Why Did It Take Israel a Week to Condemn North Korea's Nuclear Test?

Bureaucratic foot-dragging, foolishness and absence of a full-time foreign minister lead to a spat with Japan, South Korea and the United States.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Kim Jong Suk Pyongyang Textile Mill in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, December 20, 2014.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the Kim Jong Suk Pyongyang Textile Mill in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang, December 20, 2014.Credit: Reuters
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Bureaucratic foot-dragging, foolishness and the absence of a full-time foreign minister caused a diplomatic flap with Japan, South Korea and the United States early this year, senior officials said.

The three Israeli allies tried to understand why it took Jerusalem six days to issue a two-line announcement condemning the nuclear test conducted by North Korea, an enemy state that helped Iran and Syria develop their missiles and nuclear programs.

The affair began when North Korea announced on January 6 that it had tested a hydrogen bomb. Japan and South Korea condemned the test, and as is customary, asked allies like Israel to do the same.

The Foreign Ministry immediately crafted a 60-word condemnation, before things got complicated. Such announcements require the foreign minister’s approval, but because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is acting foreign minister, every such announcement first goes through the Prime Minister’s Office.

For the past year, the Foreign Ministry, based on procedure, has had to hand drafts of announcements to the National Security Council at the Prime Minister’s Office for review and the prime minister’s approval. The complex procedure has brought in officials whose expertise is not always in foreign policy and diplomacy.

The day before the test, NSC head Yossi Cohen left to take over at the Mossad; Netanyahu named Jacob Nagel as his interim replacement. Nagel, an expert in nuclear arms control, received the draft and held a meeting on it.

Israeli officials said some NSC members supported immediate publication of the condemnation, but Nagel and other officials opposed the idea. The opponents argued that Israel did not have to push itself into every world event, the officials said.

Another argument was that publishing the condemnation might draw attention to Israel’s nuclear program. A further argument, a bit unusual, was that the Japanese and South Koreans had not been condemning terror attacks against Israel, so there was no need to respond to their request.

An official familiar with the matter said Netanyahu had been briefed about the announcement by Japan and South Korea but decided not to denounce the nuclear test to avoid embarrassing the U.S. administration.

“The prime minister didn’t want to issue a statement that could be interpreted as an Israeli criticism of the United States and of the nuclear agreement it made with North Korea,” the official said. So it was decided not to do anything.

A few days later, officials from the Japanese and South Korean embassies expressed surprise to their foreign ministries that Israel had yet to issue a condemnation, but their repeated requests fell on deaf ears.

The Americans intervened two days later. A U.S. diplomat in Tel Aviv presented his Israeli counterparts with a request to officially condemn the North Korean nuclear test. An official in Jerusalem noted that the American request was not unique to Israel but had also been made in other capitals.

Still, the U.S. diplomat requested clarifications on why Israel still had not released a condemnation. The request was quickly reported to the Prime Minister’s Office, causing a stir.

Foreign Ministry and NSC officials who sought an announcement said Israel could no longer dither given the American request. When the request was brought to Netanyahu’s attention, he ordered an immediate condemnation. The statement was issued on the evening of January 12, six days after the nuclear test.

The statement referred to the DPRK, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea North Korea.

“Israel joins the international community in expressing concern of the danger that this act poses to regional stability and international peace and security,” the statement read. “This act by the DPRK must be met with a swift response by the international community. A clear message must be sent to the DPRK and to other countries that such activities are unacceptable and cannot be tolerated.”

North Korea is considered one of the most hostile countries toward Israel. For decades it has supplied knowledge, training, weaponry and smart technology to Israel’s enemies.

The North Koreans even sent a fighter squadron to Egypt during the 1973 Yom Kippur War to bolster its air force. The Iranian missile program is based in large part on North Korean expertise, as is the nuclear reactor Syria built before it was destroyed in 2007 by, according to foreign reports, Israel.

Netanyahu used North Korea as an example in his efforts to stop the nuclear deal with Iran, and in meetings with Japanese and South Korean officials early last year compared the North Korean threat to Japan and South Korea with the Iranian threat to Israel.

Israeli officials noted that the affair has not marred relations with Japan and South Korea but simply caused unnecessary embarrassment. They said the complex protocols and lack of a dedicated foreign minister led to the snafu.

Still, they say lessons were learned, and when North Korea later tested a long-range ballistic missile, Israel issued a condemnation the following day without needing to be prompted.

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