Interesting story of Israel and the DPRK

Aidan Foster-Carter writes in the Asia Times:

I can only assume March 11 was a slow news day in Israel – though there was plenty going on in the neighborhood. Otherwise, why would that distinguished daily, the Jerusalem Post, deem it worthwhile to devote quite a long article, in its International Section, to the exciting, world-shattering news that Israel now boasts a North Korea friendship group?

The moving spirit is one Shmuel Yerushalmi: originally from Ukraine, now of Beersheba. Many former Soviet Jews who moved to Israel are conservative, but not Shmuel. An avowed Marxist-Leninist, he’s quoted as saying that the true dictators of the modern world aren’t the likes of Kim Jong-il of North Korea – he also cites Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko – but the leaders of the US and “Western empires”. Whatever you say, comrade.

Alejandro Cao de Benos, who runs the Korea Friendship Association, confirmed that KFA has an Israeli branch, with a mailing list of around 60, and a Hebrew section of its website. He added that they have “two major responsibilities”: translating information about North Korea into Hebrew, and creating an Israeli support base that can lead to cultural exchanges. Turning the turgid works of the Great Kims into Hebrew: that should keep Shmuel busy.

For any readers unfamiliar with the KFA, its site claims to be the “Official Webpage of The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” Actually it is a fan site. Cao de Benos dresses like Kim Jong-il, and touchingly refers to North Korea as “We” (as in the Jerusalem Post article). He can be seen online declaring: “I Will Be A Soldier of Marshal Kim Jong-il” – but hurry! For some reason the video is to be pulled on April 29. I do hope Cao de Benos will post it elsewhere.

On KFA’s true status, the article quotes a leading British expert: Hazel Smith of Cranfield University, who lived and worked in Pyongyang for two years. Professor Smith briskly dismisses KFA as “extreme” and of “no influence … they are a bunch of individuals who are a mixture of the curious, the naive and those who just want a free trip somewhere”. Ouch. But true.

Intriguingly, Cao de Benos told the Jerusalem Post that he planned to travel to Pyongyang shortly, taking with him “American Jewish lobbyists linked to Israel, some of whom live in Tel Aviv”. But he refused to name these. A tall story? Not wholly implausible, as we shall shortly see.

As for Yerushalmi, he hasn’t actually made the pilgrimage to Pyongyang yet – but there is nothing to stop him. Apparently worried whether all this was politically kosher, the Jerusalem Post asked the foreign ministry. Spokesman Yigal Palmor called it “a particularly misplaced form of friendship expression, but it’s not illegal and not something we are going to interfere with”.

You can read the rest below the fold:

You can see why there might be doubts. In 2007 Israel bombed a secret nuclear reactor that was being built at Al-Kibar in Syria’s eastern desert. There is video and other evidence of North Korean involvement. Missile sales to Iran are also not seen as exactly a friendly act.

Cue confusion among the comrades. Yerushalmi says Pyongyang shouldn’t have assisted with Al-Kibar, but complains of double standards on the nuclear issue. (He’s right on that: Israel, and India, get away with it.) But Cao de Benos, in the true spirit of the DPRK, denied everything: “We absolutely never helped with nuclear technology.” Believe that if you will.

Still, Israel does not define North Korea – or even Iran and Libya – as enemy states. For his part Cao de Benos said the DPRK would welcome relations with Israel, claiming “we” talk to them like any country since both are United Nations member states. Truer than he probably knew…

Not so, retorts official spokesman Palmor. There have been no talks. Indeed “the question of relations with North Korea isn’t even on the agenda, and you can’t consider marriage if the bride is not only not consenting, but does not even consent to be asked”.

But here Palmor is being economical with the truth – and the Jerusalem Post, astonishingly, let him get away with it. For Israel and North Korea have indeed talked. Their courtship is a fascinating tale – way more interesting, and important, than the odd sad Kim fan – and hardly unknown in Israel, if less familiar elsewhere. Dating back to the 1990s, it was aired again in 2006.

For a moment I thought the Jerusalem Post was going to omit the real juicy story altogether. Almost, but not quite. Nearly at the very end of the article comes this single solitary sentence:
“In the early 1990s, Mossad and Foreign Ministry officials traveled to Pyongyang to try to convince North Korea to end its support for Israel’s enemies.”
That’s it. No further elaboration. This I find utterly bizarre. Focusing on a trivial sideshow like the KFA, the Jerusalem Post has totally missed the real story – and let the government off the hook.

The real thing is so vivid that hints of it even turn up in an Inspector O novel. I trust readers know this excellent series, exploring North Korea’s Kafkaesque and internecine labyrinths. If not, a treat awaits. Sometimes fiction is the best way to convey fact. The Israel connection appears in Bamboo and Blood, the third Inspector O novel. To say more would be to give the game away. (Author James Church is a former US spook; he knows whereof he speaks.)

But back to the facts. They aren’t hard to find. A rival daily, Ha’aretz, summarized the story in 2006. Start with this to get the gist, but don’t miss a much fuller version also available online – translated from a long article in another Israeli newspaper, Maariv, back in 1995.

