North Korean diplomats dine alone
Attending an Ahmadinejad press conference in Cairo recently, I bumped into a rather unusual character from North Korea
The 12th Islamic Summit ostensibly served as backdrop for President Ahmadinejad’s visit to Cairo earlier this year, the first by an Iranian leader to Egypt since the 1979 revolution. Yet, following the conclusion of the summit the Iranian delegation had one more task: throw a party.
Or more precisely their goal was to throw a garden reception for the media and notables at a diplomatic residence not far from the Fairmont Hotel where Ahmadinejad had appeared.
The entry hall to the reception was decorated with a host of overtly political images. One wall featured the obligatory image of the late Grand Ayatollah Khomeini. Another included famous images from Egypt’s 2011 Revolution juxtaposed with similar images from the Iranian revolution of 1979. Another display featured Iranian scientific achievements including what appeared to be images from the Iranian space programme – which sadly did not include images of the monkey Iran recently sent into space.
The gathering did, however, include ministers, important judges, Islamic scholars, figures from the Coptic Church, and several diplomats, including some from European Union member states. One face I recognized was Ayman Nour who I interviewed in 2011 – a former dissident who faced persecution under Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and whose case was once specifically mentioned by then U.S President George W. Bush.
The authoritarian Iranian leader greeted several Egyptian notables in a private meeting upstairs before heading down to take his place at the front of the audience. Here, before a carefully selected group, the Iranian leader was to make a significant media appearance in Egypt. The press conference was in part to make up for a kerfuffle the day before at Al-Azhar, the world’s oldest university, where the Iranian leader was greeted with a shoe and frosty comments from Sunni Muslim scholars.
The stage was set replete with a large portrait of the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini and a few other banners declaring Egyptian-Iranian friendship. With cameras rolling and a sudden shout, a shoe was thrown that hit Ahmadenijad squarely on the chin. The Iranian bodyguards surprisingly failed to react for a minute before grabbing the clean-shaven Egyptian man who lobbed the shoe. At least Ahmadinejad now had a pair.
But, the show must go on and someone on the microphone asked people to take their seats as the crowd jockeyed to see what was happening. Suddenly, the Iranian national anthem began and Ahmadinejad snapped out of his chair. He soon took the stage to give his speech about Iranian-Egyptian relations. He was interrupted again – this time by an Iranian diplomat who wanted to congratulate Ahmadinejad on his skillful leadership. Thankfully, the translator declined to translate this outburst. Ahmadinejad’s ended his speech by switching to Arabic: “Long live Egypt! Long live Iran! Long live Egypt and Iran forever!”
With that the President’s speech was over and he was hustled away lest another Egyptian brandish a Bruno Magli loafer. Meanwhile the guests were invited to a sprawling buffet on a nearby lawn. Some Egyptian TV reporters I had met while waiting for Ahmadinejad’s speech to begin insisted I join them as they walked towards the buffet.
As we took our place in line I asked them what they thought of the man with the world’s most controversial nuclear energy programme. “I don’t like him; he wants to use Egypt to build Iran’s influence in the Middle East,” one replied.
Suddenly the lights went out and all pleasantries were thrown aside. A chaotic scramble ensued for morsels of flat bread, yellow rice, grilled kebab, baba ganouch and hummus. Journalists, civil society leaders, politicians and diplomats began looking after their own interests in the shadows. Mutterings in English, Arabic and Persian could be heard. For a moment it appeared Middle East politics centered on a buffet line.
That’s when things took a turn from the surreal to bizarre. I emerged from the scrum at the buffet line with little more than a can of coke and two pastries and noticed a short Asian man standing at one table by himself; if truth be told, I noticed the man’s plate before I noticed him. It was stacked high with nearly every course the buffet had offered.
Then my eyes widened as I noticed the oblong red pin on his chest which showed two smiling cherub faces: Kim Il Sung and Kim Ill staring at each other.
“Excuse me, are you from the North Korean embassy in Cairo?” I asked shocked to meet a flesh and blood North Korean diplomat. I asked first in Arabic and then English.
“Yes,” he said quietly. He put down his fork and shook my hand. I identified myself and told him that I was an American journalist who wanted to ask him some questions. It was his turn to be shocked as his eyes bulged. A rice crumb trembled on the corner of his mouth as his expression turned from shock to anger, “Your country and my country have bad relations! Sometimes things are alright but, it’s always your fault, your country doesn’t respect our sovereignty!” I smiled nervously as his shouting grew louder.
“Your country misunderstands us!” he continued. I decide to be diplomatic. “Yes, well I think there are misunderstandings on the North Korean side as well,” I suggested, interrupting his tirade. A tirade certainly fed by years of anti-American propaganda.
In this regard I was unprepared. The closest thing America has to official anti-North Korean propaganda is the 2004 film Team America: World Police.
“You don’t respect our access to space!” He proclaimed. Just four days later North Korean would conduct a provocative nuclear weapons test. With things quickly boiling over, I decide to ask some softball questions to calm him down. “Is there better understanding in the Egyptian-North Korean relationship?” – I ask this question mentioning that North Korean artists had helped build Egypt’s panorama commemorating the 1973 Ramadan War.
“Hmmm really, how do you know this?” He asks inquisitively. He takes a few more bites from his plate as I answer.
“Well, I haven’t been there, but I read about it in Lonely Planet,” I confess. After all, Egypt – under years of socialist-oriented governments – had recognized North Korea before it had diplomatic relations with Seoul.
“Where were you posted as a diplomat before Cairo?” I ask. He doesn’t answer my question. Instead he munches on a mouthful of food. His cheek bulges. He is not going to answer that question. I take a bite from my own plate. I’m in no hurry.
“Have you been in Cairo long?”
“No, I haven’t.” He’s calmed now. He’s done his duty to shout his propaganda at an American devil. He can enjoy just desserts and as far as I can see he has at least two baklavas. We both munch in silence for a few moments as I search for a way to make this less awkward. I mumble something about Cairo’s deplorable traffic, is the traffic in Pyongyang as bad as Cairo?
“Yes,” he finally allows. “There is traffic.” It is unclear whether his comments are referring to the capital city which lies north of the 38th parallel or the one that lies along the banks of the Nile.
But then, before I can ask him to clarify, his neck stiffens like someone is calling his name and he gives an undefined space over my left shoulder a thousand yard stare. I instinctively turn, only hear to hear a gargle from a nearby pool which looks like it was built when both Egypt and Iran were monarchies.
“I have to…go someone is calling me”, he said abruptly, and off he ran into the night at a brisk trot. I can’t help but remember those North Korean videos which show thousands of people marching in Stalinist formations. Ultimately, though, I’m disappointed’; I didn’t even get to ask for a North Korean perspective on Gangnam Style.
I finish the last zaatar infused pastries on my plate and consider for a moment the work of Amartya Sen. Though hardly a fan of the free market, his research has suggested that famines tend to occur in states the without freedom of the press. His theory holds up when you consider that during the 20th century every three decades saw a major famine in a Communist country: The Soviet Union in the 1930s, Maoist China in the 1960s and North Korea in the 1990s. Perhaps that explained the tall plate of food.
I sipped my can of coke and reach for my phone to call a cab. A group of EU diplomats and Egyptians conversed at an adjacent table as the crowd quickly thinned.
Then it struck me: perhaps I had broken an unspoken rule in diplomacy. North Korean diplomats dine alone.
Joseph Hammond is a former Cairo correspondent with Radio Free Europe and former editor for a publication focused on the energy sector. A version of this article was published on DoubleThink
We are wholly dependent on the kindness of our readers for our continued work. We thank you in advance for any support you can offer.