Iran, North Korea and the lessons of 2007

When North Korea got off scot-free in 2007, it became even more dangerous. Now is a perfect time to teach two countries – Iran and North Korea – a different lesson.

By
May 16, 2019 23:33
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands before their one-on-one

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shake hands before their one-on-one chat during the second U.S.-North Korea summit at the Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam February 27, 2019.. (photo credit: LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS)

 
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 On May 4, North Korea tested a new ballistic missile. It was a demonstration of strength. Not only was Pyongyang showing the world that it has the technological capability to continue developing new weapons, but also that it will take a lot more than a few rounds of talks with US President Donald Trump to get it to stop.

This is a pattern that the West has long faced when it comes to North Korea, which is believed today to be in possession of up to 60 nuclear weapons. For years, successive US administrations have tried to negotiate with the supreme leader, only to have their offers rebuffed time and again.
But what if all of this could have been different?


In the Spring of 2007, Israel discovered that North Korea was building a nuclear reactor in northeastern Syria (full disclosure: that story is at the center of my new book, Shadow Strike). The intelligence was obtained by the Mossad after its agents reportedly broke into the hotel room of Ibrahim Othman, director of Syria’s Atomic Energy Commission.


The agents walked away with a trove of photographs, showing the construction of a reactor in Deir ez-Zor, a region in Syria not far from the Euphrates River. One of the photos showed Othman posing in front of the reactor with Chon Chibu, one of the scientists in charge of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex.


After months of deliberations and attempts to convince president George W. Bush to take action, prime minister Ehud Olmert sent Israeli Air Force fighter jets to destroy Syria’s reactor on September 6, 2007. The operation went smoothly – and for many years, Israel remained silent.


A FEW weeks after the air strike, Christopher Hill – an assistant secretary of state and head of the US delegation to the nuclear negotiations going on at the time with Pyongyang – flew to China for a meeting with Kim Kye Gwan, a senior North Korean negotiator. Hill showed Kim the photos obtained by the Mossad and confronted him with the evidence that North Korea was proliferating nuclear technology. But just like the photos were revealed, they were put away just as quickly. North Korea was never made to pay a price for what it did in Syria.


This went against Bush’s own declarations. In October 2006, after North Korea had tested its first nuclear device, Bush famously declared: “The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable.”


But that never happened. Indeed, just the opposite occurred. As part of an effort to salvage nuclear negotiations in 2008, the Bush administration removed North Korea – after 20 years – from the State Department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism. Practically, this meant that sanctions and other restrictions the US had imposed on North Korea could be lifted. (That decision would be overturned by Trump in 2017.)


What came next was no surprise: between 2009 and 2017, North Korea tested five more nuclear devices.


This is an important story to remember as Trump tries to salvage his own talks with North Korea while at the same time amasses military forces in the Persian Gulf ahead of a possible confrontation with Iran.


In 2007, North Korea learned a bad lesson. By not being made to pay a price for proliferating nuclear technology to Syria, the rogue country believed it could do anything – like continue working on its own nuclear program and test-firing ballistic missiles throughout East Asia.


HOW DOES this connect to Iran? Because what Trump is trying to do now is to make sure that Iran does not learn the same lesson. The military buildup in the Gulf – including the deployment of the USS Lincoln and B-52 bombers – is meant to send a message to Iran that the only real way to avoid a military confrontation is to come back to the table and negotiate a new nuclear deal. The only difference is that this time the deal will not provide the Iranians with a path to a bomb, like in 2015. The deal Trump wants is supposed to ensure they never get their hands on it.


Iran cannot be allowed to become the next North Korea. Already, the world has one country that appears to be impossible to deter or engage with, since it already has nuclear weapons. Now imagine that Iran would also have nuclear weapons.


The US buildup in the Gulf is not just about Iran but also, indirectly, about sending a message to North Korea. Pyongyang is closely following what is happening in the Middle East to see how far Trump is willing to go. If he succeeds in bringing the Iranians back to the negotiating table, that would be ideal and the North Koreans might see it as their opportunity to do the same. If conflict erupts and America does not stand down, North Korea will also have to do some thinking.


In 2007, Israel showed the world that it had redlines which could not be crossed. The US appears to be doing the same, but needs to stay the course. Trump has to set a clear price for what happens when North Korea provokes the world and when Iran defies sanctions.


When North Korea got off scot-free in 2007, it became even more dangerous. Now is a perfect time to teach two countries – Iran and North Korea – a different lesson.
 
***


On Tuesday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman gathered at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem to mark the first anniversary of America moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Israel’s capital city.


It was a festive ceremony, attended by hundreds of government officials, diplomats and invited guests. The embassy couldn’t put together its own event due to bureaucratic limitations, and it needed someone to organize it. That is where the Friends of Zion Museum – an Evangelical Christian organization – came into the picture.


This is interesting. There is no question that Evangelicals are today some of Israel’s greatest supporters in the US, but what about the Jewish community and America’s various Jewish organizations? None of them wanted to host the event? Sadly, it seems that way.


In today’s divisive political environment in the US, many American Jews find it difficult to bridge the gap between their support for Israel – if they do support the country – and their complete opposition to Trump and his administration. This has pushed many people – including longtime Zionists – further away from Israel, not just because of Netanyahu’s policies but rather because they perceive Israel as being too aligned with Trump.


I tend to steer clear of weighing in on domestic US political issues, like immigration or the Mueller Report. But there is difficultly when it comes to questioning Trump’s support for the Jewish state. Nevertheless, most Jews stay away from him – and in return, the administration has moved away from the Jewish community. While it is close to the Republican Jewish Coalition and its supporters, it was telling that in March, the administration invited Evangelical leaders to the White House for briefings about its peace plan. Has the administration done the same for Jewish leaders? You already know the answer.


I am not writing this to call for Jews to support Trump, but rather to point out the shift in support Israel receives today throughout the US, and particularly within the Jewish community. Some people accuse Netanyahu of warming up too much to Trump. While this may have some truth to it, what do they expect? Do they want Israel to miss opportunities to greatly improve its strategic standing – like getting the US to recognize its sovereignty over the Golan? Should Netanyahu have told the president not to make the announcement or not to move the embassy?


ONE OF this country’s greatest achievements throughout its 71 years has been to preserve bipartisan support for itself in Congress. Until now, it rarely mattered if the president was a Democrat or a Republican: support for Israel, fostered with the assistance of AIPAC and others, was genuine. Even during the difficult and tense Netanyahu-Obama years, Israel continued to receive support from the administration, as well as from Congress. It was Obama, let’s not forget, who signed a new 10-year deal during his last few months in office to provide Israel with $38 billion in military aid. He made mistakes, in my opinion, and wrongly pressured Israel on settlements and borders, but he remained supportive of the country and its security.


Until now, you didn’t have to belong to one party to support and believe in Israel. It was one of the rare issues that could always bring Republicans and Democrats together. True, there were differences in the nuances, but overall, everyone agreed that it was in America’s interest to support Israel – and ensure that it had the ability to protect itself, by itself.


Unfortunately, that has changed. And while this is not necessarily Israel’s fault – the changes in the Democratic Party are happening with or without Israel – it is something that needs to keep Israel’s leadership up at night. They need to be worried about what will happen if the country doesn’t find a way to engage with progressive circles in the US.


The fact that Jewish organizations did not come together in Jerusalem to mark the embassy move is just one indication of how complicated this has become. Bipartisanship cannot be dismissed.

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