No way can I do all this justice, but here goes. The Jerusalem Post’s bland account implies that “Mossad and Foreign Ministry officials” undertook a joint mission to Pyongyang. Not a bit of it.

The Ha’aretz headline sums up the reality: “How the Mossad killed a deal with Kim Il-sung.” Or as Maariv had earlier scathingly put it, this is “a typical Israeli reality: struggles for power and prestige within the Israeli establishment, jealousy, hatred, scheming, concealment of information, stinginess, rivalry between parties and short-cuts in making critical decisions”.

In brief, contra Palmor, in the mid 1990s his ministry was very much talking to North Korea – which initiated the contact. The agenda was missiles, and Pyongyang hinted it was prepared to be bought off; meaning it would stop selling them to Israel’s foes, but at a price.

A senior foreign ministry official, Eitan Bentzur, reckoned this was worth pursuing. According to Ha’aretz, “Bentzur’s idea was that Israeli businesspeople would invest in North Korea – especially in the fuel industry, would run a gold mine at Onsan [sic – in fact Unsan] and would help it obtain a $1 billion loan”. It names three businessmen: Leslie Bond in the US, Shaul Eisenberg, and a former aide to Shimon Peres, Nimrod Novick.

Bentzur visited Pyongyang in 1992, to discuss not only the above but also diplomatic ties. So much for Palmor’s unconsenting bride! Au contraire, the lady was evidently up for it.

Two further rounds of talks were held in Beijing in 1993. According to Ha’aretz, Kim Il-sung (no less) suggested that contacts continue in Paris – via his own daughter Kim Kyong-hui and her husband Jang Song-thaek, who was running the missile program. Top-drawer stuff.

Enter Mossad. Israel’s spy agency got wind of this plan, and rushed to Pyongyang to stop it. In a moment of high black farce, the two Israeli delegations each only learned that the other had been in town as well when they bumped into each other on the plane back to Beijing afterwards. (The foreign ministry officials were seated in first class, while Mossad had to slum it in tourist class.)

One could well argue the pros and cons of buying North Korea off: a hardy perennial debate for all interlocutors. But in an added twist, the merits of the case weren’t even the point here.

Furious at the Foreign Ministry for trespassing on its own patch (secret contacts), Mossad was doing the United States Central Intelligence Agency’s dirty work. They convinced premier Yitzhak Rabin to end contacts with North Korea, saying Washington was dead against. Yet – twist within twist – this wasn’t true. The US was quietly pursuing its own contacts with Pyongyang over the nuclear issue, culminating in the Agreed Framework signed by Bill Clinton after a nail-biting summer in October 1994.

That’s a very compressed account. Like all good feuds, the FM-Mossad spat is still ongoing. It flared up a decade later when Mossad’s former head Ephraim Halevy – who went on that spoiler mission to Pyongyang – published a memoir, Man in the Shadows, in 2006. He was unrepentant, calling the Foreign Ministry’s plan to buy off missiles a “ridiculous … embarrassing farce”.

The Foreign Ministry as such presumably couldn’t answer back, but the now retired Bentzur had no such inhibitions. Ha’aretz, clearly on his side, quotes him: “Shortsightedness, an urge to destroy the successful actions of others, and the lack of backbone in disagreements with the United States are inherent in Ephraim Halevy’s falsified description of the contacts with North Korea … His unwanted actions harmed clear interests of Israel and the Western world.”

Turf wars apart, the point at issue is missiles. As matters turned out, in the Agreed Framework – now itself a dead letter, but let’s not beat about the Bush – the US focused on its own main worry: nukes. Pyongyang was given oil and other incentives to mothball its Yongbyon nuclear site. But the deal did not address what was on Israel’s mind, namely missiles. Ha’aretz concludes: “Thus, and not for the first time, the Mossad erred and torpedoed an important diplomatic move.”

To be fair, Clinton did later go on to initiate separate talks with North Korea about missiles. But his term of office ended, and George W Bush didn’t think this worth continuing with.

Bush the younger – Kim Jong-bush, shall we call him? – made many a fateful policy choice. This is one of his less famous ones, but it may yet turn out to be up there with invading Iraq.

Pyongyang has gone on supplying Syria and Iran with ever bigger and better missiles, even as Tehran gets closer to being able to lob something really nasty at Israel. Iran’s Shahab-3 and -4 medium range missiles have long been known to be based on the DPRK’s Nodong missile, but there may be worse to worry about. A disclosure from WikiLeaks last year revealed US fears that North Korea has also supplied longer-range BM-25 missiles, based on Russia’s R-27 design, which could strike much of Europe. Other US cables complain that such cargoes still regularly transit Beijing airport unhindered, despite being forbidden under UN sanctions since 2009.

There now. Isn’t all this even more interesting, and ever so slightly more newsworthy, than the fond delusions of Shmuel Yerushalmi, the absurd posturings of Alejandro Cao de Benos, and the smarmy evasions of Yigal Palmor? Apparently not to the Jerusalem Post, which ran with the trivia and then unaccountably fell asleep on the job. Oy vey. Wakey wakey!

Israel and North Korea: Missing the real story
Asia Times
Aidan Foster-Carter


Comments are closed.