Israel rejected a North Korean offer in 1999 to pay it $1 billion in cash in return for not selling missile technology to Mideast countries because it felt the US would opposed the arrangement, according to a newly published memoir by a prominent North Korean defector.
Rather than pay cashstrapped North Korea in cash, Israel – according to the book Cryptography From the Third-Floor Secretariat by Thae Yong Ho – offered to provide more than a billion dollars worth of food, agriculture and medical aid. North Korea rejected the offer.
Pyongyang has been a regular supplier of missile and nuclear technology to Iran and Syria, and reportedly supplied Damascus with the technology to build the nuclear reactor in Deir ez-Zor, which Israel destroyed in 2007.
Kongdan (Katy) Oh, a senior Asia specialist at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Virginia, quoted extensively from Thae’s memoir at a symposium last month at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy entitled, “North Korea in the Middle East: A Dangerous Military Supply Line.”
According to Oh, Thae was one of the highest ranking North Korean diplomats to defect when he did so to South Korea in the summer of 2016. In 1999, according to his memoir, he was North Korea’s second ranking diplomat in Stockholm and arranged the first of three meetings between North Korea’s ambassador to Sweden, Son Mu Sin, and Israel’s envoy at the time, Gideon Ben Ami. Thae served as the English interpreter in those meetings, since Son did not speak English.
Oh, basing her comments on Thae’s memoir, said he received a phone call from party headquarters in North Korea asking him to arrange a meeting with the Israeli ambassador, and that he did so at a quiet cafe.
As soon as they sat down, Oh said, the North Korean ambassador said Pyongyang successfully fired a “satellite,” a euphemism for a missile- testing, a few months ago, and that “Iran and Mideast countries” showed a strong interest in procuring that technology.
Son went on to explain that the North Korean economy was in bad shape and needed cash and foreign currency.
He asked the ambassador to imagine what would happen in the Mideast if North Korea exported its missile technology, or even manufactured missiles that would be sent there.
Oh said Son told Ben Ami that the Mideast, “already a hot place, will be even hotter.”
“We don’t want that, because we truly understand your situation, like our situation,” she said, citing Thae’s memoir. “You are surrounded by bigger and very nasty powers. We are surrounded by a similar situation, particularly hostility from the United States. So these are the conditions we are seeing today, and we are very much interested in mutual help. Israel can help us, and we can help you.”
Oh said the Israeli ambassador was “deeply miffed,” but asked for more concrete details about the help North Korea wanted from Israel.
Son replied that his country was in negotiations to transfer missile technology to the Mideast at the cost of $1 billion, and that if Israel would pay instead, “we will not engage in this business.”
Ben Ami was surprised, according to the memoirs, and asked for more time. Ten days later he called the North Korean Embassy and set up another meeting at another Stockholm cafe.
Oh described the scene: “He [Ben Ami] said we [Israel] seriously discussed the matter, but we cannot do this. But we are interested in accepting your offer, because your point is very important – the Mideast is a hot place and a tough place and we don’t want bad countries shooting at us with missiles manufactured by you. So instead of cash, we are offering food – North Korea was going through a famine in 1999, up to three million people died of malnutrition and hunger – and also fertilizer, because your agricultural conditions are so bad because you don’t have fertilizer.”
In addition, she said, Israel offered medicine and “any humanitarian aid up to a billion dollars.” Plus, Israel also offered “special agriculture technology” to improve the food situation in the country and reduce the risk of famine.
Son, according to Thae’s book, said, “we only need cash.”
At that point, Israel withdrew from the negotiations, but 10 days later there was a third meeting. At that meeting, according to the memoir, the Israeli ambassador said Israel’s problem was not with coming up with the billion dollars, but rather “we cannot do it because America will be against the idea, and we are a very important ally of the United States.”
When Son again said North Korea only wanted the cash, the negotiations ended.
Ben Ami urged the North Koreans to be “prudent” in the proliferation of weapons, saying this would be a violation of the agreement signed with the US in 1994, something that would further isolate and could threaten the North Korean regime.
Oh said the reason she was retelling the story was to stress that North Korea will “sell, export, transfer and engage in the proliferation of weapons-of-mass-destruction whenever the price is right, the buyers are right, the timing is right or the conditions are good.”
Last week, Kan 11 interviewed Ben Ami, who said the initial contact with the North Koreans was made at a reception at the Swedish Royal Palace, when his wife received a message from the North Korean ambassador’s wife asking to see him. They met briefly at the event, exchanged pleasantries, and Son said he was instructed to congratulate Ehud Barak on his election victory a month earlier.
Ben Ami said he relayed the message back to Jerusalem, and that it caused a “little excitement.”
“They asked me to go back to him, thank him, and say that we received the message, and would be happy to have contact with him.”
Zvi Gabai, the head of the Foreign Ministry’s Asia division at the time, said Israel’s goal has always been to establish diplomatic ties with all countries of the world.
Gabai did not mention a North Korean demand for payment of a billion dollars, but said Pyongyang wanted assistance in “every area.”
The problem, he said, was they did not offer anything in return. “When we asked them to stop supplying weapons [to Syria and Iran], they denied that they were sending weapons,” he said.
“So there was no reason to get into negotiations with them, because they did not have that much of a desire to establish ties.”