The Israel/North Korea Parallel

I know it sounds somewhat bizarre, but a question that presents itself in the wake of Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara and Washington’s protective reaction is this: As North Korea is to China, is Israel to the United States?

Of course, we in the U.S. tend to see North Korea, as totalitarian and isolated a country as can be found anywhere today, as the classic “rogue state” whose latest apparent outrage was the fatal and unprovoked March 26 sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan. What we forget is that Israel, despite its democratic traditions and governance and rich interaction with the rest of the world on any number of official and unofficial levels, is widely regarded as a “rogue state” by much of the globe, particularly in what used to be called the “Third World,” and most particularly in the Islamic and Arab worlds. Writing about the deadly outcome of the seizure of the Mavi Marvara in Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper Monday, Nahum Barnea noted that “[t]he world saw it as further evidence, part of a long series, that Israel had become — in the world’s eyes — a completely irresponsible country.”

Yet both North Korea and Israel have come to enjoy what can only be called impunity as a result of their virtually unconditional support by great-power protectors. In North Korea’s case, it’s China, which, based on the calculation that the status quo in Pyongyang is better than the possible consequences of the regime’s collapse, has steadfastly defended it against international censure and condemnation, particularly at the UN Security Council. In Israel’s case, it’s the United States, which, based largely on its domestic political calculations, has steadfastly defended it from international censure ad condemnation, particularly at the Security Council.

In each case, however, that defense is becoming progressively more expensive in a strategic sense. Chris Nelson, editor of the esteemed “Nelson Report” — a private daily newsletter considered a must-read by Asia specialists — wrote last week about the mounting costs of China’s defense of Pyongyang, particularly in the wake of the Cheonan attack:

“Speaking of the DPRK, official and unofficial sources confirm that Beijing is starting to grasp how very badly it has mishandled the entire situation with N. Korea. Forget the UN…this is about Asia.

Two major immediate results: it got Japan’s DPJ leadership to grasp why the security alliance is really important, and thus to cave-in to US pressure on Futenma…if 6 months too late to make it work, but that’s another issue.

And in China/ROK relations, Beijing has built-up support for conservatives in the coming local elections, done serious damage to nearly a decade’s worth of outreach to Seoul, and driven all but the most disenchanted S. Koreans closer to the US than had seemed possible.

The net for China’s security interests: strong affirmation of US-Japan security alliance; vastly increased US/ROK naval and other cooperation right off China’s coast, with more to come.”

In the case of the U.S., the strategic costs of defending Israel are also rising quickly, a point I tried to underline in an article I wrote last week but which was also the subject of an excellent piece by the New York Times’ Helene Cooper Sunday. Just consider the havoc this one incident — and Washington’s refusal to condemn Israeli behavior or insist on an international investigation — is causing in U.S. relations with Turkey, for example, whose sheer size and geo-strategic position vis-a-vis Russia, Iran, the Middle East in general, not to mention Central Asia or NATO, are arguably vastly more important than Israel could ever hope to be.

I’ve been thinking about this parallel since the Goldstone Report, but I have to again credit Chris Nelson with seizing on it in print. In another edition of his newsletter last week, he quoted a necessarily anonymous government source as observing:

“– Israel resembles North Korea in one (and only one) sense. The Israelis have created and operate in a policy niche of sorts, in which they do what they damn well please while frequently sticking their thumb in the eye of their one big supporter. And they keep trying to push the envelope. To compare with North Korea, top-level PRC public warnings not to conduct missile tests were followed by the July 4-5 2006 tests and many, though quieter, PLA warnings not to pop a nuke, were followed by the 10/06 test, with its insulting 20 minute prior notice, etc., etc. In recent years, the North Koreans have found through probing and experimentation that they can get away with much more vis-a-vis Beijing than they imagined before. This is the reason why almost every PRC official I’ve heard of on the subject of the DPRK really, really can’t stand the little @#%&s. (But they’re also stuck with them, which adds to the frustration.) Something like the Israelis, although many US politicians and other public figures are indeed attached to Israel and the idea of Israel.”

In fact, China itself has drawn the parallel. According to an account published in the Asian Wall Street Journal Monday, Mar. Gen. Zhu Chenghu, director-general of China’s National Defense University, went after Pentagon chief Bob Gates the annual IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore this weekend, asking, in the words of the reporter, “how the U.S. could criticize North Korea for attacking a South Korean warship in March and not Israel for raiding a Turkish-led flotilla trying to reach the Gaza strip last week.”

