Seoul searching: Israel's unexplored alliance with South Korea

These two unlikely democracies have not capitalized on their strategic alignment, and rarely collaborate to confront shared threats from aggressive neighbors.

South Korea details the entire history of conflict on the peninsula at its War Memorial, where it summarizes the Korean War succinctly as a war between the prepared and the unprepared (photo credit: MICHAEL WILNER)
South Korea details the entire history of conflict on the peninsula at its War Memorial, where it summarizes the Korean War succinctly as a war between the prepared and the unprepared
(photo credit: MICHAEL WILNER)
PERIL FROM the air at short range. Threats from underground spanning miles of territory. A determined enemy seeking the destruction of their government.
Israel and South Korea share much in common. They are both young nations born out of war, now grown into high-tech economies reliant on no natural resources but the minds of their people. They live vibrantly day to day under the constant threat of the next battle. And their enemies – in North Korea, in Iran and through their proxies worldwide – are already working together, against Seoul and Jerusalem and their common interests.
Yet these two unlikely democracies have not capitalized on their strategic alignment, and rarely collaborate to confront shared threats from aggressive neighbors. Israel is an admired country among the South Korean people. But why hasn’t a defense alliance flourished, given their circumstances?
During their battle with Hamas in Gaza in 2014, Israelis were exposed to a new form of terror: The gripping threat of militants emerging from underground tunnels into their kitchens and the schoolyards of their children, set to attack without warning.
These concrete shafts 80 feet under the frontlines of conventional battle became Israel’s newest frontier. They were expensively built, well-constructed, wired and stocked full of supplies for the long fight. They were a direct threat to the Israeli public – and a hard form of border infiltration for the military to reliably detect.
To Israelis, the tunnel became an icon of the evolving threat they face from sophisticated adversaries willing to target civilians. American congressmen were shocked by the sight of them, offered tours of the tunnels that were captured by the Israel Defense Forces during the war and of replicas built afterwards within Israel for IDF training.
But in the years that have passed since that war ended, the response to the threat of tunnels has become a point of tension within Israel. Some consider tunnels a new reality of warfare against which the IDF must be prepared. Others believe the focus on tunnels amounts to the IDF fighting the last war – not the next.
A similar debate is currently under way in South Korea, which in the 1970s,’80s and ’90s discovered four tunnels burrowed into its territory from the North that make Hamas’s tunnels into Israel look like child’s play. North Korea’s tunnels burrow 240 feet under the most fortified strip of land on earth – the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ – avoiding an estimated 92 million landmines that would otherwise deter any potential invasion of the South.
Hamas’s 2014 tunnels were designed by weapons smugglers originally trained to navigate the Gazan-Sinai border, and could facilitate limited surprise attacks against Israelis, the kidnapping of soldiers and civilians and the escape of Hamas leadership from Israeli attacks. But North Korea’s tunnels are built at an industrial scale and fit an altogether different purpose: full-scale invasion, able to funnel 40,000 troops into the South every hour.
On my recent visit to Pyongyang’s tunnels, South Korean and US military officials told me that defectors from the North claim at least 15 similar structures under the DMZ have yet to be discovered. US intelligence estimates that thousands of additional tunnels within North Korea house the regime’s most important military facilities, including its WMD facilities, making airstrikes virtually futile should conflict commence, and the reclamation of their nuclear weapons all the more difficult in the event of a collapse of the Kim government.
And yet South Koreans view North Korean tunnels as relics of the last war, not the next – a retired threat overshadowed by Pyongyang’s cyber, nuclear, biological and chemical weapons capabilities, paired with its vast artillery arsenal.
“Koreans don’t care about the tunnels because we’re threatened by nuclear missiles,” says Jang Ji-Hyang, a Mideast policy advisor to South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and senior fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “I don’t think there’s meaningful cooperation on anti-tunnel systems.”
The four tunnels that have been discovered – referred to by the South Korean government as “tunnels of aggression” – have been sealed, and one has become a site for tourists, asked as they descend whether they are of strong enough health to make the steep climb back to the surface.
Faced with the threat of weapons of mass destruction and with enough artillery pointed at Seoul to kill 30,000 people in the first day of a conflict, Koreans may be right to focus less on the threat of tunnels than they otherwise might. But should Kim Jong-Un’s war plans involve North Korean troops operating within South Korea during a war, tunnels would be their only viable passageway around the DMZ, analysts say.
