TOURISTS CAN expect their hotel room to be bugged and their every movement watched, but that has not stopped one Israeli travel agency from announcing group trips to the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, starting in April.
Rimon Tours said earlier this month it had secured an exclusive agreement to issue tourist visas for North Korea.
That there is a market anywhere for trips to a regime notorious for starving millions of its own people to death in the 1990s, regularly threatening its neighbours with a nuclear attack and even imprisoning the odd tourist for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster — as it did last year — is bizarre in itself.
But Israelis who choose to go will need a particularly strong stomach: there is a long history of Pyongyang actively assisting enemies of the Jewish state. Only last week, reports in the Israeli press suggested North Korean Bulsae-2 anti-tank missiles were being smuggled into Gaza via tunnels from Sinai.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry’s response to Rimon Tours’ announcement, that anyone thinking of going to North Korea should take “extreme caution”, should therefore not have come as a surprise.
As if to underline the dangers associated with the regime, a day later, news broke that Kim Jong-nam, the elder brother of North Korea’s leader, had been assassinated in Malaysia.
Tourists in Pyongyang can expect to be watched closely by minders and taken to ‘safe’ locations, monuments and museums, which showcase the regime’s perceived achievements. They will not be allowed to travel to unapproved places — certainly not
the archipelago of labour camps and prisons.
North Korea is seeking to expand the annual number of visitors to two million by 2020 from today’s 100,000. That and the arms sales to Hamas attest to Pyongyang’s desperate need for hard cash.
In the late 1980s, Iran desperately required arms for its protracted war with Iraq — and so a marriage of convenience with North Korea was born. Indeed, today’s Iranian missile arsenal is based on several North Korean prototypes. This alliance soon extended to the newly formed Hizbollah in Lebanon, which then sent its future counter-espionage and intelligence chiefs to Pyongyang for training.
By 2003, Pyongyang was sending e n g i n e e r s to Lebanon under the cover of the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation. They put to use decades of expertise in storing arms caches and food reserves as well as building underground tunnels and bunkers. This emanated from years of drilling beneath the Demilitarised Zone which separates the two Koreas.
When the Second Lebanon War erupted in 2006, 43 Israelis were killed and over 4,000 injured by waves of katyushas, fired from across the border. The Israeli air force attacked, but were deeply puzzled as this cascade of missiles continued unabated. It transpired that there was a network of tunnels, 40 metres underground, from which the missiles were fired. One tunnel was 25km long.
A few weeks later, a ship, the Grigorio I, was detained in Cyprus. It was found to be carrying arms, destined for Syria and probably Hizbollah. The 18 truck-mounted mobile radar systems were officially listed as “weather observation equipment”. A UN report in 2010 suggested that North Korea had become remarkably adept at masking its intentions and operated through “multiple layers of intermediaries”.
This provision of expertise ended with Hamas in Gaza. Following Operation Cast Lead in 2009, for example, 35 tons of North Korean arms were discovered at Bangkok airport, probably destined for Hamas.
Any ideological justification for North Korea’s approach towards Israel is little more than a subterfuge for its desire for lucrative arms contracts. As both North Korea leader Kim Jong-un and the Tel Aviv travel agency may say privately: “Look, it’s nothing personal — it’s only business.”
Jewish Chronicle 24 February 2017