Egypt ordered more than 30,000 rocket-propelled grenades from North Korea in a clandestine sanctions-busting deal last year that was foiled at the last minute by the US, the Washington Post reported on Monday.
The discovery, which led to what a United Nations report later described as the “largest seizure of ammunition in the history of sanctions against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” exposed one in a series of secret deals between the two countries that prompted US complaints to Egypt and the Trump administration’s decision over the summer to freeze or delay military aid to Cairo worth nearly $300 million.
The ship carrying the weapons to Egypt was spotted in the summer of 2016 by US intelligence, which tracked it as it left North Korea with a North Korean crew and watched it sail westward toward the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal.
The US alerted Egyptian authorities through diplomatic channels. The vessel, which was flying Cambodian colors, carried heavy tarpaulin covering unknown cargo.
Egyptian customs agents were waiting when the ship entered Egypt’s waters outside of the Suez Canal. They discovered the weapons hidden under rocks of iron ore: more than 24,000 rocket-propelled grenades, and completed components for 6,000 more.
All were North Korean copies of a rocket warhead known as the PG-7, a variant of a Soviet munition first built in the 1960s, the Post report said.
The crates carrying the arms were marked with the name of a private Egyptian company, which the report could not name, but the sheer number of arms, and the fact that they were clearly intended for large-scale military training, indicated that they were destined for the Egyptian army.
Egypt said in a response that it was transparent and abides by all UN Security Council resolutions.
But a UN probe discovered that Egyptian businessmen had ordered the rockets, worth millions of dollars, for the Egyptian army and had invested great efforts in keeping the deal secret due to the heavy sanctions against North Korea.
According to Andrea Berger, a North Korea specialist and senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California, Egypt still has diplomatic ties with Pyongyang and military ties dating back to the 1970s, which are hard to break.
“Egypt was a consistent North Korean customer in the past,” Berger told the Post. “I would call them a ‘resilient’ customer today.”
Western diplomats said Egypt initially denied any connection to the weapons haul, then tried obfuscation.
The case exposes the difficulties faced by the international community in trying to use economic sanctions to pressure Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions.
Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-Un, has managed to mitigate the crippling effect of the sanctions to some extent by continuing to sell cheap arms to countries such as Burma, Cuba, Syria, Eritrea and at least two terrorist groups, as well as key US allies such as Egypt, analysts told the paper.
The Post described that market as “a kind of global eBay for vintage and refurbished Cold War-era weapons, often at prices far lower than the prevailing rates.”
Quoting intelligence officials and Western diplomats, the report said Syria recently bought chemical weapons protective gear from Pyonyang and that the Iranian-backed Lebanese terror group Hezbollah — a “long-term customer” — has acquired North Korean rockets and missiles.
North Korean rifles have even been found on the bodies of Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria, although according to US officials, they were probably stolen from stocks sold long ago to the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.