A disguised North Korean ship bound for Egypt was intercepted carrying more than 30,000 rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) in what the UN called the “largest seizure of ammunition in the history of sanctions against [North Korea],” The Washington Post reported on Sunday.
According to a confidential report, US officials tipped off Egyptian authorities on the Jie Shun, a suspicious 300-foot-long freighter that set sail on an 8,000 mile voyage from North Korea on July 23, 2016.
The ship was registered in Cambodia and flew a Cambodian flag, in an apparent attempt to avoid unwanted scrutiny. The Jie Shun also occasionally turned off its transponder, according to a February UN report.
“The vessel’s automatic identification system was off for the majority of the voyage,” the report said, according to The Post, “except in busy sea lanes where such behavior could be noticed and assessed as a safety threat.”
But once US intelligence agencies notified Egyptian officials, the plan appeared to slowly unravel. When customs agents first boarded the vessel to inspect its goods, it appeared as if nothing was out of the ordinary. The manifest listed 2,300 tons of limonite — a type of iron ore. However, beneath the stones were 79 wooden crates that contained thousands of rocket-propelled grenades, estimated to be worth $23 million.
The rounds themselves were a practice rounds typically used for training, The Post reported. And given the quantity of the RPGs, it suggested that it was intended for thousands of recruits for a large army — lending weight to the theory that Egypt’s military was the intended recipient.
The crates were also imprinted with the name of an Egyptian company, one that diplomats refused to name, according to The Post. The official UN report also does not mention the company —only that “the private company” had its license revoked and was closed. Egypt eventually destroyed the RPGs under UN supervision.
Beyond North Korea’s limited amount of permissible international trade, which has become even slimmer following increased UN sanctions, the country remains heavily invested in illicit trade, including narcotics, counterfeit currencies, and cheap weapons.
The relationship between Egypt and North Korea is one that has been forged since the Soviet Union, according to The Diplomat. The two nations have since remained economic partners, despite the US’s watchful gaze. In 2008, Egypt invested in North Korea’s infrastructure by creating the country’s only 3G mobile phone network, giving 300,000 North Koreans access to an outdated telecommunications service.
Although it may appear that Egypt was implicated in an arms deal with North Korea, officials from the Egyptian Embassy argued that it had been transparent with the process and that it “will continue to abide by all Security Council resolutions and will always be in conformity with these resolutions as they restrain military purchases from North Korea.”