by PAUL IDDON
The Israeli government is staunchly opposed to the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has argued that the agreement — which removes sanctions in exchange for Iran scaling back its nuclear program — will prove to be futile.
Further, removing the sanctions will only embolden and empower Tehran to redouble its efforts at building a bomb, Israeli officials insist. Another major source of controversy is that the deal will end a United Nations arms embargo prohibiting ballistic missile sales to Iran.
But two decades ago, and in a historic irony, Israel once contemplated a deal with North Korea aimed at preventing ballistic missile proliferation in the Middle East.
It was a deal which would have seen Israel help North Korea mitigate its dire economic situation in return for guarantees that Pyongyang would not sell missile technology. And those negotiations might have yielded positive results had it not been for Washington’s disapproval.
Flashback to 1993.
Iran wasn’t quite the looming threat the Israeli government claims it is today, but it was certainly a country to be concerned about. Then as now, Israel opposed Iran acquiring more missiles.
In the early 1990s, North Korea — which had suddenly found itself isolated following the collapse of the Soviet Union, its chief ally — began to negotiate the sale of Rodong 1 missiles, a Scud-D missile variant, to Iran.
North Korea reached out to Israel and offered to halt the arms sales in return for economic aid. Jerusalem responded, but the United States wasn’t pleased.
“The Americans position is certainly one of dissatisfaction and reservations regarding the [Israeli] contacts with North Korea,” Eytan Bentsur, a senior director general in Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said according to an August 1993 report in the New York Times. “But this is coupled with the recognition that the supply of Rodong missiles to Iran presents a most serious danger.”
North Korea reached out to Israel through a South Korean businessman acting as an intermediary the year before. The businessman explained to Bentsur that the North Koreans sought an investment agreement with Israel involving a gold mine. The total Israeli investment, along with the purchase of the mine, would have amounted to $1 billion.
“They are looking for someone to buy it and start it up,” the businessman told Bentsur. “They need the money. Their economy is on the ropes.”
Bentsur traveled to Pyongyang. For three days, he and his delegation toured the country and saw firsthand just how meticulously regimented and isolated the state and society was — and how anxious the North Koreans were about getting out of the tight corner they had found themselves trapped in.
North Korean officials denied undertaking any missile sales, but they did — eventually — tell their visiting delegates that if they invested in the country’s ailing economy they would, in turn, heed to Israel’s request that no missiles be sold to their regional rivals.
When the Americans discovered these contacts, they conceded that Pyongyang’s economic difficulties likely spurred its increased missile sales to the Middle East. But they were skeptical that anything could feasibly be done about it.
Worse, the U.S. officials believed that the Israelis had no guarantees that any investment would curb these sales. The officials told their Israeli counterparts in no uncertain terms that an economic deal would undermine Washington’s attempts to exert pressure on Pyongyang.
To be sure, the Israeli delegation was skeptical, too. To convince them otherwise, North Korean officials said they were willing to make enormous concessions — to the point of allowing hundreds of Israeli inspectors into their airports to verify that no shipments of missiles or weaponry were leaving for the Middle East.
It wasn’t outrageous. After all, missile sales were a source of much needed cash, and Israeli investment could have replaced that need. But Washington’s diplomats reiterated their loathing for the proposed deal.
“The United States believes Israel’s contacts with North Korea will bring negative, not favorable results,” U.S. diplomats told the Israelis in a Paris meeting, according to Ma’Ariv newspaper. They added that a proposed Israeli meeting with the Koreans was not “in the interests of the United States.”
Bentsur was outraged. “In all my long years of involvement in U.S.-Israel relations I cannot recall a single instance in which Israel sought prior approval from the United States to do something,” he recalled. “The mere act of seeking approval is a gross violation of the principle of sovereignty.”
The Clinton administration’s opposition stemmed primarily from the fact that Pyongyang had refused to allow inspections of its nuclear sites. The United States was close to war with North Korea over the latter’s rapid nuclear advances and posturing, and its non-compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Not long after that crisis, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung died. When his son Kim Jong Il took power, he presided over an isolated country whose people had to endure a devastating famine. On top of that, Pyongyang eventually managed to build and test nuclear bombs, and continued to sell missile technology to Israel’s adversaries in the Middle East.
But the attempts at a negotiated settlement were interesting, especially in retrospect. Today, the Obama administration believes that economic sanctions relief can urge Iran to discontinue aspects of its nuclear program. Back in 1993, Israel’s government appeared to believe the same thing with regard to North Korea’s missile sales.
One wonders just how different the last 20 years would have been had both sides reached an agreement on that important issue.