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     May 19, 2011

Middle East front opens for the Koreas
By Yong Kwon

It is a rare occasion to see relative calm over the Korean Peninsula; for the first time since the sinking of the South Korean corvette the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, the world's attention has shifted away from the precarious relationship between the Koreas to the chaos in the Middle East and Libya.

However, news agencies and analysts around the world appear to have missed the fact that both Koreas remain deeply involved in these areas of conflict.

If the ruling regimes in Damascus and Tripoli survive the current instability, their ties to North Korea will deepen as they join

Pyongyang in the disreputable club of pariah states.

As a consequence, Israel and South Korea will bolster their nascent relationship to combat the threat posed by the unholy alliance of rogue states. In a sense, the international community faces the possibility of reviving the Cold War division between the "client states" of the former bipolar world, only with an unprecedented amount of bilateral cooperation between the respective camps and the collective potential for destruction.

The Yonghap news agency on April 10 reported that despite the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bombing campaigns, nearly 200 North Koreans residing in Libya were ordered not to repatriate. [1] Yonhap, along with Donga Ilbo and other major South Korean newspapers that picked up on this information, reported that this was Pyongyang's measure to prevent the import of instability to North Korea. While this assessment corresponds with the strict control of information and censorship within North Korea, it is far from being a fully substantiated analysis.

North Korea had frequently been present in foreign conflicts either by directly providing aid or closely observing the combat activities of "fraternal" states.

During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Pyongyang even dispatched 20 pilots from the Korean People's Air Force to aid the Egyptian air force. This show of support was repaid by Anwar Sadat's government in 1975 with an agreement to cooperate in missile development. [2]

Based on precedence in North Korea's foreign policy behavior, Pyongyang may be eyeing for closer cooperation with post-bellum Libya by leaving essential medical personnel in the war zone. If the North Korean embassy in Tripoli was indeed damaged by a NATO air raid on May 13 as speculations suggest, it will only work to solidify the future bonds between the two states.

Since establishing official diplomatic relations with Libya in 1974, North Korea had been a huge supplier of arms to the Muammar Gaddafi regime. In addition, according to the former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) deputy director general of safeguards, Olli Heinonen, it is very likely that Tripoli had also imported materials for nuclear weapons from North Korea. [3] While this remains a mere suspicion based on a few pieces of evidence uncovered by the IAEA in 2004, considering the ties between Damascus and Pyongyang in the field of nuclear weapons development, this conclusion is not all that surprising.

The problem with alienating several states from the international community is that it erodes the effectiveness of their diplomatic isolation by dramatically reducing the cost of these states associating with each another. When the civil war in Libya ends (and the Gaddafi regime survives due to half-hearted international intervention), the embattled government in Tripoli will be forced to turn to other pariah states for trade and military cooperation.

Even though the international community appears more hesitant to sanction military intervention in Syria, the regime in Damascus also faces alienation if President Bashar al-Assad authorizes anything resembling his father's scorched-earth tactics (used against Syrian Sunnis in the city of Hama in 1982) against protesters. Syria already has a (possibly intimate) working relationship with North Korea and as a state once aligned with the Soviet Union, existing overlaps in military hardware will only facilitate future exchange of weapons technology.

The release of documents by WikiLeaks last year revealed that Iran had purchased several missiles from North Korea that are capable of carrying nuclear warheads, giving Tehran the power to strike Western European cities for the first time. [4]

The purchased missiles were called BM-25 (Musudan), a North Korean variant of the Russian R-27, which were deployed with nuclear warheads onboard Yankee class submarines. Despite strict oversight by the United States, Pyongyang still managed to export missiles to not only Iran, but also Sri Lanka, Uganda, Yemen and Egypt. Nothing is stopping further exports being made to Syria and post-bellum Libya.

North Korea has been remarkably resourceful even in isolation from the international community. Even after major money laundering operations like the one carried out from Banco Delta Asia in Macau were shut down, secret bank accounts in China, Japan and Germany provided venues for capital transaction for the purchase of equipment from not only Russia but the rest of the world.

In addition to missile prototypes from Russia, computerized lathes were purchased from Switzerland, machinery from Japan, hydraulic presses from Taiwan and specialized steel from China; all key materials for constructing missiles. [5] This is only the tip of the iceberg, representing the extent of the intelligence gathered by the United States and the Russian Federation.

Adding Syria and Libya to the ever expanding area of operation for the North Korean military does not contribute to the stability of the region and exports regional tensions abroad. It is precisely this threat that will draw Israel and South Korea closer to one another.
Prompted by aggressive North Korean military provocation in 2010, in January of this year Seoul increased its defense budget by 25% and showed interest in purchasing Israeli drones, missiles and radar technology. [6] Israel and South Korea also share similar threats against rockets targeting major population centers, thus the Israeli anti-missile system "Iron Dome" may also be deployed in South Korea to reduce the North Korean deterrence capabilities. In turn, the Israeli air force is considering the purchase of South Korean made T-50 trainer jets.

The quasi-alliance made by Israel-South Korea against Libya-Iran-Syria-North Korea will not yield the Cold War stability based on the fear of mutually assured destruction; for one, North Korea's foreign policy is intrinsically built on provocations.

In the 1970s, the Japanese Red Army collaborated with leftist organizations like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine to conduct terrorist acts against Israel. Similar intercontinental collaboration may occur between North Korea and Libya, only this time, the collaborators are sovereign states with conventional militaries capable of building weapons of mass destruction and territorial sanctuaries free from international jurisdiction.

This is not to suggest that North Korean agents will go on a shooting rampage in Lod Airport, but it does mean that Israel will be forced to take a more aggressive posture to deter against possible threats to its existence and South Korea will face a North Korean nuclear weapons program bolstered by more foreign capital and technology. This adds to the dangerous calculus of states leveraging the cost-benefit analysis of reciprocation and pre-emptive strikes.

The international cooperation between opposing states was bound to occur; new infrastructure easing international transaction of goods and conventional business practices have made inter-state cooperation more viable.

As a sign of our globalized world, the conclusion of the Libyan civil war and the handling of the Syrian crisis by the international community will have direct ramifications to the security of the Middle East, North Africa and Northeast Asia. It is high time that the great powers learn to deal with these new avenues of crisis escalation as they will not disappear while technology continues to advance.

1. Jang, Yonghoon. "North, 'No Repatriation' order given to North Korean representatives in Libya." Yonhap News Agency, April 10, 2011.
2. Bermudez, Joseph S Jr. "A History of Ballistic Missile Development in the DPRK." Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Occasional Paper #2. 1999, 6.
3. "Interview with former Deputy Director General of IAEA, Olli Heinonen: North Korea exported nuclear material to Libya." Voice of America Korean, May 6, 2011.
4. Broad, William J. "Iran fortifies its arsenal with the aid of North Korea." New York Times, November 28, 2010.
5. Park, Jongsae. Wikileaks, exposure of truth behind the North's secret export of missiles. Choson Ilbo, December 8, 2010.
6. Hill, Debbie "South Korea, Israel boost defense ties." UPI, January 11, 2011.

Yong Kwon is a Washington-based analyst of international affairs.

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