North Korea and Egypt: friends with benefits

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The World

SEOUL, South Korea — Egypt’s biggest businessman holding hands with Kim Jong Il.

This image, from an official photograph that also features the Dear Leader’s brother-in-law (below), leaves little doubt as to which side North Korea backs in the Egypt uprising.

It’s rare that Kim Jong Il personally receives a foreign visitor, much less allows his picture to be taken while firmly clasping the hand of one. Nevertheless, mobile-phone tycoon Naguib Sawiris got his very own squeeze while visiting Pyongyang in late January.

North Korea and Egypt are special friends. Kim Jong Il has a deep relationship with Sawiris, chairman of Orascom Telecom, that goes well beyond the mobile network his company set up in North Korea over the past three years. 

Sawiris' dealings with North Korea aren't new — indeed, they can be traced back at least 40 years — nor are they secret. And yet, Washington has never officially condemned ties between the isolated police state of North Korea and Egypt, the country in the Middle East to which the United States is totally committed.

Naguib Sawiris, chairman of Orascom Telecom, stands between Kim Jong Il (right) and Kim’s brother-in-law, Jang Song Thaek (left), in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Jan. 23, 2010. (Korean Central News Agency)

Cairo-based Orascom has invested more than $400 million in North Korea and it is widely assumed to be helping prop up the regime with funds and other aid during this critical period of transition.

Kim Jong Il, who turns 70 later this month, has recently unveiled his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, as his likely successor. Moreover, the regime is planning a massive celebration on April 15, 2012, which would have been the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Jong Il’s father, Kim Il Sung.

In the run-up to the big day, Kim Jong Il has his hands out for all the donations he can get.

The relationship between Sawiris and Kim Jong Il points to an even deeper bond between the North's leader and Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, who rose to power nearly 30 years ago after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981.

Ironically, while the United States was lavishing aid on Egypt after Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, Egypt and North Korea were forming close ties that exist to this day.

Amid all the relief in Washington over the Egypt-Israel peace deal, no one seems to have considered Mubarak's dealings with Kim Il Sung. Here was America's great Middle Eastern friend, the Arab foil to troublesome Iran, tightening ties with a sworn enemy of the United States and its ally, South Korea.

Around the time Mubarak was taking over, Kim Il Sung had just introduced Kim Jong Il at a party congress, placing him in the line of succession. Egypt and North Korea had begun dealing in missiles — though Egypt was seen by Washington as a “good” Arab state and North Korea, then as now, as the incarnation of evil.

When Mubarak commanded the Egyptian air force, he got North Korea to send pilots to train Egyptians before the fourth Mideast war with Israel in 1973. Egypt began importing Soviet-era missiles from North Korea around the time Mubarak became president, and North Korean technicians over the years have trained the Egyptians to produce them on their own.

Kim Jong Il and Mubarak are partners in dictatorship, a legacy of the bond Mubarak formed with Kim Il Sung, who hosted the Egyptian leader four times in Pyongyang bewteen 1983 and 1990. Mubarak and the elder Kim realized they had much in common in their desire to perpetuate dynastic rule, and the younger Kim has carefully nurtured the relationship formed by his father.

Since Orascom set up Koryolink, North Korea’s only 3G mobile phone network and a joint venture with the state founded in 2008, more than 300,000 North Koreans have acquired mobile phones. They’re all presumably from the upper crust of the Workers’ Party, military officers or government bureaucrats. Mobile users are mostly in Pyongyang, and it’s not possible to call outside North Korea.

Orascom’s investment in Koryolink coincided with “successful progress in different fields,” noted Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). The relationship between North Korea and Egypt is one that stretches across sectors, well beyond telecom, further enmeshing the two countries.

The last time I was in Pyongyang in September 2008, I ran into an Egyptian engineer named Fawzi in a foreigners’ store who was working on a project close to Kim Jong Il’s heart — the 105-story Hotel Ryugyong.

Kim Il Sung ordered construction of the pyramid-shaped behemoth in Pyongyang, but it was never finished. Now, the cement is rotting and elevator shafts are crooked. Orascom Telecom’s sister company, Orascom Construction, is almost certainly lending expertise to that project, a symbol of prestige in North Korea, as well as hundreds of smaller construction projects.

Reporting on the state dinner Kim Jong Il hosted for Sawiris in January, KCNA noted that their conversation was “cordial” — an adjective that describes a longstanding relationship U.S. officials never mention, even as they pray for an orderly transition of power in Egypt and continue to funnel billions of dollars its way.

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