Monday, 08 March 2010
SUBJECT: Visit to North Korea
The great threat casting a shadow over Israel is a nuclear attack from a militant regime like Iran or Syria, or a terrorist movement.
In late 2009, I had the opportunity to lead a second delegation from the American Council for World Jewry to visit North Korea, a significant supplier of missiles and advanced technology to Iran and Syria (where in 2007 Israeli warplanes reportedly destroyed a North Korean-supplied nuclear facility). To help us complement and not contradict Washington’s broader policy, we consulted with the State Department before and after our trip.
Beyond any progress that might develop in the short term, establishing some relationship and mutual understanding today can be useful in the event of any future openings. A series of discussions with the North Koreans had led to our first invitation, which we accepted with the intention of establishing direct contact as well as expressing Jewish concerns that go beyond – and are even more important to us than – the nuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Whatever becomes of the nuclear program inside North Korea, it is critical to stop exports of matériel and technology. We cannot significantly impact North Korea’s strategic choices, but having an open channel of communication allows Jewish and possibly Israeli interests to gain better insight into the regime’s motivations and at least go on record with them about our own priorities.
Within this context, the American Council has been able to facilitate some contacts between North Korean and Israeli diplomats.
On our recent visit to Pyongyang, we met with senior officials including the deputy prime minister and deputy foreign minister and discussed a range of topics, including North Korea’s attitudes toward Israel and military cooperation with enemies of the Jewish State.
Not unexpectedly, our hosts denied their country has engaged in any nuclear cooperation with Syria. They did say they are prepared to reciprocate Israeli goodwill, but not at the risk of North Korea’s longstanding ties with 20 Arab nations. Weapons sales to the Middle East are a purely commercial undertaking, and in the absence of diplomatic relations with Israel there’s little compelling interest to cut off that pipeline.
When we reiterated that the Israelis are open to dialogue with North Korea, the response was that they should prove it by upgrading diplomatic and economic relations.
We were told that North Korea does not oppose Israel’s right to exist, having supported the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. At the same time, Israel is seen as a formidable, state-of-the-art military power controlled by Washington and destabilizing the Middle East. Initial Israeli outreach some years ago, inviting cancer specialists to visit and preparing for agricultural cooperation, did not bear fruit.
True to form, even in our private conversations the North Koreans maintained a solid front. With respect to international efforts to roll back North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, the regime insisted that sanctions are more about hostility to socialism than genuine concern over nuclear weapons. The only option they espouse is for the international community to opening up to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, including direct U.S. talks, after which they might consider alternatives to their nuclear program. They portray their country as being on the cusp of economic prosperity.
Our visits and discussions give the North Koreans a more tangible sense of the potential for future cooperation should North Korea ends its nuclear program and genuinely open itself to the outside world. We even revisited the prospect of bringing North Korean agricultural professionals and doctors to train in Israel, something the regime would value – and a chance to advance dialogue and build mutual trust that also has a humanitarian core.
The American Council for World Jewry cultivates contacts with a number of governments that are less than friendly to U.S. or Israeli interests, not because we are naïve or because this is easy, but because we see an opportunity to maintain some degree of contact, which serves the Jewish people now and in the future. Often this means that, rather than achieving a breakthrough, we are content with averting unnecessary tensions on one side or the other, and steadily fostering some mutual confidence.