The great threat casting a shadow over Israel is a nuclear attack from a militant regime like Iran or Syria, or a terrorist movement.
Recently, I had the opportunity to lead the Council’s second delegation to North Korea, a significant supplier of missiles and advanced technology to Iran, and to Syria where in 2007 Israeli warplanes reportedly destroyed a North Korean-supplied nuclear facility.
A series of discussions with the North Koreans had led to our first invitation, which we accepted with the intention of broadening the conversation beyond nuclearization of the Korean peninsula and establishing relationships in case North Korea normalizes in the future.
Our visits and conversations have given us better insight into the regime’s motivations and at least go on record with them about our own priorities. We are hardly in a position to broker a nuclear agreement with North Korea, but the Council’s outreach has sensitized North Korean officials to U.S. and Jewish concerns over exporting matériel and technology to third countries.
On our recent visit to Pyongyang, we met with senior officials including the deputy prime minister and deputy foreign minister, and topics included 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 two dozen 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 choke off that pipeline.
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.
More recently, the Council has been able to facilitate some contacts between North Korean and Israeli diplomats. On this visit, we also 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. (To help us complement and not contradict Washington’s broader policy, we consulted with the State Department before and after our trip.)
Our visits and discussions offer the North Koreans a more tangible vision of future cooperation should Pyongyang end its nuclear program and genuinely open itself to the outside world.
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 open 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.
The 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.