When the Jews went to North Korea
When a delegation from the American Council for World Jewry went to North Korea, its agenda was typical of visits by Jewish organizations to developing nations: promote outreach to Israel, offer to broker assistance and training, gently raise problematic defense relations with Israel’s enemies.
Pyongyang’s agenda was much simpler but just as timeworn: Get to know these powerful Jews.
The two meetings, in 2008 and 2009, offered a window into the operation of the most cloistered country in the world—and, many believe, the most dangerous – and how communist North Korea may engage as it gently teases apart the curtains.
The death this week of longtime isolationist leader Kim Jong Il and the apparent succession of his 20-something son, Kim Jong Un, has led to abundant speculation about whether the son will expand or squelch the ginger openness launched by his father.
Jack Rosen, the founder of the American Council for World Jewry who took the trips to Pyongyang, said his group first made overtures to the North Korean delegation at the United Nations. It took considerable time and bureaucracy, but the invitation from North Korea eventually came through.
Rosen, a top New York lawyer who has been a fundraiser for presidential candidates of both parties, described North Korea as a country both remote and surreal.
“The discipline and fear permeated every element of society we came across,” Rosen told JTA. “Everything was a fine-tuned machine. Children would line up in a large public square several times a day. At a certain time of evening, there were long lines at the bus stations—and then just as suddenly you didn’t see anyone, there were no people in the street.”
One factor that Rosen said motivated his outreach to Pyongyang was North Korea’s increasing openness at the time to outside assistance. His group cleared the visit with the U.S. State Department.
Yet when they arrived in North Korea, much of the initial talk from the country’s officials nonplussed the Jewish delegation, as it focused not on the Middle East or appeals for assistance but on nuclear diplomacy.
“The first time we went,” Rosen recalled, “they were engaged in long discussions about the six-party talks and America’s intentions”—talks aimed at exchanging assistance for North Korea’s agreement to dial back its nuclear weapons program that had been suspended in 2007.
It quickly became evident that the North Koreans were interested in the visit because they viewed American Jews as critical to influencing the U.S. power establishment.
This was typical for Asian nations exposed to cliches about Jews but not to actual Jews, observed Norm Levin, a Koreas expert who has published a number of studies of the peninsula.
“They, like many Asians, have all kinds of stereotyped images of the Jews,” Levin said. “Many of them are quite favorable, although as biased as any stereotype of the Jews. Because everybody else sees the Jews as an important group—smart, successful, creative and powerful, and what do they know, they’ve never seen a Jew – they say if they’re that important, we should pay attention to them because maybe at one point they could be helpful to us on issues related to the U.S.”
Rosen recalled that when he gently pressed the Koreans on Middle East issues they seemed surprised – but hastened to organize a meeting with a top Foreign Ministry official.
“They were surprised we highlighted the issue to them; it wasn’t part of the official program,” he said.
Much of the talk focused on the country’s arms sales to Iran and Syria. North Koreans reportedly designed the nascent Syrian nuclear reactor destroyed by Israel in 2007, although North Korea denies the accusation. In their conversations, Rosen said, the North Koreans said they had no choice but to sell arms to such rogue states, as others were cut off to them.
Rosen, in an account of the trips he published in 2010 on the American Council website, said the expectation was not that North Korea would cease such activities but instead would be more sensitive to Western sensibilities about relationships with rogue states.
“We are hardly in a position to broker a nuclear agreement with North Korea, but the Council’s outreach has sensitized North Korean officials to U.S. and Jewish concerns over exporting materiel and technology to third countries,” he wrote.
That outreach makes sense, Levin said.
“If and when leadership changes in North Korea, they’re being able to go to the Rolodex” and reinitiate contact with Jewish interlocutors “could have potential value,” Levin said.
The North Koreans, Rosen said, were interested in the potential Israel had for educating its professionals, particularly in agricultural techniques. Outside experts say most North Koreans live at subsistence level.
“We found it interesting to see how openly they wanted to discuss more engagement with Americans, and took the time to talk about Israel to learn more about agricultural techniques,” he said. They also were interested in investment.
Rosen relayed the North Koreans’ interest in such engagement to Israeli and American officials, but nothing came of it.
Levin said Israel’s expertise in agriculture, water conservation and economic development would be a natural for North Korea to seek.
“It’s no secret their economy is a disaster,” he said. “They need help from A to Z and don’t have a lot of places they can turn to.”
The uncertainty in this transition period has made the need for outreach sharper, Rosen said.
“The big question here is, do we understand the risk in the days ahead after the death of Kim Jong Il of destabilization?” he said. “We ought to understand there are opportunities here we need to take a close look at.”