While it might not seem like it, North Korea is a serious threat to Israel.
Initially, that assertion is far from obvious. North Korea is located in a completely different part of the world and regularly threatens South Korea, Japan and the US, not Israel.
Yet, by possibly serving as an outsourced, clandestine extension of Iran’s nuclear program, by openly cooperating with Iran on various initiatives and by making Iran look less crazy and the US look less strong, North Korea could render the Iranian threat to Israel far more serious.
The latest US-North Korea crisis which could have ripple effects on Iran and Israel follows Pyongyang’s firing of five ballistic Scud missiles on Monday, four of which flew about 1,000 kilometers and hit in the Sea of Japan.
The Trump administration has talked tough, but has struggled with how to respond.
But back to North Korea and Iran.
Hard evidence of how deep the Iran-North Korea nuclear relationship goes is scarce, but experts have been finding Iran-North Korea connections for years.
Recently, two former IDF Military Intelligence officers, Lt.-Col. (res.) Dr. Refael Ofek and Dr. Dany Shoham from the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, put together a lot of the connections needed to evaluate how deep the rabbit hole may go.
Like other experts, they have noted that the missiles Iran and North Korea would use for delivery of nuclear weapons have much in common.
Most recently, a ballistic missile launched by Iran in January was declared to have been of North Korean origin by an anonymous Pentagon source speaking to Reuters.
Further, even as Iran has undertaken some of its own missile tests, it may be making far more progress than we realize in sorting through the problems it has encountered with fitting nuclear warheads on its missiles, by participating in North Korean missile tests.
It was widely reported that a delegation of Iranian nuclear experts led by the head of their program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh Mahabadi, was covertly present at North Korea’s February 2013 nuclear test and other tests.
Overall, the idea is that Iran has money and some technology that is useful for North Korea, and North Korea has a wealth of more advanced nuclear technology and an ongoing ability to carry out joint tests beyond the sight of Iran-located IAEA inspectors to help Tehran.
Dr. Emily Landau, arms control chairwoman at the Institute for National Security Studies, believes that the Trump administration should carefully monitor the situation. But she also urges caution about drawing definitive conclusions about whether the Islamic Republic is currently continuing its nuclear program clandestinely via North Kore.
Beyond the possible clandestine ties, Iran and North Korea are on record as signing a range of bilateral agreements over the years.
But after all of these issues, the biggest danger North Korea may bring to Israel in its relationship with Iran is its ability to make Iran look sane and well-behaved and the US weak.
The narrative would go like this: North Korea throws temper tantrums, threatens to nuke the West and refuses negotiations to backtrack its nuclear program. But look at well-behaved Iran – it cuts deals with the West, dutifully observes its obligations and even when it engages in provocative missile tests, makes sure it does so without formally violating any bans.
This is a deceptive narrative, but it could be used to shield Tehran from criticism for pushing the envelope and exploiting loopholes in the nuclear agreement.
No one has a clear formula for how the Trump administration, can lick the North Korea dilemma.
The US started to transfer the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system to South Korea, but it is unclear if Trump has a strategy to stop North Korea performing more missile tests or even another nuclear test.
If North Korea makes Trump look impotent, he suddenly loses some of the scary unpredictability that many observers hope he can use to keep Iran in line.
So while North Korea is not trying to wipe Israel off the map as Iran would like to do, it makes the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel far more formidable on several fronts.