US blind to Egypt's North Korean axis
By Donald Kirk
SEOUL - Here's a riddle that seems to have escaped the notice of United States
policymakers as anxious to preserve "stability" in Egypt as they are on the
If the enemy of your enemy is your friend, then how come Washington's long
favorite friend in the Arab world, Egypt, is so cozy with one of Washington's
bitterest enemies, North Korea?
And if your friend is providing a base of operations for sales of missiles and
other stuff to all your foes in the Middle East, then how come your friend is
All of which points to this puzzle: Why has the United States, since Jimmy
Carter as US president engineered the Camp David
Accords in 1978 and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty the next year, showered
billions of dollars in aid on North Korea while Egypt was double-dealing in
North Korean missiles, technology and advice?
The answer seems to be that American politicos and envoys, in a long-running
saga of supreme diplomatic casuistry, incompetence and all that, preferred to
downplay if not ignore Egypt's ever-tightening ties to North Korea in the
overriding interests of guaranteeing a shaky peace in the Middle East.
The story goes back to about 1970, and maybe earlier, when Hosni Mubarak, as
commander of the Egyptian air force, got North Korea to send pilots to train
Egyptians in preparation for the 1973 war with Israel. That engagement turned
out to have been one of the great military humiliations of modern Middle East
history when they Israelis turned back the invading Egyptians several days
after they launched the fourth Middle East War, aka the Yom Kippur war, in
One might have thought that debacle would not have been good for either Egypt
or Mubarak's career, but actually it had the opposite effect.
So eager was the US to bring about Israeli-Arab reconciliation that Anwar Sadat
- as the only Arab leader really ready to go along with recognition of Israel -
emerged as the Nobel Prize-winning hero to peace-lovers. Remember, the US at
the same time was suffering the disaster of total defeat of US-backed regimes
in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in 1975, and the sense of loss in America's
foreign policy adventures cast a pall over the electorate, bringing about
Carter's victory over Gerald Ford the next year.
And then there was Mubarak. Was he in trouble for the defeat of his air force,
the embarrassment of the ill-fated fracas of 1973 in which Egypt had sought to
recoup the losses of the 1967 war with the Israelis? Not at all. He got himself
named vice president of Egypt and, after Sadat's assignation in 1981, rose to
the job of president to which he's been clinging ever since.
But the story was just beginning. From the outset, Mubarak managed to perform a
truly magician's act of diplomatic trickery. Unlike most leaders who seem
more or less aligned with one side or the other, or at best adopt a "neutral"
position, Mubarak was firmly on the side of the US in the Arab world - and
totally on the side of North Korea in Northeast Asia.
The real story began when North Korea around 1980 or so began purveying
Soviet-style Scud B missiles to Egypt along with a lot of other weapons and
technology. The dealmaking was so extensive that North Korea's embassy in Cairo
soon became its central base for operations around the region, the hub through
which it made sales pitches to a likely assortment of other Arab regimes.
North Korea to be sure did not run its sales to non-Arab Iran via Cairo, but
that's another story. For one thing, the US at the time was setting up Egypt as
the friendly counterpoise to Iran after the fall of the US-backed shah, and,
for another, Iran in the 1980s was fighting a war with an Arab state, Saddam
Hussein's Iraq, a struggle that lasted eight years. North Korea made plenty off
that war, selling $3 billion in equipment to Iran, including missiles, while
embarking on a program in nuclear cooperation.
All the while, Mubarak was importing ever more military gear, notably missiles,
from North Korea while the North Koreans tutored the Egyptians on how to build
their own missiles and other useful items. Egypt was getting far, far more from
the US, enough to make it the second-largest recipient of American largesse
after Israel, but Mubarak was grateful enough to have visited North Korea four
times from 1983 to 1990.
He and the North's Great Leader Kim Il-sung formed an enduring bond, one that
Kim Jong-il enthusiastically maintained after the death of his father in July
The relationship was so close that Mubarak made one solemn pledge to Kim
Il-sung. Never would Egypt open relations with the North's very worst enemy,
Never mind that South Korea was one of the closest military allies of the US,
was fast recovering from the horrors of the Korean War and using much of the
same type of equipment that the Americans were showering on the Egyptians.
As far as Mubarak was concerned, he was getting so much from North Korea that
there was no need to think about Washington's relations with Seoul. In fact,
there is no record of American diplomats ever objecting to this strange
convolution of Middle East and Northeast Asian power struggles - or, for that
matter, US hypocrisy in treating Mubarak as a great friend.
South Korea by the mid-1990s, however, was already far too powerful a state
economically for the Egyptians to go on ignoring.
Mubarak, after the death of Kim Il-sung, did agree in 1995 to form relations with South Korea - but that was
well after every country in the eastern bloc had gone for a two-Korea
diplomatic relationship and South Korea had formed diplomatic relations with
China after finally ceasing to recognize the Nationalist Chinese regime on
Taiwan as the true China.
By 1995, it was pretty hard for any leader, even the duplicitous Egyptian
president, to overlook the arrival of all those motor vehicles, electronic
gimmicks and much else arriving from South Korea on South Korean super-sized
cargo ships, many of them passing right through his own Suez Canal to markets
The Egyptian-North Korean relationship, though, was still blossoming. The
military business has had its ups and downs, varying with the needs and
finances of Arab clients, but Egypt remains the largest foreign investor in
North Korea. That's thanks to the deal engineered by Egypt's biggest
conglomerate, the Orascom group, to provide North Korea with its one and only
mobile phone network and also to build a whole lot of structures that Kim
Jong-il badly wants by the time of the 100th anniversary in 2012 of the birth
of Kim Il-sung on April 15 .
Naguib Samiris, the chairman of Orascom Telecom, the central entity of an
empire that also includes Orascom Construction and Orascom Development, run by
his younger brothers, was in Pyongyang last month just as the forces against
Mubarak were taking to the streets of Cairo. Incredibly, Kim Jong-il laid on a
state dinner for the man as if he, not Mubarak, was the one who counted most in
That was all by way of thanking Samiris for pumping several hundred million
dollars into the mobile phone network, called Koryolink, which by now has upwards
of 300,000 subscribers, and no doubt for getting him to give still more in the
area of "telecommunications".
We have Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency to thank for the summary report
of the dinner and the "success" of Orascom in multiple deals - though KCNA has
did not report on Orascom Construction's project to complete a 105-story hotel
that was begun in 1983 as a showpiece of North Korean success and now stands as
a monument to failure. (Nor, for that matter, has KCNA said a word about
protests on the streets of Cairo - not something North Koreans need to know
about while struggling to stay alive in the harshest winter in years.)
The conversation between Dear Leader Kim and Samiris was described as
"cordial", the most convincing evidence for which was a photograph showing him
standing between Kim Jong-il, hands intertwined, and Jang Song-thaek, the
powerful brother-in-law. (Read what you will into the fact that Samiris, while
holding Kim Jong-il's hand, had his other hand clasping Jang's arm.)
But then there's another reason beside investment why Samiris and Kim Jong-il
are so tight. Could it be that Kim wants desperately to have his third son
ensconced on the throne after he leaves the scene while Mubarak has had visions
of implanting his second son, Gamal, as Egypt's next leader. Mubarak under
duress has evidently had to abandon that plan, but the affinity is obvious.
These old dictators have to stick together - pillars of an axis, though George
W Bush somehow forgot Egypt when he named Iran, Iraq and North Korea in 2002 as
members of his infamous "axis-of-evil".