Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Pyongyang loses friends in Africa

Since its inception North Korea has had strong ties in Africa. But these are fast dwindling under international pressure and amid the promise of alternate incentives, writes Haitham Nouri


North Korea
North Korea

اقرأ باللغة العربية

North Korea’s isolation is growing by the day, especially after additional sanctions by the industrial world in the US and EU, its neighbours Japan and South Korea, and even its allies China and Russia. And now Africa, where 11 countries are under investigation by the UN under suspicion of violating Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang that have been escalating since 2006. North Korea is quickly losing old friends on the continent, including Tanzania, Uganda, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Mozambique, Botswana, Benin and Zambia, according to a UN report published 5 September, 2017.

Sudan already severed ties with North Korea in September, and it wasn’t as punishment for human rights violations, but rather to pave the way for reconciliation with the US. Previously, Uganda, Botswana and Senegal took similar steps after a tour of Africa by former South Korean president Park Geun-hye. A few days after she left, Uganda expelled 60 North Korean consultants.

Since its creation in 1948, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has had close ties with Africa, beginning with Egypt under president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, but mostly focused on Sub-Saharan countries. Pyongyang assisted the liberation movements in Zimbabwe against apartheid in the 1960s and 1970s, and Angola against Portuguese colonialists.

Once international sanctions were imposed on the renegade member of the nuclear club at the beginning of the 2000s, Pyongyang’s ties to Africa grew stronger. They were a source of foreign currency for North Korea, on the one hand, and an escape from international isolation imposed by the US, Japan and South Korea in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile testing, on the other.

Pyongyang imports frozen fish from Senegal and Guinea, vegetables from Burkina Faso, scrap iron and cotton from Benin, and exports weapons systems, training and facilities programmes and even giant statues. The Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC) at MIT’s Media Lab estimates the trade volume between North Korea and African countries at more than $100 million in various sectors. While this is small compared to Africa’s business with China, its largest trade partner, it is critical for a country under siege. The OEC adds that 29 African countries imported goods and services from North Korea, while 19 countries exported goods to Pyongyang in 2015.

A UN report revealed that North Korea provided military training to forces from Angola, DR Congo and Uganda, and shipped military equipment to Mozambique, as well as provided maintenance services for military equipment in Tanzania. It also attempted to send military communication equipment to Eritrea. Zimbabwe is accused of signing a deal with North Korea to send yellowcake, extracted from uranium mines in Kanyemba, in return for North Korean weapons. There are also reports that North Korea trained the Fifth Brigade of the Zimbabwean army, which is accused of killing more than 20,000 during the occupation of Matabeleland in 1988, which later led to its disbanding.

North Korea’s hallmark can be seen in several African capitals and cities. In Mozambique, a giant statue of liberation movement leader Samora Machel stands on a marble base. In Kinshasa, the capital of DR Congo, a statue of Laurent Kabila, the father of incumbent President Joseph Kabila, stands tall pointing his finger to the heavens of progress. In 2008, a new presidential palace was opened in Namibia’s capital Windhoek and constructed by North Korea’s Mansudae Overseas Projects. Also in Namibia, which invests $100 million in North Korean ammunition factories, Mansudae signed a contract to build a monument for the unknown soldier and statue identical to former president Sam Nujoma at a cost of $60 million, completed in 2002.

Botswana, which according to the Mo Ibrahim Index for Good Governance is an African success story, constructed three giant statues of “the three presidents” namely the kings of tribes who definitively aided the country’s independence from British rule in the early 1960s. The statues were revealed in 2005. In Benin, there is a large statue of the 11th king of Dahomey King Béhanzin who led the resistance against French occupation in the 1890s.

In Senegal, Mansudae constructed its most famous statue outside North Korea, namely the African Renaissance Monument at 49 metres high, depicting a muscled African man and his young wife, their feet planted in the continent, and their child held aloft on his father’s arm. The monument was ordered by former right-wing president Abdoulaye Wade who tried to amend the constitution to extend his term but failed. When it was revealed in April 2010, it cost $27 million and the ceremony was attended by 19 African leaders including those from Benin, Gambia, DR Congo, Malawi, Cape Verde, Zimbabwe, Mali, Mauritania and Liberia, as well as US Congressman Jesse Jackson and an envoy from North Korea. It marked the 50th anniversary of Senegal’s independence from France.

The monument, however, caused several problems because it depicts a half-naked man and a woman with one breast uncovered in a country where 92 per cent of the population are conservative Muslims. Wade did not pay North Korea in cash, but granted it state-owned land, and demanded to pocket 35 per cent of revenues from visitors at the monument.

Most African countries connected to North Korea will not sever ties for free or to honour international law. Instead, they will haggle with South Korea, which has much to offer, according to its former ambassador to London and Tokyo Ra Jong-yil. “There is the example of Cuba which has started to open up to the world,” states Ra, “and is seeking to attract foreign investments”.

South Korean investment in Africa would not require much effort, since there is no real competition for Seoul except Beijing, Africa’s top trade partner, which is putting pressure on its ally Pyongyang to end the crisis peacefully.

Japan, which is negatively impacted by North Korea, could also contribute to undermining Pyongyang in Africa, but what is stopping Seoul and Tokyo is the high cost of their products, and their reliance on high quality industry and technology that most African countries do not have.

International pressure to sever ties with Pyongyang may squander Africa’s chance at bargaining with Seoul and Tokyo, but one way or another Africa will be compensated for abandoning its old friend.

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