AN odd diplomatic dialogue involving missiles and gold mines has engaged Israel and North Korea in their first official contact.
The deputy director of Israel's foreign ministry, Eitan Bentsur, met in Beijing two weeks ago with a senior North Korean official to request that Pyongyang cancel the planned sale of its newly developed medium-range missiles to Teheran. The Lodung 1 missiles, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, could strike Israel's heartland from Iran. The North Koreans, according to Israeli sources, indicated readiness to cancel the sale on the condition that Israel mobilizes $1 billion dollars in investments in Nor th Korean gold mines and other projects to offset the loss of revenue from the missile sales.
Israel and North Korea have never had diplomatic relations. Pyongyang was long a supporter of radical Palestinian groups. Their first direct contact came only last November when Mr. Bentsur made a secret visit to Pyongyang. The trip grew out of dealings between two American businessmen, one of Korean origin and the other Jewish.
When the former proposed investing in gold mines in North Korea, the Jewish businessmen, who had contacts in Israel, suggested the involvement of Israeli experts. Reportedly at the urging of China, which wanted to help North Korea out of its isolation, Pyongyang accepted.
Bentsur was accompanied by Israeli geologists. But gold did not top either the Israeli or the North Korean agenda. Israel wanted Pyongyang to scrap plans to sell Iran the Lodung 1. Israel also asked Pyongyang not to pass on nuclear know-how to Iran or Syria.
Ben-Ami Shillony, who teaches East Asian studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, believes that Israel is viewed by the United States as a possible vehicle for easing North Korea back into the family of nations.
Closely watching are South Korea and Japan. Some experts believe that if North Korea goes nuclear Japan will find itself obliged to follow suit, despite the trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Israel's neutrality regarding the Far East, its presumed ability to mobilize Jewish investors, and its presumed influence in Washington make it a focus of North Korean interest.
Dr. Shillony believes that there is another reason - connected to Israel's destruction of Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981. With reports mounting that North Korea is on the verge of producing nuclear weapons, there is concern in Pyongyang that South Korea might seek to emulate the Israelis with a preemptive strike against its reactor. When an Israeli delegation headed by the director-general of the Defense Ministry, David Ivri, visited South Korea at the beginning of this year, it did not pass without noti ce that Mr. Ivri had been commander of the Israeli Air Force in 1981.
"Only one country in the world has ever destroyed a nuclear reactor from the air," notes Shillony. "There were rumors that the North Koreans believe South Korea was seeking Israel's advice on how" to do it. This may account for North Korea's overtures.
This spring, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres got an invitation to come to Pyongyang. Washington asked him not to go after North Korea said it was pulling out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Pyongyang's June 10 suspension of its NPT pullout opened the way for Israel to resume contact, this time openly. The kaleidoscope of the post-cold war world has brought an odd new alignment of interests between Far and Near East.