On an island in the Suez Canal, a towering AK-47 rifle, its muzzle and bayonet pointed skyward, symbolises one of Egypt’s most enduring alliances. Decades ago, North Korea presented it to Egypt to commemorate the 1973 war against Israel, when North Korean pilots fought and died on the Egyptian side.
But now the statue has come to signify another aspect of Egypt’s ties to North Korea: a furtive trade in illegal weapons that has upset President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s otherwise cozy relationship with the United States, set off a painful cut in military aid and drawn unremitting scrutiny from UN inspectors.
Egypt has purchased North Korean weapons and allowed North Korean diplomats to use their Cairo embassy as a base for military sales across the region, US and UN officials say. Those transactions earned vital hard cash for North Korea, but they violated international sanctions and drew the ire of Egypt’s main military patron, the United States, which cut or suspended $291 million in military aid in August.
that contains new information about the cargo of a rusty North Korean freighter intercepted off the coast of Egypt in 2016. The ship was carrying 30,000 rocket-propelled grenades worth an estimated $US26 million ($33 million).
The report, due to be released this month, identifies the customer for the weapons as an arm of the Arab Organisation for Industrialisation, Egypt’s main state weapons conglomerate. El-Sissi heads the committee that oversees the group.
Egypt has previously denied being the intended recipient of the weapons, or breaching international sanctions. In response to questions about the UN finding, the State Information Service said this past week: “The relevant Egyptian authorities have undertaken all the necessary measures in relation to the North Korean ship in full transparency and under the supervision” of UN officials.
After the Trump administration slashed aid last summer, Egyptian officials said they were cutting military ties to North Korea, reducing the size of its Cairo embassy and monitoring the activities of North Korean diplomats. The relationship with North Korea is “limited to representation, and there is almost no existing economic or other areas of cooperation”, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said at a news conference with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Cairo last month.
But that diplomatic representation, in an embassy that doubles as a regional arms dealership, is the problem, US officials have said. In addition, Washington worries that North Korea, a longtime supplier of ballistic missile technology to Egypt, is still supplying missile parts, said Andrea Berger, a North Korea specialist at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
“Ballistic missile customers are the most concerning of North Korea’s partners and deserve the highest attention,” she said. “Egypt is one of those.”
North Korea’s largest embassy in the Middle East, an elegant, three-story Victorian building with a rusty brass plate over the entrance, sits on a leafy street on an island in the Nile. The embassy walls display photos of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, standing in a garden or strolling through a fish market. Its windows are usually shuttered, and security guards discourage passers-by from taking photos.
Like those of many North Korean outposts, the duties of the Cairo embassy extend well beyond diplomacy.
In Africa especially, North Korean diplomats have engaged in a wide variety of ruses and schemes to earn hard currency, UN investigators say. In South Africa and Mozambique, North Korean diplomats have been implicated in rhino poaching. In Namibia, North Koreans built giant statues and a munitions factory. In Angola, they trained the presidential guard in martial arts.
In Egypt, their business is weapons. UN inspectors and North Korean defectors say the Cairo embassy has become a bustling arms bazaar for covert sales of North Korean missiles and cut-price Soviet-era military hardware across a band of North Africa and the Middle East.
Shielded by diplomatic cover and front companies, North Korean officials have travelled to Sudan, which was then subject to an international trade embargo, to sell satellite-guided missiles, according to records obtained by the United Nations. Others flew to Syria, where North Korea has supplied items that could be used in the production of chemical weapons.
Inside the embassy, arms dealing goes right to the top. In November 2016, the United States and the United Nations sanctioned the ambassador, Pak Chun Il, describing him as an agent of North Korea’s largest arms company, the Korea Mining Development Trading Corp.
For weeks in the summer of 2016, US intelligence had covertly tracked the Jie Shun, the ship filled with rocket-propelled grenades that has become a focus of Cairo’s ties to North Korea. As it neared the Suez Canal in August, according to a Western diplomat familiar with the case, the Americans warned the Egyptians it might be carrying contraband, effectively forcing them to intervene.
The seizure was the largest interdiction of munitions since sanctions were imposed on North Korea in 2006 — a significant victory in the international effort, including an arms embargo and export restrictions, to force Kim Jong Un to abandon his nuclear weapons program.
For the next three months, with the Jie Shun impounded at Ain Sokhna port, a diplomatic tug-of-war played out. The Americans wanted to send officials to inspect the dilapidated freighter and its illicit cargo. North Korea sent a diplomat to negotiate its release.
The Egyptians refused both demands, but in November 2016 agreed to allow U. inspectors to board the ship. But by then, valuable information about the identity of the customer for the rockets, which had been hidden under mounds of iron ore, was missing. The North Korean crew had been sent home, which meant the inspectors could not interview them.
But one piece of evidence remained, in the form of a name stencilled on the rocket crates: “Al Sakr Factory for Developed Industries (AOI),” Egypt’s principal missile research and development company and a subsidiary of its sprawling state weapons conglomerate, the Arab Organisation for Industrialisation.
Mohamed Abdulrahman, chairman of Al Sakr, did not respond to emailed questions about the shipment. In its statement, Egypt’s State Information Service said the measures taken by the country were “praised” by the United Nations’ sanctions committee, “which reiterated that the way Egypt dealt with this case is a model to be followed in similar situations.”
The Trump administration has scored some successes in its drive to isolate North Korea from its allies, notably with the Philippines and Singapore last northern autumn. But Egypt, which receives $US1.3 billion annually in US aid, has resisted President Donald Trump’s entreaties.
Egypt’s relationship with North Korea runs deep. President Hosni Mubarak was regularly feted in Pyongyang before his ouster in 2011. An Egyptian tycoon, Naguib Sawiris, built North Korea’s main mobile telephone network and invested in a bank there. Along with the AK-47 monument on the Suez Canal, North Korea built a large war museum in Cairo that is frequently visited by Egyptian schoolchildren.
Egypt’s military leaders are reluctant to cut those ties and lose access to Soviet-era weapons and ballistic missile systems, analysts say, a posture bolstered by their reflexive distaste for appearing to bow to US pressure. They may feel that, based on past experience, US criticism will eventually abate.
“They think they can evade the consequences,” said Andrew Miller of the Project on Middle East Democracy, who until last year worked on Egypt at the State Department. “That they are continuing to stonewall and obfuscate and pursue this course of action indicates they think they can get away with it, and whatever price will be imposed on them will be bearable.”
At the North Korean Embassy in Cairo, now under a new ambassador, business continues as usual. North Korean state media has said little about the ambassador, Ma Tong Hui, other than to note that his previous post was as head of a little-known government body in Pyongyang called the Disarmament and Peace Institute.