We'd have had a different North Korea, claims one Israeli diplomat; it was a fiasco from every angle,' counters another

The curious tale of Israel’s short-lived courtship of North Korea

25 years after the Foreign Ministry and Mossad each sent a delegation to Pyongyang trying to stop it from selling arms to Israel’s enemies, the episode still stirs up bitterness and controversy

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

Illustrative photo of a rally in North Korea (Shutterstock)
Illustrative photo of a rally in North Korea (Shutterstock)

On November 3, 1992, three Israeli diplomats boarded a plane from Pyongyang to Tokyo. Having participated in the Jewish state’s first-ever diplomatic mission to North Korea, they were heading home hopeful that the two nations could reverse their bitter decades-old enmity and embark on a new era of fruitful cooperation. They dreamed of setting up an Israeli mission in Pyongyang, and of persuading the reclusive regime to stop selling arms to Israel’s enemies in the Middle East.

But as they made their way into the plane to their seats, they spotted then-Mossad deputy director Ephraim Halevy and immediately knew their mission was in trouble.

“I said ‘Shalom, shalom,’ but that’s it. I didn’t talk to him,” recalled Abraham Setton, who was the assistant of the Foreign Ministry’s deputy director-general at the time. “As soon as I saw him there, I understood what was going on. I knew their tricks.”

The spy agency’s involvement, Setton told The Times of Israel this week, meant that the Foreign Ministry was out of the race. With the Mossad involved, nothing tangible would come of the diplomats’ project to bring Jerusalem and Pyongyang closer together.

And so it proved. Israel’s little-known attempt to reach out to North Korea was cut short by then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in early 1993, presumably due to US pressure. It proved to be one more area of disagreement between Labor powerhouses Rabin and Shimon Peres. And 25 years later, as North Korea threatens the West with nuclear devastation, the curious tale of two Israeli government institutions putting out feelers to a hostile regime — and with the Mossad allegedly sabotaging the Foreign Ministry’s efforts — still rankles with many of those who were involved.

Supporters of the outreach effort believe Israel could have forged ties with North Korea, and changed history. Its detractors dismiss the notion, with one senior former Foreign Ministry diplomat branding the effort “one of the ugliest episodes in Israeli history.”

Even within the Foreign Ministry itself, there is disagreement: Some argue that a historic opportunity was missed to turn North Korea into a benign force with strong economic ties to Israel; others deem the effort delusional and foolish.

The North Korean Military Parade Pyongyang on April 15, 2017. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
The North Korean Military Parade Pyongyang on April 15, 2017. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

While Israel had recognized Communist China back in 1950, it never established relations with North Korea. Over decades, relations with Pyongyang — which provided Libya, Iran, Syria and other countries in the region with advanced missile technology — remained extremely hostile until the early 1990s. At the time, North Korea was suffering from a severe economic crisis and its founder and president, Kim Il-sung, had fallen ill. Parts of the leadership in Pyongyang appeared to be ready to consider opening the country to the West.

In September 1992, Eytan Bentsur, the Foreign Ministry’s deputy director-general, made a connection through mutual acquaintances with a North Korean businessman who proposed a deal: Israel would purchase a defunct gold mine in North Korea in exchange for Pyongyang freezing or limiting its arms deals with Iran.

“They came to me with this idea, which I then took to [then-foreign minister Shimon] Peres,” Bentsur recalled this week. “I told him that, here’s an opportunity, and Peres said, ‘Go ahead.’ One of his conditions was to keep it entirely secret, not to tell even the head of the Foreign Ministry’s Asia department about it.”

On November 1, 1992, five Israelis — Bentsur, Setton, Beijing-based diplomat Ruth Cahanoff and two geologists — flew to Pyongyang to explore the possibility of cooperating with the regime. The Foreign Ministry had informed the Mossad of the mission, since the spy agency is traditionally in charge of relations with countries Israel has no diplomatic relations with.

Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy (photo credit: CC BY-SA Eli Itkin/Wikimedia Commons)
Efraim Halevy (CC BY-SA Eli Itkin/Wikimedia Commons)

“We shared all the information with Halevy and spared no details,” Setton recalled in a 2007 article. “Halevy, on his part, raised no objections throughout the meeting. Yet, in our effort to adhere to protocol, we were naive in thinking we could cooperate with the Mossad.”

Both Bentsur and Setton, in separate interviews with The Times of Israel on Wednesday, remembered receiving a friendly welcome in Pyongyang. The Israeli delegation stayed for several days in the regime’s official guesthouse, Bentsur said.

“We were flown around by the helicopter of the leader [Kim Il-sung] and met with his deputy. We were accompanied by a high-ranking general from the North Korean army all throughout our visit, and they entertained us with a huge spectacle.” A meeting with Kim’s son-in-law, who was in charge of country’s arms exports, was set up, Setton said.

What the Israeli diplomats did not know at this point is that they weren’t the only Israelis in Pyongyang.

“At the same time, a second Israeli delegation headed by Halevy also paid a visit to the North Korean capital,” according to East Asia expert Aron Shai. “Halevy arranged the visit because he considered the subject ‘weighty.’ Iran had missile delivery capability, and if there was the faintest chance of preventing North Korean-Iranian collaboration in this sphere, such an opportunity could not be missed… The Koreans had raised the issue, so Jerusalem felt obliged to test the waters.”

It is unclear even today exactly what the Mossad representatives did in North Korea, but the Foreign Ministry delegation was taken to the Unsan gold mine, which Israel was expected to buy or rehabilitate, Shai, a professor of East Asian Studies at Tel Aviv University, wrote last year in the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs. “No official Israeli documentation of the deliberations between the two delegations is known to exist. However, on the whole, it emerges that mutually beneficial arrangements were discussed.”

Bentsur and his colleagues were convinced that North Korea was genuinely open to rapprochement. Indeed, Bentsur still believes this to have been the case.

“This was a historic opportunity,” he said Wednesday. “North Korea had a sick leader and there was an atmosphere in the country where people were worried about the day after. They wanted Western investment, they looked for a new way to get over the harsh economic crisis they were suffering from. We entered into this space.”

The regime was willing to consider allowing Israel to open a diplomatic mission in Pyongyang and there was talk of Peres visiting the country at some point, he added. “The late Shimon Peres, he was a man of action; he saw the great opportunity and wanted to exploit it,” Bentsur said.

The North Koreans initially wanted to talk mostly about economic cooperation; they wanted Israel to deal with the Unsan gold mine and consider investing a billion dollars in the country, he said.

Bentsur maintains that he made plain to North Korea that Jerusalem would not significantly enhance bilateral relations as long as Pyongyang continued selling missile technology to Israel’s enemies. “Of course they didn’t volunteer ceasing their arms deals,” he told The Times of Israel. “But I raised the issue, again and again, and it quickly became clear to them that without quid pro quo we could not advance.”

‘It was a fiasco from every angle you can look at it’

In the weeks that followed the November 1992 trip, it seemed to policymakers in Jerusalem that North Korea might actually be willing to go along with Israel’s demands, especially if Jerusalem helped Pyongyang to quickly get closer to the US. However, Halevy soon concluded that the regime was continuing to sell missiles to Israel’s enemies, that a deal was unlikely, and that it was best to cease any contact.

In January 1993, North Korea invited Peres and Bentsur to Pyongyang. But Rabin refused to let them go, apparently because the US and South Korea had grown increasingly uneasy with the ostensible Israeli-North Korean detente. The prime minister himself likely did not believe in the North Koreans’ ability to deliver on their promises. Bentsur protested, and continued to argue for a renewal of talks, but was overruled.

“It appears that Halevy used his powers of persuasion to convince both the Americans and Rabin to stop negotiations immediately,” Setton wrote in 2007. “Rabin did not even bother to consult us, refusing even to see us, and therefore did not have all the details before reaching this decision.”