Like Gates, I don’t buy the comparison, but the fact that Chinese, who aren’t doing so well in defending North Korea, would make is interesting, to say the least.

All of which puts me in mind of yet another comparison made by Anatol Lieven in his wonderfully insightful 2004 book, America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (Oxford Press):

“If anything the [U.S.-Israel alliance] is beginning to take on some of the same mutually calamitous aspects as Russian’s commitment to Serbia in 1914, a great power guarantee which encouraged parts of the Serbian leadership to behave with criminal irresponsibility in their encouragement of irredentist claims against Austria, leading to a war which was ruinous for Russia, Serbia and the world.”

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. The Turkish Gov’t has been a terrific nexus for the US, Israel and Afghan drugs, arms and money laundering if we are to believe Sibel Edmond’s sworn testimony. We’ve conducted similar affairs with other disposable Arab regimes before, Iran, Iraq, Lybia, Pakistan and Afghanistan not to mention the Saudis.

    The point is that we seem to be wearing out our welcome. But, if we blow it with Turkey, in many ways that shuts us out of so many worlds. It will become far more costly to monitor the Caspian Basin and many of Russia’s activities in the South.

    Our embargoes have driven Iran to the East and North. We are trying to keep limited assets in Iraq, which will become more critical and accordingly more costly to preserve. This is an amazing pace and activities are approaching a critical mass–one hasty retaliation could spark a real conflagration. Very interesting.

    It’s funny how the Koreans seem to engage in some provocation out of the blue just as the ME heats up. I’m not sure I understand the relationship there, but there is a correlation there if not causation. Very interesting indeed.

  2. I don’t believe for a minte that the DPRK was responsible for the Cheonan sinking. The idea that a relatively primitive NK sub could penetrate heavily monitored (sonar, acoustics etc) waters during a joint US-SK live fire exercise and torpedo an anti-submarine warfare escort and then sneak away without being detected, or without the US/SK even hearing the sound of the torpedoes high-speed screw and bubble trail, is quite franky absurd.

    It smells very much like a friendly-fire incident that is being cooked for political purposes. The Cheonan was most likley hit by a friendly rising mine, or torpedo (less likely).

  3. I would think the situation with North Korea amuses the Chinese. The US is far too overspent already to show up in the waters off Korea with many carriers to show the flag there, and the Japanese are restless, and would not like an influx of Americans in the Pacific Theatre.

  4. The points made in this article should be disseminated in the main stream media. If they were things might change.
    The comparison of the US to Austria before the ww1 is obvious. Except that I think that Israel is a much greater threat to world peace the Serbia was back then.

    I think the Israelis feel they have their backs against the wall; they realize that 2 states living side by side is never going to work; that the Palestinians are never going to give up trying to get back their land. They know they have nothing to lose by being brutal. They know that after all the pain they’ve inflicted on the Palestinians it’s highly unlikely there won’t be reprisals if/when the Palestinians take over.
    There’s another comparison I like too. The other obvious one; Israel is to the US what Algeria was to France. Except, I believe the French population was much more attached to Algeria than Americans are to Israel. I’m inclined to believe that the best outcome that we can expect between the Palestinians and Israelis is the Algerian outcome. The alternative is continuing and escalating violence. And what if Israel unleashes some of its nukes?

    So, it seems to me, the US is headed towards self-destruction unless it can separate itself from Israel. .

    We seem to be one in of those times when history might just repeat itself. I’m flabbergasted that my country is going down this crazy path.

  5. Regarding the Cheonan, the primary evidence that NK was responsible seems to simply be assertions by the US government and its SK client. Given the presence of mine laying vesels, the more likely explanation is accidental sinking by as US/SK mine with subsequent political exploitation. In addition, if a NK sub and torpedo was responsible, it managed to successfully attack a modern and more sophistacted vessel without detection. Given the Cheonan was an anti-submarine vessel, the implications are very severe and the circumstances seem unlikely. Overall, I fail to see what NK would get out of attacking the SK vessel. On the other hand, the US and SK are overjoyed at the opportunity raised by the incident.

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