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Hither and Yon

With all the angst over Netanyahu’s visit and Iran, why no mention of North Korea?

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
President Obama faces a foreign policy predicament of gigantic proportions.
The leader of Israel is coming to Washington, doing an end run around the White House, taking his case to a Republican-controlled Congress that’s eager for just about any excuse to pillory the President.
With this play for influence Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is arousing intense feelings from a number of viewpoints.
The White House views the invitation from John Boehner, speaker of the House of Representatives, as an act of betrayal, a snub of the president, a politically motivated break with tradition. Netanyahu’s political foes in Israel say he jeopardizes Israel’s longstanding bond with the U.S. while trying to drag the U.S. into a war that nobody wants.
But what’s actually going on here? Netanyahu’s basic shtick is that the U.S., negotiating with Iran on its nuclear program, is falling for a transparent attempt by Iran to get out of onerous sanctions while conceding nothing. Netanyahu is convinced Iran will go right on developing nuclear warheads despite Iran’s protestations that all it wants are nuclear power plants.
Iran’s claim is exactly the opposite of that of North Korea, which is doing nothing about producing nuclear energy but boasts openly of its nuclear weapons program.
Despite the difference in their avowed intentions, Iran and North Korea, at opposite ends of the “axis of evil” proclaimed by George W. Bush in his state-of-the union address of January 2002, have been collaborating for years, exchanging nuclear components and technology, de facto allies, partners in crime.
The Iranian and North Korean programs differ markedly in ways that draw them still closer together.
North Korea has conducted three underground nuclear tests, in 2006, 2009 and in February 2013, with plutonium devices. Iran’s nuclear power reactors are all driven by highly enriched uranium.
North Korean engineers and technicians are believed to be in Iran aiding in construction of a nuclear reactor while Iran is providing the centrifuges and expertise needed for North Korea to test HEU devices.
Nor does the give-and-take stop there. North Korea has shipped Scud and Rodong missiles to Iran along with uranium mined from its mineral-rich mountains. Iran is able to compensate North Korea with much needed cash. In other words, the two, Iran and North Korea, work together to accomplish their goals.
Exactly what Netanyahu is going to say is not clear, but we’ll all be reading the text to see if he drops a hint, or more than a hint, of Iran’s relationship with North Korea.
Israel’s concern about North Korea’s dealings in the Middle East evokes memories of the Israeli attack on a nuclear power facility in Syria in 2007. Israeli warplanes wiped out the facility, destroying a plutonium reactor that North Korean engineers were building.
The Iranian nuclear facilities are not only far larger but also more difficult to annihilate, hidden underground, better defended above ground and more distant from Israel or from U.S. forces in the region.
The U.S., fighting ISIS terrorists, trying to buttress a difficult, enervated regime in Baghdad, is not going to lead an attack on Iran. How could it possibly do so as long as Iran, dominated by Shiite Muslims, supports the same Baghdad government in a war against Sunni-dominated terrorists?
Still, you can’t blame Netanyahu for looking askance at any deal that might strengthen a regime that’s vowed to wipe Israel off the map. At the least, he has to figure out that the sanctions, as long as they are in place, weaken a regime and a country that breathes hostility toward Israel.
Here too, comparisons with North Korea are relevant.
Consider how often North Korean rhetoric has excoriated South Korean leaders, vowing for years to turn the South into “a sea of fire.” If North Korea’s “supreme leader” Kim Jong-un secretly yearns to talk to South Korea’s President Park Geun-Hye, he’s showing no signs of easing tensions when he visits military bases and urges his troops to gear for battle.
On the flip side, though, you have to wonder if all that rhetoric and bravado really matters much. Who thinks Iran is about to launch a strike against Israel? And who believes North Korea is going to attack South Korea?
Both Iran and North Korea have other priorities. Iran has to worry about terrorist forces on its doorstep while North Korea can do very little, aside from perpetrate bloody incidents, as long as China, South Korea’s biggest trading partner, gives higher priority to “stability” on the Korean Peninsula than to reunification in a Second Korean War.
Netanyahu has plenty of arguments for why Iran, at least, is not shifting its outlook.
The next fateful step on the U.S. side will be up to Obama. Like it or not, he’s sure to be tuned in to whatever Netanyahu has to say next week even if he refuses to welcome him at the White House.
Columnist Donald Kirk, www.donaldkirk.com, has been covering war and peace in Asia for decades. He’s at kirkdon@yahoo.com.
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