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North Korea attempts to split South Korea-US security alliance

South Korean President Moon faces promises and pressure from Pyongyang, but analysts say his efforts to engage North Korea are tempered by a healthy lack of trust in the regime's vows. Julian Ryall reports.

North Korea is stepping up the pressure on the fledgling administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, with state media demanding that the new liberal government distance itself from the United States and keep promises made in bilateral summits more than a decade ago to promote cross-border cooperation and reconciliation.

And while Moon is clearly attempting to resurrect a working relationship with the regime in Pyongyang - his government has granted approval for NGOs to provide humanitarian assistance to the North, although the approach has been rejected - analysts say he is not sufficiently naive to believe that Kim Jong Un's intentions are entirely pure and unselfish.

The Rodong Sinmun newspaper, a mouthpiece of the government in Pyongyang, on June 1 published an editorial in which it blamed deteriorating bilateral relations on the government of recently ousted President Park Geun-hye.

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Südkorea Präsidentschaftswahl Gewinner Moon Jae-in (Reuters/S. Myeong-gon /Yonhap)

Moon is clearly attempting to resurrect a working relationship with the regime in Pyongyang

'Fomenting tension'

"The US is ceaselessly trying to foment tension," the report added. "They keep sending nuclear-powered strategic weapons to South Korea, like aircraft carriers and bombers."

As a result, the relationship between Pyongyang and Seoul is "at a crossroads" and that two sides have a choice between "embark[ing] on a track of improving relations or repeat[ing] the vicious cycle of confrontation."

Those demands were followed up on Tuesday with state media calling for the Moon administration to adhere to promises made at historic summits agreed between the North and left-of-center governments in Seoul in the early years of the 2000s.

Kim Dae-jung, who was elected in 1998 and served for five years, is credited with the "Sunshine Policy" of engagement with Pyongyang, which was largely followed by Roh Moo-hyun between 2004 and 2008. The highlights of the administrations were bilateral summits in 2004 and 2007, while a joint declaration issued in June 2000, when Kim Dae-jung became the first South Korean leader to visit the North, called for efforts to "solve the question of the country's reunification independently, by the concerted efforts of the Korean nation."

Read: Opinion: South Korea needs courage to undertake reforms

The agreement also proposed balanced development through economic cooperation and the building of "mutual confidence" through exchanges.

Moon has at least attempted to build bridges in the early days of his administration, with his government granting approval for NGOs to travel to the North to deliver medicine and agricultural pesticides. The day after it demanded more cooperation and exchanges, Pyongyang refused to grant the NGOs access on the grounds that South Korea continues to support UN sanctions on the regime in the North.

Südkorea Gemeinsame Militärübung mit der USA (Getty Images/AFP/Jung Yeon-Je)

South Korea's military alliance with the US remains strong

Additional overtures

Other overtures to Pyongyang have also been suggested, including the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Park in North Korea and the resumption of South Korean tourists' visits to the Mount Kumgang resort in North Korea. Tourism to the resort began in 2002 but was abruptly halted in 2008 when a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean guard.

And while South Koreans welcome any effort to reduce tensions on the peninsula, editorials in local newspapers also echo their concerns over whether North Korea can be trusted.

A recent editorial in the Chosun Ilbo newspaper stated that a return to the Sunshine Policy must "base itself on the assumption that Kim has good intentions, but where is the evidence?"

"This is a man who used a chemical weapon in a crowded foreign airport to murder his own half-brother and had his own uncle executed by firing squad," it added.

But Rah Jong-yil, a former South Korean ambassador and a senior member of the Kim Dae-jung presidency, believes there is little chance of Moon falling for the North's charm or succumbing to its threats.

"We have experience of hearing the good intentions and sincere promises of the North for decades and we have been let down too many times," Rah told DW. "Even leftist governments are not naive enough to trust the North."

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And while he supports the Moon administration's efforts to reach out to the North, he says the situation today is far more complicated than a decade or more ago.

"North Korea is much stronger today than it was then," he said. "They have weapons of mass destruction that they are threatening the South with, their economy is far stronger than it was not too many years ago and, in the international context the US is in disarray and cannot be considered a completely reliable security partner for South Korea any more."

Driving a hard bargain

"All those factors are also apparent to Pyongyang and will enable them to drive a harder bargain," he said. "And North Korea always was good at extracting the maximum benefit out of negotiations with the international community."

Daniel Pinkston, a professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University, agrees that Pyongyang has had a long-standing policy of attempting to split the security alliance between Seoul and Washington as it wants the US to withdraw its military forces from the peninsula.

"The Moon government may be prepared to engage in humanitarian exchanges, but it remains reluctant to embark on projects that would be questionable as far as contravening the international sanctions on North Korea," he said.

And no matter how much Pyongyang may urge its neighbor to trust it in order to move the relationship forward, the North's chronic "commitment problem" means that is unlikely to materialize, he said.

"When they enter into an agreement, North Korea has a different ideology and world-view," Pinkston said. "They believe they are fighting the revolution and that diplomacy is revolution by another mechanism. And if they renege on promises they have made and agreements they have signed, then that is justifiable because they are fighting the revolution."

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