As tensions rise between North Korea, the United States and its Asian partners (South Korea and Japan), a number of long-standing relationships that several African nations maintain with Pyongyang have been called into question and are in many ways deeply troubling. Although it is not well-publicized, many African nations including Namibia, Uganda, Congo, Angola, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique have had decade-long ties with North Korea. Some of these ties go back as far as the 1960s, when many African nations sought to break free of European powers.
When North Korea was led by Kim Il Sung, grandfather to current dictator Kim Jong Un, several liberation movements in Africa were offered varying degrees of assistance from the rogue regime. This included economic, commercial, weapons and military training assistance. Remnants of these relationships can be seen throughout the continent spanning from monuments, government buildings, and museums not only contracted by North Korean construction companies, but in many cases erected using North Korean labour. Some of these symbols of cooperation have gone far beyond joint commercial and government projects.
It has been reported that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was taught basic Korean from Kim Il Sung personally. In the 1980s, as a sign of solidarity between the two nations, Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe sent two rhinos to Pyongyang. In Mozambique, a major downtown thoroughfare through its capital city of Maputo is named Avenida Kim Il Sung, in honor of the communist dictatorship’s founder.
While street names, statues, and even the construction of some government buildings may not be much to get into an uproar about, North Korea has proven throughout its history that their trade relations often lead, and in many cases are a camouflage for other insidious or illicit purposes. North Korea has shown that it will exploit their economic and commercial ties with other nations to trade military equipment, skirt international sanctions, and launder money to finance and bolster their illegal weapons and nuclear programs. According to a United Nations report in 2016, the North Korea flouted sanctions through trading in prohibited goods with evasive techniques that are increased in scale, scope, and sophistication.
In March of 2016, the UN Security Council voted to impose tougher sanctions on North Korea, and to hold accountable any nation that continues to engage in business with the authoritarian regime. Along these same lines, the Trump Administration has threatened to cut off trade with any country still doing business with Pyongyang. While some African nations have complied with the UN’s resolutions, it is clear that several nations are, and plan to continue to conduct economic, military, and commercial business with North Korea.
A recent UN investigation into the matter found that military and material support continues between North Korea and several African nations. The investigation uncovered deals that included military radio equipment going to Eritrea and military trainers being sent to Uganda and Angola. The Republic of Congo, a nation overwhelmed by continuous civil upheaval received automatic weapons from North Korea.
Most recently in the spotlight is the seemingly ongoing relationship between Namibia and North Korea. Namibia’s relationship with North Korea is nearly three decades old, spanning at least from its war for independence from South Africa which concluded in March of 1990. The country was once a colony of Germany beginning in 1884, but in the late 20th century found a useful ally in North Korea through material, economic, and military support for its liberation movement. And since then, despite a number of UN and U.S. initiatives to thwart North Korea’s efforts for procuring and laundering money for its illegal weapons programs, Namibia has remained a steadfast partner with the communist regime.
Tributes of their ongoing partnership can be seen throughout the country even today, and symbolized most notably by a black and white photo in Namibia’s National Museum that depicts a North Korean soldier leading a group of Namibian soldiers. Government contracts are still being awarded to the North Korean construction company Mansudae Overseas Project Group, which has recently built a military headquarters, and is reportedly still building Namibia’s new State House, a military academy, and a munitions factory.
Mansudae was one of North Korea’s overseas companies specifically sanctioned by the UN Security Council in 2016, most directly for its operation as a front company for Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID). KOMID was sighted by the United States Department of the Treasury as North Korea’s primary overseas arms dealer.
An alarming fact is that Namibia is the largest producer of uranium in the world. And while publically, those like Namibian Presidential Affairs Minister, Frans Kapofi, has claimed, “we are complying with UN resolutions,” Albert Kawana, a member of Namibia’s Presidential Affairs department has stated that the UN sanctions, “would not affect Namibia’s relations with that country.” As members of the Namibian government, including President Hage Geingob, deliver mixed messages regarding the nature of their relationship with North Korea, the UN, the United States, and its Asian allies can only speculate on how, and if the Namibian government plans to comply with UN resolutions barring it from trading with North Korea.
An example of this brand of ambiguity has been seen through Namibia, along with other African nations that have had long-standing relations with Pyongyang, publically condemning nuclear tests and escalation of tensions in their region, but then abstaining from voting at the UN against the dictatorial regime’s human right violations.
Some have criticized these nations for “blindness.” Max Weylandt of African Arguments adds, “Pyongyang has a lot of experience in exploiting sanctions loopholes and finding ways of maintaining ties without technically breaking the rules.” And regarding the link between the Namibian government, Mansudae, and KOMID, Weylandt writes, “This is no surprise given that over the last few decades Mansudae, a North Korean company that does business across Africa, has built some of the country’s most prominent government projects.”
These African governments need to avoid their involvement with the dictatorship in Pyongyang, or they risk being labeled as collaborators with the brutal communist regime in North Korea.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.
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