By Andre Ishii
Several media outlets recently carried a curious, eyebrow-raising story concerning a particular shawarma restaurant in Gaza. The owner of the eatery, which is located in the Jabaliya refugee camp, offered a whopping 80% discount to North Korean nationals as a sign solidarity with the Pyongyang regime which has taken a more confrontational stance against not only the United States since the beginning of the Trump presidency – likely to take advantage of Trump’s background as a businessman in attempt to negotiate a favorable security treaty – but against Israel as well, as seen in the exchange of strong words this past April. While it may be tempting for one to dismiss this interesting Gaza restaurant episode as merely stemming from more recent heightened geopolitical tensions both in the Middle East and Northeast Asia peripheries of Eurasia, the affection and strategic bond between the Palestinian liberation movement (the most publically known face of which is the Palestinian Liberation Organization – PLO) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) can be traced back decades to the dawn of international terrorism. This restaurant episode offers a quick glimpse into a shadow nexus of terror midwifed in the Cold War geopolitical environment, with its keystone of former Soviet – and now Russian – strategic ambitions.
While the DPRK is often repeatedly described in the establishment media as a ‘hermit kingdom,’ the term was originally a descriptor for the highly centralized and reclusive Joseon Korean regime that reigned for five centuries until it met its end in the early 20th century. Contrary to popular perception, the Stalinist Cold War reincarnation of the old despotic Neo-Confucian state is recognized as legitimate by the vast majority of governments across the world, despite only 24 states having established embassies in Pyongyang (as of October 2017). Conversely, 47 states officially host DPRK embassies. And indeed Pyongyang has in the decades past involved itself in various regional tensions around the world, more than it is commonly realized. The MENA region is no exception, with DPRK involvement often taking the form of arms transfers and training for the personnel of various underground terrorist groups, often themselves sponsored by the former Soviet Union, a mega-state entity that placed a high premium on the Middle East region with its wealth of resources and other vital interests.
Moscow had intelligence agents operating in Palestine immediately after the Russian Revolution. However, Moscow’s interest in the region was heightened after the founding of the state of Israel in May 1948. Soviet intelligence has lent support to the PLO since the late 1960s – after its’ founding by the Arab League in 1964 – via several capitals of its Eastern European satellites. This operation – and support for the PLO was being funneled in from Arab states as well – was further amped up during the course of the Lebanese civil war, expanding the PLO into a major force within the geopolitical struggles for the Levant. In fact, recent disclosures suggest that Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) founded in 1994 as the civil sector arm of the PLO, was a KGB agent in the 1980s, as well as Yasser Arafat.
(As a historical note, sending in intelligence assets and agents to sponsor local nationalist movements and to ignite political revolutions is a classic tactic within the strategy of modern empires. A widely under-recognized aspect of the history of early 19th century South American independence movements is the role of the British empire in dismantling the Spanish colonial empire in the western hemisphere during the Napoleonic War. General William Miller, veteran of the Napoleonic War, assisted revolutionaries José San Martín and Simón Bolívar. Not only soldiers – many veterans like Miller – but merchants played significant part of the uprisings as well. Thus, the Soviet Union was fully engaging within the operational framework of modern empires.)
Like its Eastern European counterparts, the DPRK – essentially birthed by Soviet intervention (yet never received a single visit from a Soviet General Party Secretary) – has also sponsored the cause of Palestinian nationalist movements.
DPRK-PLO (and also, HAMAS) relationship goes back to the 1960s. The DPRK and PLO began their diplomatic relationship in 1966. Direct support via logistics and training began in the wake of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. As the newly established Israel was increasingly seen as extension of the West’s sphere of influence in the Middle East by Moscow – and Pyongyang held a similar view regarding Israel as an extension of the American Empire – the PLO increasingly became an instrument of Soviet penetration in the region.
Not only has Pyongyang – now redesignated as a state sponsor of terrorism – supported the Arab world since during the Cold War. DPRK arms have also been found in chaos-torn Libya as well, and the regime has supported Arab states specifically vis-à-vis Israel, such as aiding Egypt by dispatching of pilots (who piloted Egyptian MIG-21s) and other key staff during the aforementioned Yom Kippur War. Furthermore, in addition to ongoing logistical trafficking with Syria, the DPRK has working arms and information transfer operations (such as know-how regarding construction of tactical underground tunnels) to HAMAS. Additionally HAMAS in April 2017 expressed gratitude to Pyongyang for its unwavering stance against the United States. In October 2017, an Egypt-led security deal was reached between the rivals Fatah (formerly headed by Arafat and its chairmanship currently held by Abbas; it is the largest faction within the PLO) and HAMAS. However, stalemate seems to have ensued over several security issues since the agreement was reached, and HAMAS has yet to abandon its hostility toward the legitimacy of the state of Israel.
The renewed appreciation and affection by the Palestinian nationalist organizations for Pyongyang’s support for the Palestinian cause is notable especially in the current context of Moscow’s increasing influence in Eurasia, particularly three key regions outlined by the American strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski (worked as National Security Advisor under Carter administration from 1977 to 1981) in the post-Cold War era as pivotal to United States access to its status as a global hegemonic power: Eastern Europe (“West”) , Middle East (“South”), and Northeast Asia (“East”).
All of these critical regions – what Brzezinski called the Three Central Strategic Fronts in his work The Grand Chessboard, regions that should be incorporated at the fundamental level of US grand strategy – have been under intense flames of tension for years, and interestingly, near-simultaneously.
In Eastern Europe, Moscow has intervened in Ukraine to solidify its interests and aspiration as newly reconstituted empire (Brzezinski notes that “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire”). In Northeast Asia, Moscow has asserted itself as a prime arbiter to solve the DPRK crisis by attempting to establish a trans-Eurasian infrastructural network and leaving the United States out in the cold. Taking advantage of the situation that US hands are quite tied regarding the overt military option (striking DPRK even surgically against key targets will risk turning Seoul into a blazing ocean of fire, as retribution from Pyongyang. Aside from staggering loss of life, damage to international economy would be catastrophic), Moscow is posturing itself to lead an arbitration role in the broiling crisis.
Likewise, as Moscow has increasingly taken active part in stabilizing the Syrian civil war, President Trump’s Jerusalem declaration has as a consequence pushed the Palestinian nationalist movements into the arms of Moscow, which now is attempting to propose for itself a role and influence like never seen before in the Israel-Palestinian conflict: to broker peace deal by sidelining the United States. Abbas has dispatched delegates to both Moscow and Beijing to have these continental powers more intensely involved in the peace process.
Despite the presence of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and DPRK crisis in the foreground of this phenomenon of material and ideological fellowship, this is not merely a terrorism-related issue. It is fundamentally geopolitical. One can perceive it in essence as a ghost, or an echo of Cold War era geopolitics persisting to this day, in a world where Russia (the occupier of what Brzezinski called “Middle Space”), like its earlier Soviet manifestation, is attempting to secure a dominant position in 21st century Eurasian affairs.
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