On April 25, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman strongly condemned North Korea’s nuclear tests in an interview with Hebrew news site Walla. Lieberman’s description of the North Korean government as an “extreme and crazy group” was roundly criticized by Israeli opposition figures and received an emphatic denunciation from the North Korean foreign ministry.
In an official statement released on April 29, Pyongyang declared its intention to “mercilessly punish” Israel for offending North Korea’s leaders. The DPRK foreign ministry statement also accused Israel of deflecting from its “illegal” nuclear weapons arsenal and “crimes against humanity” in the occupied territories.
North Korea’s vitriolic criticisms and threatening rhetoric toward Israel are the product of decades of Cold War-induced animosity. In response to Pyongyang’s hostility, Israel has become one of the international community’s most hawkish opponents of North Korea’s nuclear buildup. Many Israeli officials fear that the DPRK’s belligerence could indirectly pose a major threat to Israel’s security and the stability of the Middle East.
A Brief History of Tensions Between Israel and North Korea
Even though public statements condemning Israel like the one issued by the DPRK foreign ministry last week are comparatively rare, hostility toward Israel has been a consistent feature of North Korean foreign policy since the early stages of the Cold War. Under founding leader Kim Il-sung, Pyongyang frequently sought to delegitimize Israel by describing it as a U.S.-backed “imperial satellite.”
North Korea also actively supported Arab countries in their military operations against Israel. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the DPRK sent 20 pilots and 19 non-combat personnel to Egypt. North Korean pilots staffed Egyptian MIG-21s during the 1973 war, and the Egyptian air force requested the DPRK’s technical expertise as Cairo attempted to neutralize the offensive capabilities of Israeli F-4 planes.
During the 1980s, North Korea shifted away from direct military opposition to Israel in favor of arms and military technology sales to Israel’s enemies in the Middle East. The DPRK exported missiles to Iran, Syria, and Libya and assisted both Syria and Iran in their attempts to develop nuclear weapon capabilities.
Even though these arms sales can be largely explained by economic imperatives, North Korea’s assistance to countries seeking to counter Israel’s nuclear deterrent has also been shaped by Pyongyang’s belief that sovereign states have the right to develop nuclear weapons without external interference.
North Korean policymakers believe that the West’s support for Israel’s nuclear weapon capabilities, and simultaneous condemnations of anti-Western countries seeking nuclear weapons, constitutes a double standard. Pyongyang’s desire to rectify this double standard is a major driver of North Korea’s belligerent opposition to Israel.
In addition to threatening Israel’s security, the DPRK has antagonized Jerusalem by expressing solidarity with the Palestinian cause. In 1988, North Korea announced its support for a Palestinian state that subsumed Israel into its borders, and endorsed the handover of the Golan Heights to Syria. The North Korean government’s arms supplies to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) entrenched a deep-rooted alliance between Pyongyang and Palestinian nationalists, which persists to this day.
Even though North Korea can no longer match its pro-Palestinian rhetoric with military support, the DPRK remains one of Israel’s most strident international critics. North Korean officials have frequently described Israel’s military operations in Gaza as “crimes against humanity,” and publicly condemned Israel’s killings of civilians during the 2008-09 Gaza war, 2010 Gaza flotilla raid, and 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict.
North Korea’s fierce opposition to Israel’s right to exist and conduct in the Palestinian territories has not gone unnoticed in the Arab world. On April 30, Hamas praised the North Korean regime for its threatening rhetoric toward Israel, and thanked the DPRK for its solidarity with the Palestinian people against “Israeli occupation.” This positive reinforcement suggests that North Korea is unlikely to moderate or reconsider its militantly anti-Israel foreign policy stance in the near future.
Israel’s Stake in the North Korean Nuclear Crisis
Even though North Korea’s nuclear buildup principally endangers the security of Washington’s leading Asia-Pacific allies, Japan and South Korea, the Israeli government has been outspoken about the need to disarm the DPRK of its nuclear capabilities. In 2009, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the international community to “respond decisively” to the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear tests.
Subsequent Israeli government statements have reiterated Netanyahu’s message. In 2010, Lieberman singled out North Korea as one of three countries, along with Iran and Syria, that constitute an axis of evil threatening Israel and the world.
The North Korean nuclear crisis has captured the attention of Israeli policymakers for two reasons. First, as noted above, the DPRK has provided military assistance to states and non-state actors that directly threatened Israel’s existence and sovereignty. During the early 2000s, Israeli intelligence officials intercepted communications between North Korean dignitaries and their Syrian counterparts about advanced arms deliveries. Israel’s September 2007 airstrikes against Syria’s main nuclear facility occurred just three days after North Korea shipped cement to Syria’s Deir ez-Zor nuclear reactor. The severity of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s response in Syria drew international attention to the threat Pyongyang posed to Israel. The presence of a delegation of Iranian scientists during North Korea’s 2013 nuclear tests heightened Israel’s security concerns, and further entrenched Israel’s opposition to North Korea’s nuclear buildup.
North Korea’s links to anti-Israeli militant groups have compounded concerns about Pyongyang’s intentions toward Israel. A 2010 Congressional Research Service report revealed that North Koreans have helped Hezbollah build underground tunnels in Lebanon. These tunnels could act as strategically important weapons caches during a war with Israel.
The scale of ground-level cooperation between North Korea and Hezbollah has caused Israel to staunchly oppose the DPRK’s weapons buildup. Israeli policymakers fear a cash-strapped North Korean government could export its technological advances to terrorist organizations with sufficient financial backing.
Second, Israeli policymakers are concerned that North Korea’s successful construction of a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile might encourage other states hostile to Israel, like Iran, to conclude that they can develop nuclear deterrents without risking a retaliatory U.S.-led military intervention. This argument is strengthened by the contrasting fates of the DPRK regime, which has resisted international pressure to disarm, and Libya’s Gaddafi, who voluntarily surrendered WMD capacity in 2003.
If the international community fails to halt North Korea’s nuclear program, Iran could view the DPRK’s recalcitrant example as more effective than Libya’s conciliatory approach. Therefore, right-wing politicians in Israel have welcomed Trump’s hardline stance on North Korea, as it sends a message to Iran that violating non-proliferation norms has serious consequences.
As journalist Ben Caspit recently noted, Israel views the disarmament of North Korea through coercive diplomacy and pressure from China as a litmus test for a similar disarmament of Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs. Israel’s desire to achieve this outcome explains why Lieberman has stridently condemned North Korean belligerence and expressed solidarity with the Trump administration on the North Korean crisis.
The recent war of words between Israel and North Korea is the latest manifestation of bilateral tensions that date back to the Cold War. Even though North Korea poses only an indirect threat to Israel’s security, the success or failure of Trump’s hardline North Korea stance could have serious repercussions for Iran’s ability to threaten Israel and the stability of the Middle East in the years to come.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.