Key point: Israel remains concerned about missile proliferation in the Middle East.
In 1999, North Korea tried to blackmail Israel: give us a billion dollars, it said, or we will sell ballistic missiles to your enemies.
But the Israelis turned them down.
That’s the claim made in a new book by a senior North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea in 2016. Thae Yong-ho’s book, “Cryptography From the Third-Floor Secretariat,” drew attention with its juicy revelations about Kim Jong-un’s family, including corruption and the obsession of the North Korean leader’s brother with rock star Eric Clapton.
But just as startling was the revelation that North Korea tried to offer Israel that it thought Jerusalem couldn’t refuse. Kongdan Oh, a researcher at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Washington, cited excerpts from Thae’s Korean-language book at a recent conference on North Korea and the Middle East.
That wrote that in 1999, when he was stationed at the North Korean embassy in Stockholm, he was asked by Pyongyang to arrange a meeting between the North Korean ambassador to Sweden Son Mu Sin and Israeli ambassador Gideon Ben Ami. Thae would serve as interpreter for the discussions, which were conducted in English.
Son told his Israeli counterpart that North Korea had just successfully tested a “satellite,” which was a euphemism for a ballistic missile. And more ominously, that Iran and other Middle Eastern nations had expressed “strong interest in procuring our technology.”
Son then told Ben Ami that “our economy is in bad shape. We need some real cash and foreign currency. When we export this technology, or even manufacturing of the missiles to the Middle East, can you, Israel, imagine yourself surrounded by countries who hate you? The Middle East is a hot place. It will be a hotter place.”
Son then laid down the terms of the deal: $1 billion cash or else.
The shocked Israeli ambassador replied that he must consult his government. At a second meeting ten days later, he told the North Koreans that Israel could not agree to a cash deal, but would be willing to offer food (North Korea was in the midst of a famine), fertilizer, agricultural technology and medicine.
North Korea’s answer: Cash only.
At the third and final meeting, Ben Ami explained that they couldn’t fork over cash to North Korea for fear of angering the Americans. They warned that North Korea risked violating its 1994 arms control agreement in which Pyongyang pledged to halt its nuclear program. Son replied that North Korea only signed the accord because the United States “squeezed our arm,” and that the breakdown of the agreement would free North Korea to do what it wanted.
Zvi Gabai, who headed the Asia division of Israel’s Foreign Ministry at the time, told Israeli media that North Korea appeared to be acting in bad faith. “When we asked them to stop supplying weapons [to Syria and Iran], they denied that they were sending weapons. So there was no reason to get into negotiations with them, because they did not have that much of a desire to establish ties.”
In hindsight, it’s hard to believe that such a deal would have been feasible or even sensible. The United States would doubtless have noticed that Israeli cash and goods were flowing into North Korea, and made its displeasure known (although the Reagan administration had allowed Israeli arms to Iran in the 1980s, even though Iran was a bitter foe of America). For Israel, while keeping missile technology out of the Middle East was a vital goal (and one that has largely failed), how much could it trust the North Koreans to keep their word?
Or as the IDA’s Oh concluded, “North Korea will sell, export, transfer and will engage in proliferation of WMDs whenever the price is right, the buyers are right, the timing is right and conditions are good.”
The moral of the story: Never trust a blackmailer.