Israel, North Korea Discussed Establishing Relations, Former Officials Say

Buildings in North Korea are seen from the Chinese border town of Tumen in eastern China’s Jilin Province. (Minoru Iwasaki/Kyodo News via AP)

Israel and North Korea conducted secret talks on mutual recognition in 1993, but the talks were stopped by then-Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin, members of the Rabin administration said in a lecture Sunday, according to Maariv.

Former Director General of the Foreign Ministry Eitan Bentsur and former Israeli ambassador Avi Siton said Sunday in a lecture in Yerushalayim that the connection between Israel and North Korea had been facilitated by a Jewish businessman from New York, whom he did not name. The businessman had extensive interests in South Korea, and his partners there were conducting extensive, if secret, business deals with the North. The businessman and his partners actually visited North Korea and discovered a country that was living in poverty and was socially unstable.

The businessman presented his findings to then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who saw North Korea’s difficult situation as an opportunity to help integrate the infamously closed society into the rest of the world — and to acquire another ally for Israel. Peres gave the green light for discussions on establishing relations between the two countries. The delegation was led by Bentsur, and was received by “the highest-level delegation in North Korea,” including then-head of state Kim Jong-Il.

Accompanying Bentsur on the trip were businesspeople and geologists, at the request of the North Koreans who, it turned out, wanted assistance in reopening a gold mine that had been bombed during the Korean War. Bentsur said that the North Koreans had agreed that Israelis could be stationed at their ports to examine cargo, which would allow them to comply with U.N. demands that international supervisors ensure that they did not export weapons or other material to terrorist groups or rogue states. A state visit by Peres was also discussed. But Rabin nixed the effort, Bentsur said. The reason, he said, was “discomfort” among several Western countries — most notably the United States — with the idea of Israel establishing relations with North Korea.

Had those relations been established, history might have been different, said Siton. “The process was stopped before it could mature because Rabin did not want to deal with the ‘crazy ideas’ of the Foreign Ministry,” he added.