North Korea has been in the news of late as speculation mounts over the fate of its portly dictator, Kim Jong Un, who has not been seen in public for more than a month. In propaganda-mad Pyongyang, where Kim's visage is a constant presence, the tyrant's mysterious retreat from view has set off a spate of rumors ranging from illness to a coup.
Given the Hermit Kingdom's irascible record on the world stage, its blood-curdling threats against South Korea and the United States, as well as its nuclear arsenal, it is no wonder that the fate of its rotund ruler is being watched closely.
One could be forgiven for thinking that Israel does not have a dog in this fight. After all, North Korea is some 8,000 kilometers away and would appear to be too busy stirring up trouble with its own neighbors to bother with the Jewish state. But that is far – very, very far – from being the case. For despite the distance separating it from our region, the Stalinist realm has become increasingly involved in the Middle East, stirring up trouble at every given opportunity. It therefore behooves Israel to become more vocal in denouncing the North Korean regime and taking a more robust stand against it.
Indeed, one of the earliest examples of Pyongyang's Middle East mischief-making took place 41 years ago this month, shortly after the start of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israeli and North Korean fighter pilots dueled in the skies south of Cairo. Accounts differ as to precisely what occurred in this little-known episode, and it remains unclear to this day what happened, but it is the only recorded incident in which Israelis and North Koreans fought one another.
According to reports filed at the time by the Associated Press and the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, US Defense Department spokesman William Beecher told journalists on October 18, 1973, that North Korean pilots flying Egyptian Mig-21s had exchanged fire with Israeli warplanes. "Neither side took any losses or hits," Beecher was quoted as saying, adding that, "it was a short dogfight situation."
The following day, UPI cited unnamed Defense Department officials as saying that the encounter took place when Israeli jets came upon the North Korean patrol near the Suez Canal. The report said that as many as 30 North Korean air force pilots "have been on loan to the Egyptian air force since before the war broke out."
Though Israel Air Force chief Benny Peled later denied that there had been a battle between Israelis and North Koreans, other sources insist that it did in fact take place. As Dr. Jacob Abadi, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado, notes in his book, Israel's Quest for Recognition and Acceptance in Asia, "Egypt's Lieutenant General Sa'adeddin Shazli confirmed in his memoirs that North Korean pilots were involved in combat missions for the Egyptian air force during that war."
And US Major General John K. Singlaub, who served as chief of staff of the United Nations Command in Korea, writes in his autobiography Hazardous Duty, that in 1976 he participated in negotiations with a senior North Korean official named General Han. Han, he says, "had been military attache in Egypt during the Yom Kippur War and had arranged for North Korean pilots to fly Mig-21s against Israel. Many of those pilots," Singlaub remarks, "were shot down by US-supplied Sidewinder missiles." This suggests that in fact Israeli pilots did succeed in downing some of their North Korean adversaries.
Subsequent reports indicate that in exchange for its support during the war, Egypt rewarded North Korea with missile technology and designs, which might very well have jump-started Pyongyang's programs in this field, which remain a concern until today.
As part of the Communist, anti-Western axis in the 1970s, North Korea's decision to become involved in the 1973 war against "imperialist" Israel is not surprising, particularly since other nations, such as Cuba, also sent troops. But that is hardly where the North's interference in Middle Eastern affairs began or ended. In recent years, its meddling has become more brazen and more dangerous, and Israel needs to start taking greater notice.
Take, for example, the Syrian nuclear reactor that was reportedly destroyed by Israel in September 2007. Several months after the attack, in April 2008, the BBC reported that CIA officials had briefed US Congressmen and shown them compelling evidence, including photographs, which proved that North Korea had been helping Damascus to build the site, which the White House said "was not intended for peaceful purposes."
Pyongyang's decision to export nuclear know-how to anti-Israel and anti-Western regimes in the Middle East such as Syria could easily destabilize the entire region and poses a direct threat to US national-security and strategic interests.
More recently, at the end of July, during Operation Protective Edge, the UK Daily Telegraph reported that North Korea was negotiating with Hamas to rearm the terrorist group with missiles and other ammunition for use against the Jewish state. And there have been persistent reports that North Korean troops have come to the aid of Bashar Assad's regime in Syria's ongoing civil war.
Clearly, North Korea is a rogue state that oppresses its own people, denies them basic human rights, and regularly threatens its neighbors such as South Korea and Japan with nuclear destruction. But it is also a danger to Israel, for it arms our enemies, and transfers weapons and advanced technology to them, and Pyongyang regularly voices support for Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.
It is therefore essential that Israel take a more forceful public stand against North Korea and join the growing international chorus against its leadership. Jerusalem should continue to strengthen its ties with South Korea, as well as explore various diplomatic, economic and other measures with which to punish the North Korean regime.
While the distance between good and evil may be as vast as that between Jerusalem and Pyongyang, North Korea has gone to great lengths to target Israel. It is time now for the Jewish state to defend itself more vigorously and return the favor.