Two rare remarks about North Korea by senior Israeli defense figures last week served as a reminder of the extent to which the “hermit kingdom” has long been a headache for Israel where security issues are concerned.
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First, an anonymous “senior officer” warned in a briefing that a confrontation between Washington and Pyongyang could affect Israel’s security, by diverting the attention of the Trump administration away from the Middle East. This was followed by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman describing North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, in an interview to Israel’s Walla news website, as an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad and part of an axis that includes Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. Lieberman warned that North Korea’s aim was “undermining global stability” and that its leadership is “a crazy and radical group.”
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea didn’t take that lying down, and on Saturday its foreign ministry called Lieberman’s words “reckless” and “sordid and wicked behavior,” issuing a stern warning that “it is the steadfast will and spirit of the service personnel and people of the DPRK to give merciless, thousandfold punishment to whoever dares hurt the dignity of its supreme leadership.”
Beyond the Israelis’ rather opaque remarks and Pyongyang’s operatic response, this rare exchange discloses a long-simmering frustration on the Israeli side with North Korea’s influence in the region.
For over three decades, North Korea has been a major exporter of arms to Iran, which in turn supplies proxies including Syria and Hezbollah. It has gradually evolved into Iran’s chief source of military technology. The overt signs of this include the presence of a senior Iranian military official on the podium near Kim at parades of military hardware in Pyongyang; the fact that the design of the Syrian nuclear reactor that Israel destroyed in a 2007 airstrike was nearly identical to that of North Korea’s Yongbyon installation and of course the uncanny similarity between some of North Korea’s long-range missiles and those being launched by Iran.
While North Korea’s conventional military forces use largely antiquated equipment, including jet fighters from the 1950s and World War II-era biplanes for ferrying special forces, the population has been starved in order to finance missile and nuclear research.
“Iran has the money and North Korea has the technology,” says Tal Inbar, head of the Space and UAV Center of Israel’s Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies. “Usually, the Koreans have been the main source of missile knowledge but there have been cases where the Iranians have made more progress. Often, something that failed in one country was fixed in the other. It’s a reciprocal relationship, in which the countries share their military knowledge, and in some cases there have been actual joint projects,” Inbar says.
Theoretically, a U.S. operation to destroy North Korea’s missile and nuclear research centers would be welcomed by Israel, since it could eliminate a major source of weapons and weapons technology for Iran, and by extension Hezbollah and the Syrian regime. Israeli intelligence analysts believe this is unlikely, however, and point out that much of the technology transfer from Pyongyang to Tehran has already taken place.
Then there is the concern, expressed last week by the unnamed senior Israeli officer, that a major escalation in East Asia would almost certainly mean less U.S. involvement in the Middle East, particularly in light of the Trump administration’s evident limited appetite for pursuing major foreign policy objectives. Israel is anxious for a more energetic American policy in Syria, where Assad’s protectors Iran and Hezbollah are now well-entrenched, with Russia’s help. A best-case scenario for Israel in North Korea would be less U.S. involvement in favor of North Korea’s only local ally, China, stepping in to enforce denuclearization and a cessation of missile testing.
Interestingly, all this coincides with a period of improving relations between Israel and China. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Beijing two months ago, and two weeks ago the governments signed an agreement allowing Chinese construction companies to build in Israel.
Jerusalem even meekly agreed to Beijing’s demand to guarantee that Chinese workers would not be employed in building settlements in East Jerusalem or the West Bank. Israel’s construction industry is trifling by Chinese standards — Beijing is much more interested in acquiring Israeli tech companies, a goal that has been blocked by Israeli restrictions on technology transfer. While North Korea has not been a major issue in the negotiations between Jerusalem and Beijing, at least not publicly, Chinese willingness to help the United States with Pyongyang could also factor into the relationship between Beijing and Jerusalem.