North Korea and Israel: A Lot in Common

by , May 08, 2010

North Korea and Israel have a lot in common.

Neither is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and both employ their nuclear weapons in elaborate games of peek-a-boo with the international community. Israel and North Korea are equally paranoid about outsiders conspiring to destroy their states, and this paranoia isn’t without some justification. Partly as a result of these suspicions, both countries engage in reckless and destabilizing foreign policies. In recent years, Israel has launched preemptive strikes and invaded other countries, while North Korea has abducted foreign citizens and blown up South Korean targets (including, possibly, a South Korean ship in late March in the Yellow Sea).

And they’re both exceptions in their regions: Israel is a Jewish state in an Arab region; North Korea is an old-style feudal dictatorship in an Asian region marked by relative prosperity and political openness. But the two countries often behave as if they are exceptions to all other rules as well. For instance, they both share an antipathy toward human rights organizations that attempt to hold them to international standards. Witness the recent attacks by Israel (and its hard-right supporters) of Human Rights Watch because of reports critical of Israel’s human rights record. North Korea also routinely rejects human rights inquiries as a challenge to its sovereignty. (For a proposal on a better strategy to engage North Korea on human rights issues, check out my latest piece Starting Where North Korea Is.)

Despite these similarities, these two roguish powers haven’t had a great deal of interaction. Between 1992 and 1994, Israel secretly negotiated a billion dollar buy-out of North Korea’s missile export program to the Middle East, and the United States intervened to nix the deal (only to explore a similar option with North Korea at the end of the Clinton administration). In 2007, Israel bombed a suspected nuclear facility in Syria that may or may not have been built with North Korean assistance. Otherwise, the two countries maintain their innocence and distance.

And yet one country is an official rogue and the other country only plays one on Arab TV. The difference in designation owes much to U.S. policy. One of the perks of world domination is the chance to make like Adam in Genesis and name all the animals. North Korea, according to Washington, is beyond the pale. Israel, however, is "one of us": firmly ensconced in the Judeo-Christian tradition, accorded honorary European status, and even considered worthy of membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

In certain respects, of course, Israel readily qualifies for OECD membership. Its per-capita GDP is larger than current OECD members Turkey and Mexico. But as Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF) contributor Adam Robert Green explains in Does Israel Belong in the Club?, Israel faces two types of barriers to access. On the one hand, Israel is increasingly according second-class status to its non-Jewish citizens. On the other hand, he writes, "Israel occupies swathes of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, and exerts physical and bureaucratic control over these regions, without granting any political representation to the inhabitants. By governing de facto, without giving voice to those governed, Israel cannot be described as a democracy: not technically and not in spirit."

So, why does Israel merit this exceptional treatment? Certainly, the country has a supportive constituency in the United States, although this "Israel lobby" doesn’t have the magical powers that some would ascribe to it. The United States supplies Israel with $2-3 billion annually in military aid for geopolitical reasons, to have a friend in the region. But we also send over $1 billion every year to Egypt for the same reason. Heck, we used to send arms to Saddam Hussein, and it wasn’t because of an "Iraq lobby" pulling the strings.

Of greater salience is the overlap in the exceptionalist traditions of Israel and the United States — the notions of "chosen people," the "redemption" of the land by settling it — which I’ve written about here before. This symbiotic exceptionalism can also be found in the relationship between North Korea and China. Both Beijing and Pyongyang view themselves as the centers of the world and, through transmuted nationalism, the true heirs of the communist tradition.

In both cases, however, the sense of overlapping exceptionalism may be coming to an end. Beijing tolerated Pyongyang’s out-there behavior because both countries were part of a larger communist bloc, the Cold War in Asia required clear allegiances, and at times North Korea was useful as a cat’s paw to swipe at the United States and its allies. Pyongyang tolerated Beijing’s older-brother paternalism because — to quote Woody Allen’s famous joke about the guy who accepts his brother’s delusion that he’s a chicken — it needed the eggs, namely China’s shipments of food and energy. Today, however, these two countries are no longer as "close as lips and teeth." By pursuing nuclear weapons and refusing to pursue Beijing-style economic reform, North Korea has become like one of those embarrassing relatives who keeps getting thrown in jail and refuses to go into rehab. China tried tough love but now much of the love has drained from its approach, leaving only toughness.

So, too, have U.S. and Israeli interests begun to diverge. Israel’s invasion of Gaza, its refusal to stop new settlements in the West Bank, and its on-again-off-again desire to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities are all anathema to the realists in the Obama administration. Important actors in the U.S. political scene will still support Israel regardless of its behavior, since they want to see Hamas punished, Palestine carved up and impotent, and Iran batted about by our cat’s paw ally. But mainstream opinion is beginning to shift away from Israel — or at least the Israeli right’s version of Israel. From above, the public criticism of Israel by the U.S. president and vice president conveys Washington’s anger and frustration. From below, the emergence of J Street, the pro-Israel and pro-peace policy outfit, challenges the monolithic, Israel-right-or-wrong consensus that has had such a stranglehold over U.S. policy.

Just as China would not likely abandon North Korea, the United States isn’t about to sever relations with Israel any time soon. Rogue allies are allies first, rogues second. But both North Korea and Israel may soon find that they’ve invoked their exceptional status one time too many. Some day, when they look over their shoulders for back-up, they might find nothing but air.

(Foreign Policy in Focus)

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