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North Korean Defence Cooperation with Egypt; How Rodong and Hwasong Missiles Came to Comprise the Bulk of Cairo’s Ballistic Missile Forces

July 14th - 2018

The Egyptian military today (as a major Tier Three military power) fields by far the largest and most capable ballistic missile arsenal on the African continent. The country has a long history with ballistic missiles, seeing one of the first Cold War deployments of such weapons during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when the prolific Soviet Scud missile saw its first ever use in combat. The missiles were deployed near the war’s end when an Israeli victory appeared imminent, reportedly to deter Israeli air and ground units from destroying major infrastructure on the Egyptian mainland by demonstrating an ability to retaliate with the new Soviet built weapons. While Scud batteries were manned by Soviet operators during the Yom Kippur War, they would later be handed over to Egyptian operators and would remain in service long after Cairo’s pivot towards the Western Bloc under President Anwar Sadat and the cutting of defence ties with the USSR. Egypt would later come to seek an expansion of its ballistic missile capabilities, in part to retain some form of parity with the nuclear capabilities of neighbouring Israel and the vast ballistic missile arsenal of neighbouring Libya. To this end the Egyptian military sought assistance from North Korea from the 1980s, when under President Hosni Mubarak who paid several visits to Pyongyang the two countries took steps towards forming closer defence ties.

While North Korea had begun the mass export of Hwasong-5 missiles, a domestic variant of the Scud B, to Iran to retaliate against attacks by Iraq’s Soviet supplied Scud missiles, Egypt would go on to become a major client for missile systems. With the North Korean military at the time facing a vast arsenal of U.S. made tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, which America had on numerous occasion threatened to deploy against Korean targets, the country’s pursuit of a ballistic missile program was an attempt to gain some limited parity. The export of these missile systems was a means not only of cementing defence ties with emerging third world partners, but also of gaining several billion dollars in revenue for the country’s defence sector. Much of this would be reinvested in the country’s missile program, allowing it not only to progress rapidly and develop more advanced variants of the Scud design, such as the Hwasong-6 and Hwasong-9, but also to create entirely indigenous missiles such as the Rodong-1 and years later the Musudan, Pukkuksong, Hwasong-12 and other designs which would come to prominence in the early 21st century.

The Egyptian missile forces came to be comprised almost entirely of North Korean designs, and the country had by the 1990s amassed a considerable arsenal of Hwasong-5 and longer ranged Hwasong-6 ballistic missiles allowing it to target much of Israel, Libya and Sudan - all countries with which it has at times had hostile relations. In 1996 CIA sources indicated that Pyongyang was delivering manufacturing facilities to Egypt which “could allow Egypt to begin Scud C (Hwasong-6) series production.” The United States notably considered applying sanctions to the two parties to prevent this proliferation, as while these sales were entirely legal they threatened to undermine Western interests in the region - particularly in East Asia where the increasingly well funded North Korean missile program was doing much to undermine the American advantage and its freedom to project power. The risk of alienating a key ally in Cairo however meant that while Washington frequently raised its concerns with Egypt, which consistently went unheeded, the U.S. would focus its efforts on sanctioning North Korea. As one U.S. official noted at the time: “it is easier for us to focus on rogue states like Iran, Iraq and North Korea (later to be named the Axis of Evil) than to talk about our friends like Egypt or Israel.” Israel for its part was also notably investing heavily in acquiring ballistic missile capabilities, though as its technological base was considerable superior to that of Egypt it had less need to rely on imported systems.

While the U.S. sought to halt the cooperation of the two defence partners, North Korean missile sales to Egypt would only grow in the 1990s. U.S. official noted with much apprehension that not only was Egypt acquiring an arsenal of several hundred Hwasong-5 and Hwasong-6 platforms, but the more sophisticated North Korean Rodong and Toksa may also be sold to the country in the near future. The Toksa was a Korean variant of the Soviet OTR-21 Tochka solid fuelled short ranged ballistic missile, a more sophisticated and versatile missile which the USSR had developed into service to replace the Scud in the late 1970s. The Rodong was an entirely indigenous Korean design - an intermediate range ballistic missile capable of putting U.S. targets on Cheju island and across Japan within strike range. Its induction into service in the North Korean military coincided with a renewed effort to develop nuclear arms, leading to its potential service as a nuclear delivery vehicle. Egypt would go on to acquire the Rodong - allowing it to strike targets across the Middle East as far as Iran as well south east Europe, including Greece, Turkey, Italy and Romania, and Much of East Africa including Ethiopia. The North Korean missile, developed in the 1990s, remains Egypt’ most capable ballistic platform to date. It has also been sold to Pakistan, Iran and Libya, while the Toksa was sold to Syria in considerable numbers as a deterrent against nuclear armed neighbouring Israel.

Egypt would remain a major North Korean defence partner throughout President Mubarak’s 30 year presidency, though ties would notably deteriorate following his ousting in 2011. The country nevertheless provided funds key to kickstarting the North Korean ballistic missile program, and as a leading client for the country’s weapons military cooperation between the two powers remains. Whether Cairo will again in future turn to North Korea to acquire ballistic missiles remains to be seen, but in light of growing security threats faced by the country and a gradual curbing of the sanction regime against Pyongyang it remains a considerable possibility. North Korea certainly has a great deal to offer Cairo today in terms of arms - more than it did in the 1980s, with new missile platforms of all ranges as well as attack and ballistic missile submarines, long range air defence systems and state of the art anti ship cruise missiles being among its recently developed systems.. 

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