How Egypt is fixing its North Korea ‘problem’
Egypt reportedly scales back relations with North Korea in attempt to sate US anger

US President Donald Trump expressed his displeasure regarding Egypt’s relationship with North Korea to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in September, a government source told Mada Masr.

In light of this discussion, which took place during a meeting between the presidents during the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly in New York, Cairo has made several attempts in the past few weeks to diffuse rising tensions.

According to official statements and interviewed diplomatic and government sources, Egypt has cut off military aid to North Korea, downsized the North Korean diplomatic mission, and suspended North Korean business in Cairo.

The Washington Post published an investigation in early October indicating that Egyptian authorities had prevented a North Korean ship from entering the Suez Canal in August 2016 after Washington contacted them.

According to the investigation, Egyptian authorities found 24,000 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and components for the production of another 6,000. The weapons were considered identical to RPG-7s, which were produced by the Soviet Union in the 1960s.

The Washington Post cited an investigation conducted by the UN regarding the incident, the results of which were published in February 2017 and indicated that the August 2016 confiscation is considered to be the largest arms shipment seizure since international sanctions were first imposed on North Korea. The investigation priced the confiscated cargo at US$23 million.

Despite the sanctions imposed on Pyongyang in 2006 as a result of its nuclear program, the country maintains a large base of buyers interested in spare parts for Russian weapons, which have been in circulation since the Cold War.

According to the Washington Post, the seized cargo was a factor in the US decision to reprogram and postpone the delivery of nearly $300 million in economic and military aid to Egypt.

Other media reports indicated that the shipment was originally headed to Libya, using Cairo as a transit, and that the transfer was reportedly facilitated under the banner of combating terrorism in both countries, but this was never officially confirmed.

Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid confirmed to AFP that the Washington Post investigation was true insofar as the ship was intercepted with weapons on board, which were confiscated and destroyed. However, Abu Zeid denied that Egypt was the intended recipient.

Michael Hanna, a research fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation, told Mada Masr that regardless of whether Egypt was intended as a transit or the recipient, the incident has caused tensions with the US. 

Egypt’s preliminary efforts

Several measures were taken to contain the strain on Egypt-US relations before Sisi headed to New York in September, a government source told Mada Masr, the most prominent of which was the brief statement by Defense Minister Sedky Sobhy during his visit to the South Korean capital of Seoul emphasizing that Egypt had cut off military ties with Pyongyang.

The government source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, added that Egypt had reduced the number of staff at the North Korean embassy in Cairo days before Sisi’s visit to the UN summit. This followed a complaint by the US regarding the increase of staff members at the North Korean embassy over the past two years, during a high-profile meeting between and Egyptian security figure and several US officials in Washington.

A diplomat linked to the embassy in Cairo confirmed the reduction of staff members to 20 members, after it had previously reached 30.

The diplomatic source clarified that some members of the Pyongyang embassy held a diplomatic status, while others were not recognized officially by Egypt in an attempt to deescalate matters with Washington.

The diplomat relayed Pyongyang’s understanding of Egypt’s caution regarding the recognition of some of its delegates in Cairo.

In addition to discontinuing military relations with Pyongyang and reducing its diplomatic representation in Cairo, Egypt has also began disrupting the activity of a number of private North Korean businesses in Egypt, the government source told Mada Masr.

The US presented Cairo with a list of import and export companies in Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez, that were, according to the same source, alleged North Korean fronts assisting in “undisclosed arms transfer operations” as well as money laundering.

The source also said that Cairo had officially, and with “complete transparency,” informed the US that the seized weapons were destroyed, and that the company involved in importing the cargo had its license revoked.

However, the source refused to reveal the name of the company, and did not confirm or deny the veracity of information indicating that the company had been founded by a previous member of the formerly-ruling National Democratic Party, and whether it was founded with the intent to aid North-Korean transactions.

The source also said that Cairo had pledged that the Egyptian Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Combat Unity (EMLCU) would coordinate with Washington to ensure that the Egyptian banking system is not used to launder money, especially by North Korea and its associates.

Contentious, yet inevitable relations?

An Egyptian source who has retired from the Egyptian military armament told Mada Masr that the US should not blame Egypt for relying on North Korea to obtain spare weapons parts, as Russia does not sell them to Egypt and attempts to buy them from China at reasonable prices have failed.

The Washington Post investigation indicated that a number of countries are in business with North Korea, as it is one of the few producers offering spare parts at low cost and ammunition for weapons that no longer circulate commercial markets.

The investigation added that Egypt currently has several kinds of Soviet weapons in its arsenal, including six different types of anti-tank missiles that employ the 1960s RPG-7, a model that requires PG-7 warheads, which were found aboard the North Korean cargo ship. The estimated number of functional RPG-7 missiles in the Egyptian arsenal is 180,000.

Citing officials from the North Korean intelligence agencies, South Korea’s YONHAP news agency previously reported that Egypt is a central hub for the export of North Korean weapons to countries in the Middle East.

According to the Washington Post, UN investigators confirmed that the confiscated missiles from the North Korean cargo ship were non-lethal, usually utilized in military exercises. They considered the large quantity to indicate the buyer to have a large army. The story added that the Egyptian army has 438,000 soldiers in service in addition to 479,000 in reserve.

The retired military source added that the US has not complied with Egypt’s special armament requests since the arrival of the Obama administration, with the justification that Cairo’s requests fall within traditional warfare armament, while the US considers that Egypt only needs “weapons to combat terrorism in the Sinai peninsula or areas near the western border.”

The source indicated that Trump was adopting the same approach regarding the nature of Egyptian armament. “It isn’t normal for Egypt to attempt to solve all the complications in the region but have Washington dictating the acceptable armament for its military, which is one of the most important in the region,” the source added.

Robert Springborg, an expert on Egyptian military affairs, said that the volume of the seized cargo could be indicative of a real need for intensive training, or the corruption of businessmen involved in the deal.  Springborg added that if the weapons were meant for Egypt, it would be indicative of military leadership being intent on continuing its operations in North Sinai, which depend on the heavy use of weaponry to combat militants.

It was also assumed that the cargo would have been sold to third parties such as Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the Egyptian-backed Libyan National Army.

Springborg added that the disruption of military aid from the US suggests that Washington is more interested in Egypt’s relationship with North Korea than the human rights situation in the Middle East. However, current evidence suggests that tensions have begun to decline.

According to Hanna, the US administration had the sense that Egypt had been acting “with a considerable amount of impunity,” without consideration for the current US foreign policy towards North Korea.

The government source told Mada Masr that the Egyptian embassy in Washington asked the US administration that any disputes between the two countries be resolved away from any “media leaks,” especially given that Egypt has been taking serious measures to address US concerns under Sisi’s direct orders.

Translated by Omar El Adl

Asmahan Soliman 

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