Need a North Korean Missile? Call the Cairo Embassy

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, speaking at a military ceremony last month, heads a committee that oversees an agency accused of buying rocket-propelled grenades from North Korea. Credit Egyptian Presidency

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.


 Egypt has previously denied being the intended recipient of the weapons, or breaching international sanctions. In response to questions about the United Nations 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 United Nations 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 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.”

The Embassy

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.

In Egypt, their business is weapons. United Nations 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 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.


The North Korean Embassy in Cairo is the hub of an arms bazaar for military sales across the region, American and United Nations officials say. Credit Agence France-Presse

“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.

The Ship

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.


A North Korean freighter carrying 30,000 rocket-propelled grenades was intercepted off the coast of Egypt and held at the Ain Sokhna port, above, while the United States and North Korea wrestled over its fate. Credit Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

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 jetsFrench 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



5 responses to “Need a North Korean Missile? Call the Cairo Embassy”

  1. Danny Farah Avatar
    Danny Farah

    Sissi is another corrupt dictator who could careless about anyone but himself and his regime to remain strong. It’s for other arabs and the US to cut ties with him period.

    1. No doubt about his corruption and the dictatorial nature of his regime. The problem is that the only viable alternative to him is the Brotherhood which is much, much worse, as we’ve all had the chance of seeing.

  2. Niemals Avatar

    At Ya Libnan you always learn something new about the Middle East conflict.
    Today, Ya Libnan has attached an essay from The New York Times [Need a North Korean Missile? Call the Cairo Embassy] about Egypt’s 1973 war against Israel. Egyptian T 62 in Sinai 1973

    Unimaginable that Egypt needed North Korean pilots to fight and die on the Egyptian side in a war that Egypt lost.

    1. why is this hard to believe? North Korean and Cuban soldiers fought on Syria’s side too.
      Even the world’s largest armies use allies and recruit other countries to fight with/for them.

      1. Niemals Avatar

        It wasn’t hard to believe, I was just surprised that this communistic diktatur involved themselves with the Arab Israeli war.

        It’s no news that many countries engage so called allied fighters.
        Russia dose it, Iran dose it too in Syria (recruited afghans).

        According to one source, Russian toll in Syria battle was 300 killed and wounded.

        Russia (Reuters) – The mother of a Russian man who is believed to be working as a military contractor in Syria said on Friday the Kremlin had abandoned her son and those fighting alongside him.
        Around 300 men working for a Kremlin-linked private military contractor were killed or injured in Syria last week, sources told Reuters, indicating Russia is more deeply involved in Syria’s war than it has previously said.
        Both Iran and Russia apply this method to silence losses of their soldiers in Syria.
        Iran recruited afghans in order to calm home opinion after they suffered with too many Iranians returning home in coffins.
        Afghan Children Recruited to Fight in Syria Tombstones of Afghan child soldiers buried in Iran. Tombstone of Alireza Rahimi, Behesht-e-Zahra Cemetery, Tehran, Iran. © 2017 Private

        On this forum you will not finde any critic of Iranians or Russians roll in the civiliwar in Syria, from the HanniMegaHindler trio due the ideology they have.

        Both Iran and Russia using Syria as exercise arena for their military enhancement of hardware Su-57 aircraft at the air base Khmeimim
        and software Hisbollah-Kämpfer an der Grenze zu Israel, April 2017
        for their future confrontations with NATO and NATO allies.

        RT rapport:
        Russian transport plane crashes upon landing in Syria, all 32 on board dead
        Published time: 6 Mar, 2018 13:42
        Edited time: 6 Mar, 2018 14:06 Trolls, trolls, trolls….. ????????

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