Israel’s decision to suspend diplomatic contacts with North Korea has put an end to a high-level governmental debate on how to deal with the Communist country’s sale of Scud-C missiles to Iran and Syria.
The decision, made by top Cabinet officials here Monday, has also removed a potential irritant in U.S.-Israeli relations.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had expressed doubts for some time that Israel could convince the North Koreans to stop the sale of the missiles, which would have the capability of striking targets in Israel.
But Rabin did not oppose diplomatic contacts between the Foreign Ministry and North Korean diplomats in an effort to persuade them to change their policy.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres had been more sanguine about the possible benefits of talks with the North Koreans, but by Monday, he, too, seemed to have lost hope.
The Foreign Ministry issued a statement Monday that the decision to suspend contacts with North Korea had been made “to allow the U.S. to stop the supply of ballistic missiles from North Korean to Iran and Syria.”
The ministry said an agreement to this effect had been reached as a result of consultations between Washington and Jerusalem.
During a meeting last week in Washington with Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin, Samuel (Sandy) Berger, the White House deputy national security adviser, reportedly asked that Israel refrain from making any further contacts with the North Koreans.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Mike McCurry said Monday that “senior U.S. officials have told Israeli officials that the United States is concerned about contacts between Israel and North Korea, especially at a time in which the entire North American community has very serious, unresolved concerns regarding North Korea’s nuclear program.”
INTERNATIONAL EFFORT NEEDED
U.S. officials had also expressed concern over the issue to American Jewish organizational leaders, but the Jewish community had not taken a formal position on the Israeli contacts with North Korea.
“The Jewish community understands the U.S. sensitivity,” Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Monday.
But he added, “We hope the U.S. will step up its efforts in view of the requests it has made of Israel.”
“We are not satisfied that enough is being done to contain and deal with the (missile) exports,” he said. “It is going to take an international effort to cut off these supplies. The Europeans have to be more forceful.”
Israel, which does not have formal ties with North Korea, began to establish contacts this year in hopes of stopping the North Koreans from selling arms to Iran and Syria.
Israeli officials and North Korean officials had a meeting in Beijing last week in which the North Koreans reportedly agreed to continue talking about stopping the transfer of missiles to other countries, particularly Iran.
They also reportedly said they wanted to continue contacts with Israel, although they balked at the idea of establishing diplomatic relations.
Appearing on Monday before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Peres said Israel had come to the conclusion that the United States had a better chance than Israel of convincing the North Koreans not to supply Iran and Syria with missiles.
Peres suggested that one way of persuading North Korea to change its mind was for the United States to extend it economic aid worth $500 million — an option “which is quite difficult for us,” he said.
While that option may be financially difficult for Israel, it is likely to be politically difficult for the United States, which would be wary of extending aid to one of the world’s last Communist regimes.
RUSSIA SUPPLIED CARGO PLANES
Another worrying angle in the Korean missile transactions has been the involvement of Russia, which has been supplying huge cargo planes to ship Scud-C missiles to Syria.
Rabin said over the weekend that on Aug. 8 Russian planes had carried Scud-C ballistic missiles from North Korea to Damascus.
Noting that perhaps a part of the shipment had then been sent on to Iran, he said pointedly, “The arms race is going on.”
The Russian involvement is seen here as a new component in the North Korean arms deals.
So far, most of the missiles had been shipped to Syria via sea, with only the smaller parts flown in from North Korea or Iran.
The Russian aerial involvement now speeds up the process, allowing large parts to be flown directly from North Korea to Syria, where they would subsequently be assembled.
The Russian involvement is seen here as a sharp deviation from Moscow’s recent policy, which has shown a readiness to refrain from reopening the arms race in the Middle East.
Moscow, in fact, is a signatory to a pact limiting the export of missiles with a range exceeding 186 miles. The range of the Scud-C is 310 miles.
It is still unclear here whether the Scud-C shipment is a one-time incident or reflects a change in Russian policy.
Washington has already appealed to Moscow on the issue, and Israel is expected to follow suit.
Syria has been holding negotiations with Russia on a new arms deal, which so far has not been worked out because Syria has not yet paid its previous debts.
Military experts in Israel note that the continued arming of Syria, whether through Russia or North Korea, shows that although Syria is continuing its involvement in the peace process, it is also proceeding with military options.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.