Kim Jong Un succeeded his father as North Korea's supreme leader, Pyongyang has sharply boosted spending on its nuclear and missile programs.
The South Korean Ministry of National Defense estimates that North Korea has spent up to nearly $2 billion on nuclear development projects, including the construction of a nuclear research facility in Nyongbyon, uranium enrichment, plutonium production and five nuclear tests. Some experts put the figure at more than $6 billion.
For the development and production of ballistic missiles, North Korea is estimated to have spent some $2 billion by around 2010. That spending has continued to snowball as it keeps firing off missiles.
After the conservative administration of President Lee Myung-bak was formed in South Korea, Seoul halted tours to Mount Kumgang after a South Korean tourist was shot to death there in 2008. Trade and economic exchanges between the two countries have completely stopped since the sinking of a South Korean patrol boat and the bombardment of Yeonpyeongdo Island by North Korea in 2010. Operations at the Kaesong complex were terminated in February 2016 under the Park administration.
Pyongyang continues its affronts with costly nuclear and missile programs even though the international community has toughened sanctions against the country. But as international sanctions have been expanded to cover even legal exports of minerals from North Korea and North Korean laborers' work overseas, countries considered friendly to North Korea are increasingly joining the sanctions bandwagon.
All of this is putting the squeeze on Kim Jong Un.
The Moon administration has been established in South Korea through a change of power much awaited by North Korea. Moon, who originally said, "I will first go to Pyongyang," has shifted his stance in the face of successive provocative actions by North Korea. He now says he will visit Pyongyang "if an assumption can be made that the nuclear problem can be resolved."
Nevertheless, Moon has authorized a private South Korean organization to contact North Korea. While seeking to improve relations between the two countries through dialogue, Moon is also considering resuming operations at the Kaesong complex and tours to Mount Kumgang.
Moon is eager to carry out the legacy of the late Roh Moon-hyun. One of them is the 10.4 Declaration.
The declaration lists a variety of economic cooperation projects such as the creation of a special economic zone in Haeju and of a joint fishing zone in the Yellow Sea, second-phase development of the Kaesong complex, revamping of the railway between Kaesong and Sinuiju and an expressway between Kaesong and Pyongyang, construction of joint shipbuilding zones in Nampo and Anbyon, and the opening of direct flights between Seoul and Mount Paektu.
When the declaration was issued, the South Korean Ministry of Unification estimated that nearly 15 trillion won would be needed to carry out the projects listed in it. Some private think tanks estimated the cost at 50 trillion won to more than 100 trillion won.
Some 10 years have passed since then, and the projects are likely to be much costlier. In light of international sanctions against North Korea, none are likely to proceed. But many expect North Korea to frequently refer to them in a bid to promote dialogue between the two countries.
North Korea takes a different diplomatic approach in dealing with Japan, the U.S., South Korea, China and Russia. Kim Jong Un would want to have direct negotiations with only the U.S., the sole country that can guarantee the continuation of his regime. However, in the past, Pyongyang has temporarily taken flexible stances towards Japan and South Korea, often in an attempt to end stalemates with the U.S.
The South Korean government is well aware of Kim Jong Un's calculation that a positive development on dialogue between North Korea and South Korea may enable Pyongyang to secure foreign currency and prompt Seoul to act as a bridge between it and the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.
But referring to the deployment in South Korea of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system that has provoked a fierce backlash from China, North Korea is urging Seoul to immediately remove the U.S.-made THAAD anti-missile system "without forgetting all people's stern eyes."
Against this backdrop, Moon has yet to make clear his stance on whether South Korea will continue pressing North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions, as Japan and the U.S. have done.