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Egypt may be the newest front in Trump’s battle with North Korea

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This week, the State Department announced it will withhold millions of dollars in aid to Egypt, a long-standing U.S. ally and a major recipient of American security assistance.

This was no small move — more than $290 million in aid would be cut or delayed — and Egypt's foreign ministry responded angrily, accusing Washington of “poor judgment.” But the move heartened many critics of Trump's foreign policy, who cheered the fact that the administration based its decision on Egypt's poor human rights record.

Martin Indyk, the executive vice president of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said that Trump making a stand on human rights was a “head-scratcher” — even “Obamaesque.”

Underneath the surface, however, the focus of the move may not be Egypt, but rather North Korea.

Gardiner Harris and Declan Walsh of the New York Times suggest that a key factor in the decision to curtail aid to Cairo is its ongoing relationship with Pyongyang. “Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson’s top priority has been to increase North Korea’s economic and diplomatic isolation, and he has asked foreign leaders in almost every meeting that they cut ties with Pyongyang,” the reporters explained.

The pressure on Egypt appears to be part of a broader U.S. push to make it clear that North Korea is a problem for the world, not just Washington, Seoul and Tokyo.

North Korea is one of the world's most isolated nations, and it has been under U.N. sanctions since 2006. Yet it still has a long history of economic relationships with other counties, and some of these relationships are still around.

Some are well-known— North Korea's trade with China or shipping of migrant workers to Russia are hardly well-kept secrets. But there are more surprising economic links out there, too. The Washington Post's Kevin Sieff recently took a look at the trade ties between North Korea and a number of African nations, for example, while the Associated Press's Jon Gambrell recently reported on the role of North Korean laborers in U.S.-allied Gulf states.

Some of this trade may seem relatively benign — North Korean-made statues are in high demand in some African states, Sieff noted — but there is often a military component, as well. Reuters reported this week that two North Korean shipments to a Syrian government agency responsible for its chemical weapons program have been intercepted in the past month. Either way, the deals provide Pyongyang with hard currency that can aid its nuclear weapons program.

Like many of North Korea's foreign partners, Egypt's relationship with Pyongyang goes back to the Cold War, when North Korean fighter pilots helped train their Egyptian counterparts ahead of the 1973 war with Israel. The relationship endured into the modern era, with Egyptian telecom giant Orascom helping set up North Korea's mobile phone network (although that deal didn't turn out too well in the end).

Neither U.N. sanctions or American military aid appear to have shaken this relationship. “I believe Egypt wants to have it both ways,” said Mohamed Elmenshawy, a columnist at the Egyptian daily Al Shorouk News and Washington Bureau Chief for Alaraby TV, who was among the first to argue that the relationship with North Korea could be a problem. A recent U.N. report showed how Egypt appeared to play both sides: Egypt helped intercept a North Korean ship carrying weapons through the Suez Canal last year, but it also was accused of illicitly procuring Scud missile parts from Pyongyang.

Previous U.S. administrations have tried to push nations such as Egypt to end their ties to North Korea. “The U.S. pressuring countries to sever links is part of the constant game of 'whack-a-mole' in trying to shut down sanctions evaders,” said Kent Boydston, an expert on North Korean trade at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

These moves didn't necessarily work, and some experts even doubted American resolve to enforce them. “For more than a decade, under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the United States tolerated and sometimes even contributed directly to the deficiencies of sanctions on Pyongyang,” Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote in the National Interest.

Under Trump, this seems to have changed. The new administration has made a significant push to sanction Chinese and Russian firms and individuals who do business with North Korea. It has also sought inventive ways to make sure other nations comply with U.N. sanctions. Andrea Berger, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, noted this year that North Korea appeared to have played a role in a decision to keep sanctions on Sudan in place.

Trump seems to have warned Egypt's President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi of a similar response during a July phone call, when he called on countries to “fully implement U.N. Security Council resolutions on North Korea, stop hosting North Korean guest workers, and stop providing economic or military benefits to North Korea,” according to a White House readout.

The strict punishment of Egypt may be a recognition of how seriously the United States views the North Korean threat. In an email to today's WorldView, Berger noted that Egypt's alleged procurement of missile parts from North Korea was “almost as bad as it gets” in terms of sanctions violations.

And without Egypt, there might not be a North Korean nuclear program at all: Berger pointed out that Egypt helped kick-start Pyongyang's nuclear development 40 years ago when it gifted two Soviet-made Scud missiles that North Korean scientists could reverse-engineer. “North Korea did just that, and the Scud missile design became the backbone of much of the country’s ballistic missile arsenal,” Berger said.

Will Trump's action finally compel Egypt to break ties with North Korea? Elmenshawy thinks it will work. “What Cairo receives from its strategic relationship with Washington is not replaceable by any other country,” the columnist said.

Of course, Egypt's relationship with North Korea is relatively small fry compared to its links with China and Russia, but withdrawing aid is one more way to ramp up pressure on Pyongyang. And given the other alternatives being discussed (nuclear war, for example), it may be one of the better options on the table.

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