Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service/AP Photo
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.

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.

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.

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

Unusually effusive

In an unusually effusive report, KCNA said that Kim had “warmly welcomed” Samiris. The two “had a cordial talk,” KCNA reported, “at a time when Orascom's investment is making successful progress in different fields,” notably telecommunications.

Since returning to Cairo, Samiris has sought to get on the side of the democratic movement, calling for “a real intention to have real democracy established here” while restoring “stability.” But the Orascom group, including Orascom Construction and Orascom Development, controlled by his younger brothers, thrives on close ties to Mubarak. A sign of the relationship is that a nephew of the newly appointed Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman, is Orascom Telecom’s general counsel.

“Samiris is the biggest foreign investor in North Korea,” says Ha Tae-keung, president of Seoul-based NK Open Radio, which picks up news from North Korea by surreptitious cell phone contacts linked not to Koryolink but to Chinese networks. “He is very sensitive to politics."

Orascom Telecom has provided mobile phone service in troubled countries from Tunisia to Iraq to Pakistan, while Orascom Construction has had contracts for building US military facilities in Afghanistan.

Cairo as hub for North Korean weapons exports

At the same time, Egypt has counted on North Korea for military aid in the 1970s and began purchasing Scud missiles from North Korea around the time that Mubarak became president. North Korea also provided the technology for Egypt to manufacture missiles on it own.

“Cairo is the hub of North Korea’s missile export,” says Choi Jin-wook, who follows North Korean affairs as senior fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification. Mr. Choi says North Korea’s embassy in Cairo is headquarters for the North’s Middle East military sales network and ranks as the North’s “most important embassy” after its embassy in Beijing.

Choi believes the deal with Orascom calls for North Korea to pay for the telecom network in hard currency earned from the sale of missiles and technology to clients including Iran, Syria, Yemen, and Libya.

Mubarak and Kim Jong-il have more in common than strictly business, say analysts here. They both are long-term dictators with visions of passing on power to their sons – Gamal Mubarak in Egypt and Kim Jong-un in North Korea.

Although the embattled Mubarak now says his son will not succeed him, says Ha Tae-kung, “The idea of succession came from Kim Jong-il.”

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