Will wind of change blow ties off course?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 February, 2011, 12:00am

The revolution in Egypt reverberates in North Korea - and not just because Pyongyang would like to hide the news from a citizenry that might want to emulate the Egyptian example.

The fact is that for 40 years, Hosni Mubarak- going back to before his ascent to the presidency in 1981- fostered a tight bond with North Korea while also currying favour with the West.

Since before the Yom Kippur war of 1973, when Egyptian forces foolishly invaded Israel only to retreat several days later, Mubarak - as commander of the Egyptian air force - counted on North Koreans to train his pilots and service his aircraft. At the time of Anwar Sadat's assassination, when Mubarak was vice-president, Egypt was receiving Soviet-designed Scud missiles from North Korea.

Several years later, the North Koreans were training Egyptian engineers on how to produce their own versions of the weapons. All the while, the North Korean Embassy in Cairo was bustling as the hub for Pyongyang's burgeoning trade in missiles and other weaponry to Middle Eastern clients, ranging from Libya and Syria to Iraq and Yemen - all foes of Israel, with which Sadat had formed a historic peace treaty in 1979 under the Camp David accords.

Incredibly, Americans did not openly object to the Egyptian-North Korean relationship - a relatively small price to pay, in the view of befuddled policymakers in Washington, in exchange for peace in the Middle East.

With Mubarak gone, North Korea's leadership may well have reason to worry about who will come after him and whether that military relationship can endure.

However, Egypt's ties with North Korea will continue on another very different level. More than two years ago, Orascom Telecom - the largest mobile phone network operator in the Middle East with close ties to the government - set up North Korea's only 3G mobile phone network, Koryolink, a joint venture with a North Korean state company.

Orascom has poured US$400 million into North Korea to expand the system, now available to more than 300,000 subscribers. The Orascom group, Egypt's biggest conglomerate, is also helping Pyongyang in other ways. Orascom Construction is erecting new buildings and promising to complete North Korea's tallest building, a 105-storey hotel begun in 1987 which now looms over the Pyongyang skyline as a monument to North Korean economic failure.

It is a safe bet that Orascom will go on with its North Korean contracts regardless of who takes over in Egypt. Orascom Telecom chairman Naguib Sawiris was honoured at a state dinner in Pyongyang last month as if he were a head of state.

We will know much more about the direction of the new Egyptian government, in terms of integrity and reliability as a Middle East partner, as well as a real force for democratic reform, when we see whether it is as interested as the previous administration in maintaining military ties with one of the word's most repressive regimes in Pyongyang.

Journalist Donald Kirk is the author, most recently, of Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine