After threatening Australia with a nuclear strike last week, North Korea has added yet another country to its target list – Israel.
In a recently released statement, North Korea threatened Israel with “merciless, thousand-fold punishment” and warned Israel to “think twice about the consequences” after Israel’s Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman called North Korea’s dictator a “madman” who, together with Iran and Syria, was “part of an ‘insane and radical’ gang… bent on undermining international stability”.
According to reports on Israel Radio, one senior Israeli Minister has since criticized Lieberman on grounds that: “We have nothing to do with North Korea, so why jump up? Don’t we have enough enemies?” Indeed, Israel and North Korea are virtually at opposite ends of the world. Given this, what underpins this hostile relationship?
The fact is North Korean involvement in the Middle East is nothing new and there are a number of genuine conflicts of interest between North Korea and Israel, as outlined below.
Iran, Syria, and North Korea
As described previously on this site, “the major catalyst for North Korea’s involvement in the Middle East was, according to International Crisis Group Korea expert Daniel Pinkston, Egypt’s gift to Pyongyang of Soviet made Scud-B missiles in return for sending air force pilots to Cairo during the 1973 Yom Kippur War”.
North Korea’s relationship with Iran also dates back decades to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. During this time, Iran and North Korea signed a $500 million missile deal that eventually led to the North Korean Hwasong-5 being manufactured as the Iranian Shahab-1.
As such, tensions between North Korea and Israel arise primarily from North Korea’s assistance to Israel’s enemies.
In recent years, Israel bombed a site in Syria in 2007, which according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, was “very likely” a nuclear reactor. According to US intelligence, this reactor was built with North Korea’s assistance, despite Syria denying any connection with North Korea. In addition, Arab media outlets have reported that, in March of this year, Israel’s Defence Forces attacked a shipment of weapons en-route from Syria to Hezbollah which included advanced North Korean missiles.
Israel also believes that Iranian scientists “were present at almost all of North Korea’s nuclear tests and received briefings on various topics related to them.” This co-operation was cemented in September 2012, when the Iranian Minister of Science and Technology signed an agreement with North Korea. Whilst the agreement appeared to address civil applications as “information technology, energy, environment, agriculture and food”, the memorandum of the agreement was also ratified by Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran. As nuclear experts Dr Refael Ofek and Dr Dany Shoham argue, this corresponded with the establishment of “a permanent offshoot of Iranian missile experts” in North Korea. The outcome of these exchanges is that “the two countries have followed fairly similar nuclear and ballistic courses, with considerable, largely intended, reciprocal technological complementarities”.
According to some analysts, Israel now believes that “Tehran, Pyongyang and Damascus are completely synchronized and coordinated”. Moreover, on some accounts, Syria’s reactor was in fact financed by Iran as a backup or alternative to its own nuclear facilities.
The nuclear deal and North Korea
Whilst North Korea’s arrangements with Iran began some years before the Obama Administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, the nuclear deal has not guaranteed an end to these activities.
As late as June 2015, only one month before the deal was completed, “information exchanges and reciprocal delegation visits reportedly took place, aimed at the planning of nuclear warheads. These include four North Korean delegations that visited Iran”.
Even now that the deal has been completed, it should be noted that the deal limits the development of Iran’s nuclear capabilities within the country, but places “almost no limits” on Iran’s activities abroad. As such, North Korea provides Iran with an ideal location to develop its nuclear capabilities.
In addition, as argued previously on this site, if North Korea shares the results of its nuclear testing with Iran, then Iran is able to benefit from this even without being present. And, on the other side of the equation, notwithstanding that North Korea already has nuclear weapons, Iran is still able to contribute to North Korea’s nuclear project with both technical and financial assistance. Ironically, this financial assistance is only itself possible as a result of Iran signing the nuclear deal.
On top of this, in April 2016, a “a remarkable clash arose between US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) during a US House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing… over planes that fly between Iran and North Korea”. During this exchange Sherman charged that these planes should be required to land and be inspected in China, and that the Obama Administration had handled this with insufficient care.
US-North Korea tensions and Israel
In the above interview, Lieberman was also asked about the effects on Israel of increased tensions between the United States and North Korea. Whilst saying that he did not want to go into particulars, Lieberman stated that there are “direct implications” for Israel and that “a nuclear crisis anywhere would affect the entire world.”
As such, increased tensions between the United States and North Korea would ostensibly carry a number of implications for Israel.
According to the Jerusalem Post, a senior officer of the Israel Defence Forces has warned that Israel would bear the brunt of such tensions because the United States would divert resources from the Middle East to North Korea. Additionally, in the event of conflict, it is possible that Iran would support North Korea and draw Israel deeper into the conflict.
Interestingly, Hamas’ spokesperson has since thanked North Korea for its condemnation of Israel, stating that “Hamas (rejects) Israeli abuse of North Korea and confirms that Israel is the leader of evil and terrorism in the world”.
More generally, American resolve on North Korea serves Israel’s interests insofar as it sends a strong message to Iran not to pursue its nuclear ambitions. However, this also carries the reverse possibility, namely that if the Trump Administration loses its resolve, Iran will learn that with “a little patience and persistence, the world will eventually come to terms with a nuclear-armed Iran”.
The chances of direct conflict between Israel and North Korea are very low – not least because of the geographic distances involved. However, Pyongyang remains a threat to Israel, so long as it joins forces with its fellow tyrannical regimes in Damascus and Teheran.