The United Nations is expected to release a report that will shed renewed light on Egypt’s role as the trans-shipment point for North Korean weapons throughout North Africa and the Middle East and, it is expected, increase pressure on Cairo to curb the trade.
The UN has been looking into a North Korean freighter that was intercepted off the coast of Egypt in 2016 and found to be carrying 30,000 rocket-propelled grenades, with an estimated value of $26 million, concealed beneath a cargo of iron ore, The New York Times reported.
The UN study, which is due to be published before the end of the month, states that the weapons were bound for the Arab Organisation for Industrialization, Egypt’s main state weapons conglomerate.
That organisation is overseen by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt and the implication is that Cairo only acted to intercept the vessel because the US had been tracking the shipment and made it clear to the Egyptian authorities that the cargo was in violation of UN sanctions.
In a move that may not have been a coincidence, the US either cut or suspended military assistance to Egypt worth $291 million in August, firing a shot across al-Sisi’s bows on future dealings with Pyongyang,said the New York Times.
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 Middle bury 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 has a long-standing military relationship with Egypt; its fighter pilots fought in the 1973 war against Israel and its weapons have been a vital source of hard cash for North Korea as it looks to develop its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes.
The UN also accuses Egypt of turning a blind eye to North Korea using its embassy in Cairo – its largest diplomatic property in the Middle East UN – to showcase the weapons systems that are available, including cut-price versions of the Soviet-era military hardware that is still so widely used in the region.
Documentation gathered by the UN shows that North Korean diplomats have traveled to Sudan while it was under an international trade embargo to discuss the sale of guided missiles, while others have flown to Syria, where the UN claims North Korea has provided the regime with equipment that can be used in the manufacture of chemical weapons.
Analysts told The New York Times that the Egyptian government appears to be biding its time in the hope that pressure from its most important military patron – the US, which has previously provided it with F-16 fighters – will blow over.