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Why Kim Jong-il wished Egypt's Mubarak a Happy New Year

Egypt has counted on North Korea for military aid. The biggest mobile phone company in the Middle East is also one of North Korea's largest investors.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / February 7, 2011

In this Jan. 23 photo, North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il talks with Naguib Sawiris, executive chairman of Cairo-based Orascom Telecom, at an undisclosed place in North Korea. Kim held talks with the Egyptian telecoms magnate whose company set up and operates an advanced mobile phone network in the impoverished communist nation.

Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service/AP Photo

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Seoul, South Korea

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il sent a new year’s greeting to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency reported over the weekend, confirming the closeness of four decades of military and commercial ties.

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Mr. Kim offered the greeting to Mr. Mubarak on the occasion of the lunar New Year, celebrated last week in North and South Korea as well as China and Vietnam, amid fast-growing protest in Cairo against Mubarak’s rule.

The greeting was seen here as evidence of North Korea’s decades of support.

“This message means Kim Jong-il endorses Mubarak’s power or administration,” said the Daily NK, a South Korean website that closely monitors events in North Korea. “It reflects the strong relationship formed between Mubarak and Kim Il-sung,” Kim Jong-il’s father, who ruled the North for nearly half a century before dying in 1994.

North Korea and Mubarak

North Korea over the years has trained Egyptian pilots, sold missiles to Egypt, provided the technology for Egypt to fabricate its own missiles, and turned its embassy in Cairo into the hub for military sales throughout the region.

The relationship grew even while Egypt was developing close ties with the United States after the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty in 1979. Egypt was seen as a close friend of the United States even as Mubarak visited Pyongyang three times in the 1980s and a fourth time in 1990 in search of military and commercial deals.

The Egypt-North Korean relationship was confirmed again in late January when Kim Jong-il hosted Naguib Samiris, chairman of Orascom Telecom, the biggest mobile phone company in the Middle East and the centerpiece in Egypt’s biggest business group. Orascom formed North Korea’s mobile phone network, Koryolink, in late 2008 as a joint venture in which Orascom owns 75 percent of the equity and a North Korean state company has the rest. Orascom has since invested an estimated $400 million in Koryolink, which now has more than 300,000 subscribers.

Indicative of the importance of Orascom as an investor in North Korea’s decrepit economy, Kim honored Mr. Samiris with the kind of state dinner generally reserved for the few chiefs of state who have visited Pyongyang, including Mubarak. Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency disseminated a photograph of Samiris clasping the hands of Kim on his left and Kim’s brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, viewed as North Korea’s second-ranking leader, on his right.

Exclusive Monitor photos of unfolding events in Egypt

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