Living with hope in the shadow of the bomb

Like Israel with Iran, South Korea faces a hostile neighbor closing in on nuclear weapons. Unlike Israel, however, it’s not talking about military intervention

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

South Koreans watch the 2009 launch of a North Korean missile on TV (photo credit: AP/Ahn Young-joon)
South Koreans watch the 2009 launch of a North Korean missile on TV (photo credit: AP/Ahn Young-joon)

Many Koreans believe that Jews win more Nobel Prizes than others because of the wisdom hidden in the Talmud. That’s why an abridged version of the Talmud can be found “in every household” in South Korea, the country’s Ambassador to Israel Kim Il-Soo said during a recent interview.

“That makes our two nations understand each other better,” he said.

In a friendly, gracious conversation, marking last year’s 50th anniversary of South Korean-Israeli relations, however, it quickly became clear that the thinking in Jerusalem and Seoul on grappling with nasty would-be nuclear neighbors is anything but similar. The ambassador, scrupulously polite and choosing his words with care and precision, indicated that his country remains hopeful that Pyongyang will ultimately suspend a nuclear drive that is actually further along than that of the Iranians. And pressed on what might happen if this hope remains unfulfilled, he preferred not to publicly contemplate the consequent nightmare situation. He also suggested that, while he is similarly hopeful that sanctions will deter Iran, crisis “management” rather than military intervention would be required if that optimism is dashed too. Hardly the outlook in Jerusalem.

Kim’s public relations man had suggested that our interview might focus on Israel-South Korea economic and cultural ties, Korean food and, perhaps, South Korean global musical phenomenon PSY’s Gangnam Style. But it was Pyongyang style and Tehran style that dominated the conversation.

While the Iranians remain uncompromising about their uranium enrichment activities, the North Koreans are actually two steps ahead. Pyongyang conducted two nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009, and the secluded country’s new leader Kim Jong-un recently announced a third — observers said Monday it seemed to be “imminent” — in addition to threatening rocket launches against its “sworn enemies.” Experts believe Pyongyang is also actively involved in helping the Iranians get up to nuclear speed.

The conflict between North and South Korea has been simmering since the 1950s, but Pyongyang’s positions appear to be hardening. It seems unflinching in its nuclear ambitions, and, despite several United Nations Security Council resolutions, there is little international talk about possible military intervention. “We call on them not to do it,” Glyn Davies, a senior US envoy for North Korean diplomacy, said rather mildly last month, referring to Pyongyang’s announcement of an imminent third nuclear test.

So what can Jerusalem learn from Seoul about living with a stubborn, belligerent neighbor racing to get the bomb?

“Iran and North Korea have many similarities but also many differences,” the ambassador says. “I can’t tell whether Iran can be contained… Our first goal is not to contain; we want it to give up [striving for a] nuclear weapon.”

South Korea's ambassador to Israel, Kim il-soo, holding an abridged version of the Talmud in his Herzliya office (photo credit: courtesy South Korean embassy in Israel)
South Korea’s ambassador to Israel, Kim il-soo, holding an abridged version of the Talmud in his Herzliya office (photo credit: courtesy South Korean embassy in Israel)

Some analysts say that’s unrealistic and that Pyongyang will never voluntarily abandon its ambitions, he allows. However, Seoul needs to work under the assumption, “for the moment at least, that by peaceful means and dialogue we can persuade North Korea to give up their nuclear program.”

‘North Korea has tested twice, [while] refusing to have a dialogue… But we haven’t given up our hope’

For the South, living with a nuclear North Korea would be as much of a nightmare as for Israelis to imagine living with a nuclear Iran, Kim says. “We don’t even like to think about it. The problem is North Korea has already tested twice, [while] refusing to have a dialogue,” Kim said. “But we haven’t yet given up our hope to have North Korea abandon its nuclear program and make the Korean peninsular denuclearized.”

Seoul has good relations with Israel — some 50,000 South Korean tourists visit the Holy Land every year, and trade volume is around $2.5 billion. It also has good ties with Iran: Lacking in natural resources, Seoul is the world’s fifth-largest importer of crude oil, and one of Tehran’s biggest customers. From December 2011 to May 2012, South Korea imported 185,000 barrels per day of Iranian crude, cutting back to 148,000 late last year in the framework of international sanctions.

Would South Korea, torn between allies, support a last-resort Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities? Ambassador Kim is not sure. “I cannot speak for my government,” he says. “Our principal position is to see this problem solved peacefully. That’s why Korea is actively participating in the sanctions against Iran.”

It’s not always easy to reason with the Iranians, especially with the country’s religious leadership, Kim admits. “But all the same, it’s a country of a great civilization. And also, by Middle Eastern standards, their political consciousness and awareness and the level of education of the ordinary people is quite high. So I think that Iran is different from North Korea. North Korea is a closed country. Iran is also more closed than a Western country, but not as closed as North Korea.”

Unlike the blinkered subjects of North Korea’s communist dictatorship, Iranian citizens know what’s going on in the world and should be trusted to know what’s best for them, Kim argues.

Does the ambassador believe the Iranian leadership can be trusted to make rational choices given its frequent public statements that it regards the destruction of Israel as a religious imperative? The Iranian Armed Forces’s chief of staff, Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, for example, said in May that defending Palestine is to be considered “a full religious duty” and that his nation backs “the full annihilation of Israel.”

South Korean ambassador to Israel Kim Il-soo, left, with Presiden Shimon Peres at a welcoming ceremony for newly appointed ambassadors, held at the president's residence in Jerusalem. December 14, 2011. (photo credit: Isaac Harari/Flash90)
South Korean ambassador to Israel Kim Il-soo, left, with President Shimon Peres at a welcoming ceremony in Jerusalem, December 14, 2011. (photo credit: Isaac Harari/Flash90)

Kim, who represents a country in which 43 percent of the population has no religion at all (32% are Christian and 24% Buddhist), is not convinced that religious fundamentalism could drive the Iranian regime to carry out an attack that could ultimately threaten its own survival.

Amid “all their nationalistic fervor and their patriotism,” he says, the people of Iran “also desire to a live a normal life,” he says. They can think about the ramifications of their actions and then carefully weigh them, he says. Iranians will this summer elect a new president, he noted. “Their government can be influenced by the [citizens].”

All nondemocratic governments are interested primarily in their own survival, Kim goes on. Islamist or Communist, it is difficult to say which is more fanatic, he muses. Kim Jong-un spends his country’s money on weapons instead of feeding his people, the ambassador argues. Who can say that Iranian leaders are more fanatic than the North Koreans?

‘Iran and Israel used to be good friends… Since then, did any new facts arise for Iranians to hate Israel so much? I don’t think so.’

So Iran’s Islamist fundamentalists are not potentially suicidal in their hatred for Israel? “To my knowledge, Iran and Israel used to be good friends,” the ambassador recalls, noting that relations only turned sour after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. “Since then, did any new facts arise for Iranians to hate Israel so much? I don’t think so.” In other words, he seems to be suggesting, the Iranians don’t really hate Israel that much.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right, and president of the Presidium of North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly Kim Yong-nam, listen to their national anthems during an official welcoming ceremony in Tehran, Iran, Saturday. (photo credit: AP)
Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right, and president of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly Kim Yong-nam during an official ceremony in Tehran (photo credit: AP)

So what, then, of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s talk of Israel being wiped off the map? “Maybe they are religious people, [but] at the same time [they are] politicians,” Kim responds. “I hope they are doing this for a political purpose. I cannot say for sure.”

In the three decades since the Iranian revolution, the Islamists have not done much to improve the lives of ordinary citizens, Kim says. “Maybe they found rationality or legitimacy in the hatred of some country.” We have to ask ourselves why the Iranians are saying that they wish death upon Israel, he continues. “I don’t think they are mad people… They think rationally, I think. Rationally, yes. They have a religious bias, but still [act] rationally. That’s why they stay in power.”

Which makes the Iranian regime similar to that in North Korea, he says. Even Kim Jong-un knows what’s best for his survival. Both leaderships, “in that sense, are very rational people. They are doing everything possible to secure the survival of the regime at the expense of the people,” Kim says. While it is indeed “mad” to place the regime’s survival over the good of people, “as far as their real political thinking is concerned, they are reasonable people.”

Kim’s bottom line: “I hope there are some ways to persuade [the Iranians to abandon their nuclear drive], as we hope about the North Koreans.”

What should Israel do in the meantime?

“Sanctions should be given a chance,” the ambassador says, unsurprisingly. Rely on the international community to ensure Iran doesn’t get to a point where it can be an existential threat to Israel, he proposes. After all, the world does have influence and “good intentions.”

Still, he acknowledges, “At the end of the day, you are responsible for your own security.”

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