Is­raelis are be­ing of­fered tourist visas for North Korea, a bru­tal dic­ta­tor­ship that sup­plies arms to the Jewish state’s dead­li­est en­e­mies

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - Colin Shindler’s next book ‘The He­brew Re­pub­lic: Is­rael’s Re­turn to His­tory’ will be pub­lished shortly by Row­man and Lit­tle­field BY COLIN SHINDLER

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 engi­neers 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.”

Min­ders closely mon­i­tor tourists, who are taken to ‘safe’ lo­ca­tions


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