The Washington Post reported Sunday on the surprising results of a United Nations investigation that found Egypt has been surreptitiously buying weapons from North Korea to equip its military.
The investigation was launched after customs agents responded to a “secret message” sent to Cairo from Washington and raided the freighter Jie Shun, discovering a huge cache of 30,000 North Korean rocket-propelled grenades hidden beneath its cargo of iron ore.
After months of digging, the U.N. discovered that the shipment was part of a “complex arrangement in which Egyptian business executives ordered millions of dollars worth of North Korean rockets for the country’s military while also taking pains to keep the transaction hidden,” as the Post puts it. The rocket grenade shipment was worth an estimated $23 million.
The scheme was kept fairly quiet until now but has reportedly been the subject of some tense behind-the-scenes conversations between American and Egyptian officials. The “secret message” that triggered the Jie Shun raid was a heads-up from U.S. intelligence officials who wanted to force Egypt’s hand and effectively shame them into taking action. Anonymous officials told the Washington Post that the incident was one of the reasons the Trump administration cut and delayed hundreds of millions of dollars in Egyptian military aid in August.
As it turns out, the rounds were configured for use as practice ammunition, and none of the militant groups in Egypt could possibly conduct training drills on that scale, so the Egyptian military is the only logical customer for the North Korean hardware. The U.N. has declined to level that accusation formally, instead allowing the Egyptian government to destroy the weapons and shut down the unidentified company that was to receive them, thus preserving a bit of deniability.
Egypt is far from the only country putting desperately needed money in Kim Jong-un’s coffers by purchasing North Korean weapons. Other customers mentioned by the Post include Iran, Burma, Cuba, Syria, Eritrea, and “at least two terrorist groups.”
Pyongyang has plenty of old but serviceable military hardware to sell—the WaPo article calls North Korea “a kind of global eBay for vintage and refurbished Cold War-era weapons”—and ample experience at smuggling. One of their favorite tactics is to register their ships under foreign flags to avoid attention, as the Jie Shun was registered in Cambodia. The North Koreans also like to shut off their electronic identification systems, which makes their badly-maintained ships a hazard to navigation. To top it all off, they like to rip off their customers—the rocket grenades on the Jie Shun dated to the 1960s, but were stamped with March 2016 manufacturing dates.
Antediluvian liberals who spent the 1960s and 1970s agitating for the Soviet Union as the protector of world peace will not enjoy reading the Post’s explanation for the popularity of North Korean weapons. Stated simply, the Soviet Union flooded the Third World with its military hardware during the Cold War, so there is a constant demand for compatible spare parts and ammunition. Russia and China do not really supply such old-fashioned hardware anymore, so North Korea has cornered the market.
Foreign Policy notes the awkward timing on the rocket-grenade story, as Egypt just hosted joint military exercises with the United States for the first time in eight years, an operation designed to showcase the modern equipment and professionalism of the Egyptian military.
When the freeze of Egyptian military aid was announced in August, the Diplomat reflected that Egypt has maintained an uncomfortably close relationship with North Korea since the 1950s, when North Korea backed Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. When Egypt went to war against Israel in 1973, the senior Egyptian air force commander was able to enlist some North Korean pilots for the effort. That commander was Hosni Mubarak, who later became the longtime authoritarian ruler of Egypt.
The Egyptians, in turn, helped to build the only 3G mobile phone network in North Korea. The founder of the Egyptian telecom company that runs the network, billionaire investor Naguib Sawiris, has been an outspoken critic of Trump policy on North Korea. He insisted his investments in North Korea had nothing to do with his criticism.
“In spite of the political turmoil that followed Mubarak’s ouster in 2011, the Cairo-Pyongyang economic partnership has remained intact. As Egypt’s Port Said remains a critical trans-shipment point for North Korean arms exports to Africa, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has upheld his predecessors’ North Korea policy and refused to enforce UN sanctions against Pyongyang,” the Diplomat noted.
One of the most uncomfortable elements of that relationship is that Egypt is reportedly interested in purchasing North Korean missiles to counter the growing power of Iran, and might even seek its own nuclear deterrent if Iran goes nuclear—a program that Egypt would almost certainly need North Korean help to complete swiftly.
CNBC speculated in August that the Trump administration might be trying to use Egypt as leverage against North Korea, playing tough with Cairo to put Pyongyang on notice that its access to Egyptian money and ports could be on the line.