Every year since 2015, Congress has appropriated tens of millions of dollars for research and development on anti-tunneling technology in coordination with Israel – an expertise that will benefit not only the Jewish state, and potentially South Korea, but also the US itself, which faces tunneling threats of its own from the Islamic State terrorist network. According to a brief from the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization, “the use of tunnels for IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and other purposes will continue to provide a low risk strategic advantage to extremist organizations, and therefore requires continued development efforts and fielding of effective mitigation techniques.”
The first snow of the season in the Korean Demilitarized Zone, where several defections from the North to the South have raised tensions, December 2017. (MICHAEL WILNER)
The first snow of the season in the Korean Demilitarized Zone, where several defections from the North to the South have raised tensions, December 2017. (MICHAEL WILNER)
When South Korean security analysts warn against the devastating consequences of war with North Korea, they focus not on Pyongyang’s nuclear capability – although a top strategic concern – but its massive artillery stockpile, stationed on hills perfectly aimed at Seoul down below.
This threat is seen as tactical and more likely to be used in practice by North Korea than nuclear weapons, assuming Kim’s ultimate goal is to unify the peninsula under his control.
North Korea has both gun and rocket artillery at its disposal, built up over decades with increasing sophistication. The sheer number of batteries suggests a missile barrage of Seoul is theoretically possible – over 15,000 are reportedly stationed for firing upon his order, capable of raining hundreds of thousands of pounds of high explosives on the city every hour – but in practice, only a fraction of the North’s artillery is capable of reaching the city.
That caveat makes a defense of Seoul from artillery more feasible – and since 2011, South Korea’s government has dramatically increased its planning and spending on low-altitude air defense (LAAD) and shortrange air defense (SHORAD), looking in part to Israel for guidance.
Seoul’s reliance on Washington, which has 37,500 personnel permanently stationed there, makes South Korea contractually obligated in part to US missile defense systems. They have long deferred to the US Patriot and Aegis missile defense systems on land and sea, and South Korean defense analysts tell me that the government cannot afford to diversify. But in recent years they have gained US support for an indigenous Korean air and missile defense (KAMD) system specifically tailored to South Korea’s needs.
In 2012, South Korea purchased Israel’s “Green Pine” radar systems, and the following year proposed a purchase of its Iron Dome short-range missile defense systems in a deal that would incorporate an Israeli purchase of its fighter jets. Israel declined, preferring other military equipment. But Seoul’s interest in the system was telling of its potential applicability in the Korean theater.
And yet Jang, who advises the Foreign Ministry in Seoul, says the government there ultimately determined that Iron Dome wasn’t a transferrable technology.
“Diversification is good,” Jang says. “Look at Saudi Arabia – they’re buying a defense system from Russia that’ll sit next to THAAD [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense]. And I remember that four to five years ago, when the war started, Israel’s Iron Dome system and its effectiveness was everywhere on Korean media.”
“But Iron Dome isn’t really applicable to us,” she continues. “I don’t think there’s high demand for Israeli defense technology, or a strong Korean need. And we cannot really afford to buy another missile defense system.”
Jang’s assessment seems commonplace in Korea – but it isn’t gospel. Uzi Rubin, father of Israel’s long-range Arrow missile defense system and one of the top minds in the field in the Middle East, has frequently visited Korea in recent years to discuss common missile defense needs. The missile defense engineers behind Iron Dome say there are lessons South Korea can learn from Israel’s missile defense development, including its close coordination with the US. And South Korea’s expanding defense budget has led some of its defense officials to give Israeli systems a second look.
“South Korea may benefit a lot from cooperation with Israel, in terms of technologies on short-range missiles and anti-tunnel technologies – but South Korea has been overwhelmingly confident that they know what North Korea is doing,” says Kazuto Suzuki, a professor at Princeton and Hokkaido University in Japan and former member of the Panel of Experts for sanctions on Iran at United Nations. “There’s a strong belief that they are only divided because of the Korean war, and that they have a similar understanding of each other – and that ultimately North Korea will not destroy them.”
“That sensibility makes South Korea less aware of the necessity of acquiring such technologies from Israel,” Kazuto adds. “But if I were the South Korean president, I’d be happy to work with Israel for the anti-missile technologies. There’s just a very strong sense that they’re more concerned with the strategic implications of this missile technology than the real threat of conventional weapons and war.”
