CAIRO — On an island in the Suez Canal, a towering AK-47 rifle, its muzzle and bayonet pointed skyward, symbolizes 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-Sisi’s otherwise cozy relationship with the United States, set off a painful cut in military aid and drawn unremitting scrutiny from United Nations 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, American and United Nations 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.
Tensions may bubble up again in the coming weeks with the publication of a United Nations report 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 $26 million.
The report, due to be released this month, identifies the customer for the weapons as an arm of the Arab Organization for Industrialization, Egypt’s main state weapons conglomerate. Mr. Sisi heads the committee that oversees the group.
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 W. Tillerson in Cairo last month.
But that diplomatic representation, in an embassy that doubles as a regional arms dealership, is the problem, American 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, United Nations 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.
Shielded by diplomatic cover and front companies, North Korean officials have traveled 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 Corporation.
At least five other North Korean officials based in Egypt, employed by state security or various arms fronts, have been sanctioned. One of them, Kim Song-chol, traveled to Khartoum in 2013 as part of a $6.8 million deal for the sale of 180 missiles and missile parts to Sudan.
According to this year’s sanctions report, Mr. Kim and another sanctioned official based in Cairo, Son Jong-hyok, continue to deal with Sudan’s state-controlled Military Industrial Corporation.
“An arms dealer with a diplomatic passport is still an arms dealer,” Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council in 2016.
For weeks in the summer of 2016, American 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 United Nations 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 stenciled 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 Organization for Industrialization.
Mohamed Abdulrahman, the 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.”
Secret Missile Cooperation
The Jie Shun shipment was a glaring example of how cash-starved North Korea has helped finance its nuclear program by hawking stocks of cheap, Soviet-era weapons to countries that developed a reliance on those systems during the Cold War, American officials and analysts say.
But it also pointed to an established smuggling route and an entrenched military-to-military trading relationship that American officials say has long been a conduit for ballistic missile technology.
Starting in the 1970s, Cairo and Pyongyang collaborated to extend the range and accuracy of Soviet Scud missiles, said Owen Sirrs, a former agent with the Defense Intelligence Agency. In the late 1990s, American officials worried that Egypt was trying to buy North Korea’s Nodong missile system, which has a range of about 800 miles.
“We were sending démarches to the Egyptians to say, ‘Knock it off — we’re sending you hundreds of F-16s, and you don’t need that North Korean crap,’” said Mr. Sirrs, who was based in Cairo at the time and now lectures at the University of Montana.
It is unclear if Egypt ever acquired the Nodong missiles. Although Cairo has spent billions on high-profile military purchases in recent years, including Russian fighter jets, French aircraft carriers and German submarines, it has been notably cagey about its offensive missile capabilities.
In 2013, a shipment of spare parts for Scud-B missiles, which have a shorter range than the Nodong, was intercepted in transit as it was shipped by air from the North Korean Embassy in Beijing to a military-controlled company in Cairo. The missile components had been labeled parts for fish-processing machinery.
Egypt denied that the military company had ordered the Scud parts.
Such missiles could strike Israel from deep inside Egyptian territory. They could also reach Ethiopia, with which Egypt has a simmering dispute over a new dam on the Nile.
The Politics of Sanctions Evasion
The Trump administration has scored some successes in its drive to isolate North Korea from its allies, notably with the Philippines and Singapore last fall. But Egypt, which receives $1.3 billion annually in American aid, has resisted Mr. 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 cellphone networkand 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 American pressure. They may feel that, based on past experience, American 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.
Originally published in the New York Times