Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Ex-official details Israel-North Korea talks

A diplomat spoke of Israeli fear over Pyongyang's arms exports - and of strange meals of live fish.

JERUSALEM - A former top Israeli diplomat has revealed details of secret negotiations with North Korea in the early 1990s in an effort to stop Pyongyang's export of ballistic missiles and related technologies to Middle Eastern countries, saying North Korea was eager to get financial aid but stopped short of promising to suspend its sale of nuclear and missile technology.

In an interview, Eytan Bentsur, a former Israeli Foreign Ministry deputy director general, said North Korea initiated the contact in the summer of 1992. During a visit to New York by Bentsur, a Jewish American acquaintance introduced him to a Korean American jeweler, whom the acquaintance said had "influential relatives in North Korea."

The jeweler told Bentsur that North Korea wanted to make contact with Israel.

Pyongyang wanted investment in its gold-mining project in Unsan, in the northwest of the country. At that time, Israel was increasingly concerned by Pyongyang's export of ballistic missiles to Egypt, Syria, Libya and Iraq, according to Bentsur. The Israeli government jumped at the offer of contact, and in November that year secretly sent Bentsur to Pyongyang via Beijing, believing it was a good chance to dissuade Pyongyang from exporting weapons and related technologies.

Bentsur's delegation was accompanied by gold-mining specialists.

In Pyongyang, the Israeli delegation was greeted by North Korean officials, including then ambassador-at-large Kim Gye Gwan, who later became Pyongyang's representative in the U.S.-North Korea talks and six-party talks, and senior military officials. The Israelis were astonished at the lavish banquet the North Koreans offered.

Bentsur recounted how his delegation of five was brought into a huge hall with an apparent capacity of thousands.

"We were alone with a bunch of North Koreans, watching a show, which was a real spectacle. It was very surreal," he recalled.

There the Israelis were served ikezukuri sashimi, which features live fish. "I couldn't touch the kind of food they ate - all sorts of fish and live creatures. Each time, I had to find an excuse why I wasn't eating it this stuff that I had never seen before. They claimed it was most delicious and made especially for us," he said.

The gold mine the delegation inspected was completely flooded. But Israel intended to offer "investment of $30 million in the mine, and provide an additional $1 billion in financial aid, if necessary," according to Bentsur.

But Bentsur discovered that Pyongyang was also negotiating with Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency. Bentsur happened to meet a senior Mossad official in Pyongyang and uncovered Pyongyang's double-track negotiations. The Mossad official was staying in a separate hotel and had offered to make a similar investment in the gold mine.