On August 22, 2017, the U.S. State Department announced its decision to cut economic and military aid to Egypt by up to $300 million. While Egypt’s deteriorating human rights record was cited by State Department officials as the principal reason for these unexpected aid cuts, many analysts have speculated that Egypt’s close economic and security ties to North Korea were also behind Washington’s sudden decision to cut financial assistance to Cairo.
Even though Egypt has been a leading U.S. ally in the Middle East since the 1970s, Cairo remains one of Pyongyang’s leading trade partners in the Arab world. Egypt’s close links to Pyongyang can be explained by historical bonds born out of both countries’ shared Cold War experiences as non-aligned Soviet allies, and the Egyptian military’s long-standing interest in procuring North Korean military technology.
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Even though Egyptian foreign policy has undergone numerous realignments since Gamal Abdel Nasser assumed power in 1952, Cairo’s close relationship with North Korea has remained a consistent feature of Egypt’s Asia-Pacific strategy since the dawn of the Cold War. The persistence of cordial relations between Egypt and North Korea can be explained by both countries’ membership in the non-aligned movement (NAM) and shared solidarity with the Soviet Union during the 1950s and 1960s.
The anti-Western sentiments that made Nasser a leading figure within the NAM revealed themselves in striking fashion during the 1956 Suez Crisis. Egypt’s decision to nationalize the Suez Canal received enthusiastic support from Pyongyang. As Nasser successfully withstood a military intervention from the United Kingdom, Israel and France, North Korea’s leader Kim Il-sung authorized the donation of a small but symbolic sum of financial assistance to Egypt, to demonstrate his approval of Nasser’s anti-imperial defiance.
North Korea’s alignment with Egypt during the Suez Crisis set the stage for a strengthened Cairo-Pyongyang alliance during the 1960s. In 1961, a North Korean diplomatic delegation arrived in Egypt with the intention of establishing consular relations. To cement an alignment with Cairo, North Korean policymakers provided diplomatic support for Egypt’s efforts to push British troops out of South Yemen and fiercely condemned Israeli conduct during the 1967 Six-Day War. These actions increased trust between Egypt and North Korea and encouraged the Egyptian air force’s most senior commander, Hosni Mubarak, to enlist North Korean pilots to assist Egypt’s war effort against Israel in 1973.
Even though Egypt’s strategic partnership with the United States stigmatizes overt displays of cooperation with North Korea, the Cairo-Pyongyang diplomatic partnership has survived due to ongoing communication between leaders of both countries and shared economic interests. The establishment of person-to-person contacts between the Egyptian and North Korean governments, consolidated by Mubarak’s four visits to Pyongyang from 1983-1990, laid the foundation for subsequent Egyptian investments in the North Korean economy.
The most striking demonstration of Cairo’s willingness to invest in North Korea was Egyptian telecommunications giant Orascom’s establishment of Koryolink, the DPRK’s only 3G mobile phone network, in 2008. This business deal, which was authorized by Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris, gave Orascom 300,000 new North Korean customers. This deal highlighted the potential for mutually beneficial economic links between the two countries, and Sawiris’s subsequent visits to Pyongyang facilitated further Egyptian investments in the North Korean economy.
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.
Egypt’s Interest in North Korean Military Technology
In addition to maintaining diplomatic ties and valuable trade links with the DPRK, Egyptian policymakers have viewed North Korea as a critical supplier of military technology since the 1970s. To reward North Korea for its contributions to Egypt’s 1973 war effort, President Anwar el-Sadat authorized the sale of Soviet-made Scud-B missiles to the DPRK from 1976-1981. The North Korean military responded to Cairo’s missile sales by technologically assisting Egypt’s Scud-B missile production efforts.
Despite the establishment of a cold peace between Egypt and Israel in 1979, and a strengthened U.S.-Egypt alliance under Hosni Mubarak, Cairo remains a major purchaser of North Korean military technology. Egypt’s decision to maintain security links with North Korea can be explained by two strategic factors.
First, the North Korean government has helped train Egyptian scientists to produce their own missile systems, in exchange for hard currency provisions from Cairo. This arms-for-hard currency trade agreement helps reduce Egypt’s reliance on foreign arms imports, and allows Egypt to modernize its military without being solely reliant on the United States and Russia.
Egypt’s missile industry has particularly benefited from close military links with North Korea. During the 1990s, Egypt’s defensive capabilities were enhanced by Mubarak’s purchases of Scud-C missiles from North Korea. These procurements encouraged North Korean scientists to assist Egypt’s Scud-C missile production program during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
More recently, Iran’s ballistic missile tests have caused Egyptian military officials to express interest in purchasing new surface-to-surface missile systems, for defensive and retaliatory purposes. As North Korea continues to export air defense systems and satellite-guided missile technologies across the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, Pyongyang has re-emerged as a useful security partner for Cairo, as Egypt seeks to help its leading ally, Saudi Arabia, militarily balance against Iran.
Second, the Egyptian government’s continued refusal to accept comprehensive international inspections of its nuclear energy program, has increased concerns in Washington that Egypt could seek its own nuclear deterrent, if Iran violates the 2015 nuclear deal. This theory is substantiated by the IAEA’s discovery of highly enriched uranium at Ishas in 2007 and 2008, which occurred in spite of Mubarak’s rhetorical commitment to a nuclear-free Middle East.
As the United States and Russia both oppose Egypt’s procurement of nuclear weapons, North Korea could be a useful supplier of nuclear material to Egypt, if Cairo seeks to revive its uranium enrichment program. As many defense analysts believe that rising tensions between the U.S. and Egypt under Sisi increase the risk of Egypt procuring its own nuclear deterrent, Trump’s decision to cut aid to Egypt could convince Sisi to expand Cairo’s long-standing defense partnership with North Korea. This outcome would underscore the inefficacy of international sanctions against the DPRK and lead to a profound political backlash against Trump’s use of coercive diplomacy with Egypt.
Even though the United States has been Egypt’s principal great power ally for four decades, Egypt has refused to give up its long-standing economic, diplomatic and military partnership with North Korea. Therefore, Trump’s unexpected decision to cut foreign aid to Egypt leaves Sisi with an uncomfortable choice between reluctantly kowtowing to U.S. demands and risking a long-term suspension of the Washington-Cairo security partnership.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who writes regularly for the Washington Post and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.