From left to right: Israel's ambassador to South Korea, Asher Naim, PM Yitzhak Rabin and South Koreak president Kim Yung Sam in Seoul, December 1994 (Yaacov Sa'ar/GPO)
From left to right: Israel’s ambassador to South Korea, Asher Naim, PM Yitzhak Rabin and South Korean president Kim Yung Sam in Seoul, December 1994 (Yaacov Sa’ar/GPO)

“The Mossad was behind the decision to end it,” Bentsur said this week, accusing the spy agency of having actively sabotaged the Foreign Ministry’s initiative simply because it disapproved of any other agency than itself dealing with North Korea. “The Mossad pressured the CIA into pressuring [then-US secretary of state Warren] Christopher, and that was the end of it.”

Opting not to respond to the allegations levelled against the Mossad, Halevy on Wednesday referred the Times of Israel to his 2006 memoir, “Man in the Shadows,” which dedicates several pages to his mission to North Korea.

Naturally, the Mossad kept completely quiet about its contacts with Pyongyang Korea. But it is well-documented that Israel’s hope for a rapprochement with North Korea was also assailed from within the Foreign Ministry itself.

“It was a fiasco from every angle you can look at it,” said Moshe Yegar, who headed the ministry’s Asia department at the time. “They had people flying to North Korea — that does not bring great honor to the State of Israel.”

Yegar had not been informed about Bentsur’s mission plans to fly to Pyongyang. In fact, he only learned about the project after it was leaked to the press, he told The Times of Israel last week.

The Mossad is not obligated to inform the Foreign Ministry about its activities, Yegar said. But that his own boss did not consult with him before embarking on such a mission doomed the project from the very beginning, Yegar charged.

Bentsur said in response that Peres had ordered him to keep the initiative secret.

Moshe Yegar in 1985 (Yaacov Sa'ar/GPO)
Moshe Yegar in 1985 (Yaacov Sa’ar/GPO)

“It was so secret that it made its way into the pages of Maariv,” Yegar said derisively. “I was in charge of Asia — they pulled a stinking maneuver on me,” he lamented.

Trying to get North Korea to abandon its lucrative arms deals with Iran and the Arab world in exchange for closer ties with Israel was utterly unrealistic, and an expert on the region could have determined that from the very beginning, Yegar said.

“It’s idiotic. It’s nonsense of the first order. When you have such an idea you have to consult with people, not do it in secrecy, and then leak it to the press,” he went on. “For Israel to become friendly with North Korea is so absurd, when I first heard about it, in the Maariv article, I refused to believe it.”

Exploring avenues to prevent missiles from getting into the wrong hands is laudable, but there was “absolutely no way” Israel could have ever managed to get Pyongyang to go along with such an aim, Yegar posited, since these deals were “a thousand times more valuable to North Korea than anything Israel could ever offer,” he said.

“It’s one of the ugliest episodes in Israeli history. Thankfully nothing came of it.”

People watch a TV news program showing a file image of a missile being test-launched by North Korea, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, July 4, 2017 (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
People watch a TV news program showing a file image of a missile being test-launched by North Korea, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, July 4, 2017 (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Bentsur and his team, on the other hand, insist that their mission could have changed the course of history. Had the effort not been scuttled by the Mossad, they argue, North Korea today would be a state like China — authoritarian, perhaps, but generally peaceful and focused on economic prosperity rather than bent on confrontation.

“At the time, there was an atmosphere of change,” Bentsur said, adding that some in the leadership were ready to steer the country into a different, more pro-Western direction. Experts in Japan and South Korea, and even Time magazine, spoke of a “breakthrough” when the talks were first made public, he said.

“At that particular moment in time it was possible to change an aggressive and dangerous regime into one that focused on developing its own economy,” he added. “There’s no doubt that it would have been a different North Korea.”

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