These initial contacts were made between the second in command at the Israeli Foreign Ministry at the time, Eytan Bentsur, through an American businessman who had a South Korean partner with relatives residing in Pyongyang.
As the head of Bentsur’s office at the time, I am among the few who partook in the meetings with the North Koreans. I can therefore say with all certainty that Israel was denied the possibility of reaching an agreement on the suspension of North Korea’s supply of missiles to Iran and Arab countries, years before the current one was reached with US mediation - an agreement that we were not involved in.
What led to the invitation of the Foreign Ministry to visit Pyongyang? Kim Il Sung, the North Korean leader at the time, knew that his days were numbered. He believed that his son and heir, Kim Jong Il, would compromise the stability of the country, as eventually did occur.
In an effort to achieve maximum stability prior to his death, he approached the Israeli Foreign Ministry with the intention of reaching an agreement that was of utmost importance to him. He hoped that through Israel, this agreement would also become privy to decision makers in Washington.
Following North Korea’s initial contact with Bentsur in September 1992, we verified its authenticity and only later reported it to Shimon Peres, who was serving as Israel’s foreign minister at the time. We asked him to relay the information to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in order to obtain permission from the highest political echelons to engage in talks.
We informed Peres that we would be notifying the Mossad, as is customary. Peres gave his approval, and we also received Rabinâ€™s blessing. We proceeded to contact then Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit, who authorized his subordinate Ephraim Halevy to handle the matter.
Naive in thinking Mossad would cooperate
We shared all the information with Halevy and spared no details. Halevy, on his part, raised no objections throughout the meeting. Yet, in our effort to adhere to protocol, we were naive in thinking we could cooperate with the Mossad.
On several occasions Halevy argued that we sought to act without consulting the US and without taking American interests into consideration. This is a baseless argument. Although it is true that the first meeting was held without updating the Americans, it was obvious that there was no point in informing them of the meeting before we knew how serious matter were, if at all.
Neither Rabin and Peres, nor Shavit or Halevy suggested this in our discussions prior to meeting the North Koreans. Following the initial meeting, we not only gave the Americans a detailed account, but also coordinated future moves with them.
The Americans, on their part, asked that we push forward and relay to the North Koreans that they would be of assistance if the negotiations progress.
In a meeting held with US Assistant Secretary of State, Winston Lord, in Washington on May 2nd, 1993, he asked us to convey to the regime in Pyongyang that if it would cooperate on the missile issue, the US would be open to listen to their problems. Can this conduct be judged as belittling the US and disregarding American interests?
Our contacts with the US were constant and included meetings in Washington and Jerusalem on all levels. The American position was both professional and positive. They never claimed that we acted without consulting them or that we acted to promote a separate deal.
In March 1993, it was agreed with the Americans that we would suspend negotiations with the North Koreans due to the declaration that they were abandoning the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In June 1993, when they retracted their statement, the contact with North Korea was renewed in coordination and agreement with the Americans.
Sudden change of heart
Suddenly there was a drastic change in the American position. Winston Lord called our office and apologized that they could not adhere to our agreement and that the current American position advocates an immediate cessation of contacts with North Korea. Lord mentioned that the change of heart stemmed from Israeli activity in the American capital.
It appears that Halevy used his powers of persuasion to convince both the Americans and Rabin to stop negotiations immediately. Rabin did not even bother to consult us, refusing even to see us, and therefore did not have all the details before reaching this decision.
When the order came to halt the talks, negotiations with North Korea had reached a stage whereby a draft agreement had been drawn up according to which North Korea would immediately stop the flow of missiles and knowledge to Iran and Arab states in return for economic aid to an extent that had yet to be determined.
North Korea had agreed that Israeli representatives would be stationed at its sea and airports in order to supervise the implementation of the agreement. The agreement was never signed and if it had been, there would have been no guarantee that it would have been implemented to our satisfaction. But, what could we have lost by putting North Korea to the test?
Perhaps if we had signed the agreement, Iran would not be where it is today.
In a meeting on August 17, 1996 with Gary Samore, the head of the Disarmament Division in the State Department, he said that the Americans had no reservations about renewing contact with North Korea. Later, in another meeting between Bentsur, who had by now become director general of the Foreign Ministry, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Bob Einhorn, Bentsur was asked to renew contacts with North Korea.
Equally intriguing was the South Korean position. On the 29th and 30th of March 1999, when the fourth round of talks between North Korea and the US held in Pyongyang failed, Dr. Lin Dong-Non, special advisor to the South Korean president for foreign and security Affairs, said that the way Israel handled the affair was a achievable way to address the widespread concerns.
In retrospect, the Mossad’s opposition to the Foreign Ministry’s initiative was a historical error. Why did the intelligence agency act the way it did? At best, because of bad judgment or institutional envy for being unable to reach the North Korean echelons or take credit for the historical act carried out by the Foreign Ministry.
The writer is ex-deputy director general of the Foreign Ministry and former ambassador to Denmark