Shared foes
North Korea has been exporting arms to the Middle East for nearly 50 years, having failed to secure friends in its own region and discovered willing partners across the Muslim world. Pyongyang began trade with Algeria first before developing a significant defense relationship with Egypt, even flying its own fighter jets alongside Egyptian planes in its war against Israel in 1973. It was Cairo that first exposed Pyongyang to ballistic missile technology during this time – an experiment that has slowly grown into the nuclear crisis now gripping world powers today.
The US is currently applying pressure on Egypt to wean itself off of trade with North Korea. But at present, Egypt’s links with the rogue government have diminished in importance. The origins of Pyongyang’s current policy in the Middle East really began in the 1980s, when the Kim regime aligned itself with Iran in its war with Iraq, and grew in the years that followed increasingly reliant on Iranian trade and expertise.
Iran is at the heart of North Korea’s policy in the Middle East, where it is currently earning critical resources through the sale of conventional weapons to Iranian proxies. The UN has interdicted shipments of North Korean arms to Syria that have reportedly continued apace throughout Bashar Assad’s six-year war against his people there. And North Korea has provided missiles and their technologies to Yemen and Qatar, among others. “Every single missile system in the Middle East comes from the North Koreans,” says Jay Solomon, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and an expert on North Korean-Iranian relations.
Their sale of arms would be considered a cash cow if Pyongyang were collecting cash. But the Kim government is smarter than that. “North Korea doesn’t want cash in trade – they demand goods for trade. So it’s hard to calculate their profit in US dollars,” says Satoru Miyamoto, a professor at Seigakuin University and an expert on North Korean weapons proliferation across the Middle East. Satoru claimed that Iranian agents actually pitch North Korean arms on Kim’s behalf to potential customers.
“A defector who worked at a North Korean missile factory claimed that North Korea receives oil instead of cash from Iran,” Satoru adds.
And so South Korea’s existential adversary is sustaining itself in part through trade with Israel’s existential adversary. But more than that, Pyongyang, Tehran and Damascus may also be working together to perfect their weapons of mass destruction programs.
An Israeli strike against a clandestine nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007 resulted in the deaths of dozens of North Korean builders aiding in their illicit effort to build a near-replica of a North Korean plutonium facility, providing the world with the most direct confirmation available of Pyongyang’s willingness to share its nuclear weapons technology. In the years since, US authorities have tracked technicians associated with Syria’s chemical weapons program and scientists working on Iran’s ballistic missile program traveling repeatedly to North Korea.
“There are some detours of connection – there’s been no immediate connection found, but there are third parties that provide us with hints,” says Kazuto, the former Panel of Experts member. “North Korea is far more advanced than Iran, and they may learn from the North Korean process.”
Trump ordered an intelligence review of Iran’s cooperation with North Korea this past fall.
“There is very strong incentive for the North Korean side to sell out those technologies,” Kazuto adds, “and they would have a lot to offer Iran if they’re interested in pursuing the plutonium path.”
Where’s the cooperation?
Despite all of these shared interests, South Korea and Israel have a modest defense and intelligence relationship, government officials from both countries tell The Jerusalem Report. One reason why is a practical matter: They both heavily rely on the United States, which absorbs intelligence from each and provides defense to both tailored to their specific needs.
Several noted that South Korea’s current foreign minister, Kyung-wha Kang, is reticent to cozy Seoul up too closely to Israel, as during her time as deputy high commissioner for UN Human Rights in the Human Rights Council she became a frequent target of Israeli criticism.
“We will need to cooperate more,” says Jang. “But they are very shy about diplomatic relations with Israel, because of the number of Arab countries closely aligned with Seoul.”
And yet another reason is that Seoul and Jerusalem view the threats they face as local problems, unique to their region and far removed from the other.
“South Korea has been extremely concerned with the actions of North Korea – but given my experience and my sense of South Korean intelligence gathering methods and interest, their concerns focus primarily on North activities toward the South – not toward the extended regions outside Asia,” says Kazuto.
“It’s hard to tell whether cooperation is happening or not. Given the finesse of Israeli intelligence, and their extended concerns over North Korea’s role in the Middle East, there must be a level of contact,” he adds. “But perhaps Seoul’s confidence in their handling of North Korea has hindered their sense of necessity to cooperate with others, such as Israel. Time will tell if they are right.”