North Korea’s African inroads come to an end

A UN panel calling Namibia out on breaking international sanctions by making military deals with Asia’s pariah state, North Korea, has wider implications. African countries can no longer blindly do what they want and laugh at international law without consequences.

The bilateral advantages were too tantalising for African countries to resist or for North Korea to withstand exploiting. Condemned in the international community as a rogue nation with a horrid human rights record, North Korea is subject to ever more strenuous sanctions aimed at hindering its nuclear and military ambitions.

A nationalist dance performance during North Korea’s annual Arirang Mass Games in Pyongyang. Photo courtesy (Stephan)/Flickr
A nationalist dance performance during North Korea’s annual Arirang Mass Games in Pyongyang. Photo courtesy (Stephan)/Flickr

The country is ruled by tyrannical Kim Jong-un, who may or may not be insane but is sufficiently ruthless to execute family members. Since 2006, the UN Security Council (UNSC) has passed five major resolutions aimed at countering North Korea’s nuclear programme. North Korea will go to any lengths to get what it wants, in this case, nuclear weapons and intercontinental missile delivery systems for those bombs that will ensure that Pyongyang gets whatever it wants in perpetuity. A foreign policy based on lies, insults, bellicosity and threats has unnerved the country’s immediate neighbours and disturbed the superpowers of the People’s Republic of China and the US.

Four African countries in particular, Ethiopia, the Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, have leaderships that seem not to care about the prospect of a nuclear-armed North Korea, nor about the millions of North Koreans oppressed by the Kim military regime. The fulsome descriptions of a “strong friendship between development partners,” that African heads of state and diplomats use to praise their relations with Pyongyang refer to a relationship with a regime, not a silent and powerless Korean people.  African despots in the past would feel at home with Kim’s governance. However, Ethiopia, the Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda are evolving toward representational democracies, albeit fitfully to be sure, and, in the case of Uganda, dragging along the aging autocratic Yoweri Museveni who is determined to remain President-for-Life. However, a sentiment toward greater democracy in these countries makes previous links with North Korea untenable. The continent’s more advanced democracies like Botswana broke off relations with Pyongyang years ago. Even Museveni can be swayed by a better deal. On 29 May 2016, South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye’s state visit to Kampala climaxed with the achievement of her mission, when she announced that Uganda had broken off all military ties with Pyongyang. South Korea’s aid package proved more attractive.

With Namibia as the final likely holdout, Africa will, within the year, sever remaining ties with North Korea. However, damage has been done. North Korea has been made stronger and more dangerous through the hard cash earned through its erstwhile African allies like Ethiopia. While African nations may claim to have purged themselves of Pyongyang contacts, they are still accountable for UN sanctions violations dating from 2006. Reckoning is under consideration by the UNSC.

North Korea and African leaders share a disdain for UN sanctions

While South Korea’s President Park was in Uganda, a top official of the North Korean regime, Kim Yong-nam, was visiting nine Sub-Saharan nations with assurances that military and trade treaties would be fulfilled despite the pressure of mounting sanctions on his country. Kim’s dictatorship has forged close ties with the ipso facto dictatorship of President-for-Life José Eduardo Dos Santo’s Angola and Teodoro Obiang’s Equatorial Guinea, as well as the incipient dictatorships of Pierre Nkurunziza’s Burundi and Joseph Kabila’s Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Secret dealings intended to avoid UN inspection allow for commodities and hard currency, as well as desired mineral commodities, to enrich North Korea. The four countries’ strongmen have long scoffed at the danger of international sanctions. Dos Santos bought a small fleet of naval patrol boats from North Korea in 2011, five years after UN sanctions specifically forbade member states from giving or receiving “assistance relating to the provision, manufacture or maintenance of arms and related material.”

For years Africa’s despots have shown ill-disguised contempt for the UN’s ethical and human rights policies. Meanwhile, these rulers have demanded as their due humanitarian assistance that spares their treasuries from having to spend money to keep populations educated, fed and healthy but frees their own funds to finance security arms to oppress political oppositions. Pyongyang has capitalised on this cynicism, and is doing well by appealing to leaderships’ anti-democratic sentiments. UN investigators revealed in May 2016 that Kabila had purchased a consignment of pistols from North Korea in 2014 and hired North Korean instructors to train and in fact augment DRC police and Kabila’s own presidential guard. As he prepares to hold onto power by manipulating another term of office despite a constitutional term limit that states his time is up, Kabila is using Pyongyang military aid to prepare for any uprising that may occur when he makes his power grab. To such a leader, UN sanctions are toothless talk, while North Korea offers material support. Nkurunziza feels the same attraction to Pyongyang, only with more impetus. The West is just awakening to Kabila’s ambitions, which are reversing the DRC’s progress toward democracy that earned the West’s praise in 2011, but has been wary of Nkurunziza’s actions since he precipitated an incipient civil war in 2014 by unconstitutionally extending his own stay in power.

A reason emboldening any African leader to defy international sanctions and wring from North Korea any benefits it can is the practice of the African Union (AU) of picking and choosing which international accords it wishes to follow. The setting aside of countries’ obligations to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague is the most ubiquitous example of abandoning obligations and ethics for political expedience. In July, the ICC referred Djibouti and Uganda to the UNSC for discipline following the refusal of both countries to surrender Sudan’s dictator and indicted war criminal, Omar al-Bashir. Bashir’s victims are never mentioned by his defenders, most notably Museveni of Uganda and South Africa’s increasingly autocratic President Jacob Zuma. However, by thwarting the ICC, African governments hope to divert any possibility that they will be held accountable for their own human rights abuses. For countries that wish to retain lucrative relations with Pyongyang, the defiance of the ICC offers a welcome template.

Namibia’s reasons for retaining ties with North Korea are more sentimental

While it is hard to find affection for North Korea’s murderous regime, Namibia has managed to decompartmentalise its views on the Kim regime by honouring the African practice of having long memories for friends of the past. During the War of Independence against the white descendants of German colonialists in the 1980s in the then South West Africa, the liberation army, the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO), enjoyed the material support of Pyongyang. North Korea subsequently leveraged a payback that included giving discounted deals on construction work by North Korean firms and North Korean armaments to Windhoek in exchange for neutral treatment at the UN. Namibia has regularly abstained from votes condemning North Korea’s human rights records.

In June, Namibia’s Deputy Prime Minister Nandi-Ndaitwah Netumbo visited Pyongyang on a mission believed to have been undertaken to prepare North Korea for a lessening of relations. If so, Netumbo was set straight by his hosts, and upon his return announced the opposite of a cessation of ties. Rather, he assured, “While Namibia remains committed to the implementation of all UN sanctions resolutions, the warm diplomatic relations with the DPRK (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) will be maintained.”

However, Namibia faces a dilemma. A UN panel of experts has raised flags regarding the work of North Korean military contractors in the country. The North Korean construction firm Mansudae is best known for erecting such Windhoek landmarks as the Independence Museum and the new State House. However, the company has close links with North Korea’s principal military construction firm, the euphemistically named Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID). Windhoek surely knew of these ties, and consequently, that dealings with Mansudae is a violation of UN prohibitions of any dealings of a military nature with Pyongyang. This relationship between Namibia and KOMID via Mansudae may prompt the UN special panel that scrutinises North Korea’s business dealings with the rest of the world to refer Namibia to the UNSC.

Pattern of violating international law

The alliance between some African countries and North Korea was forged from the selfishness and cynicism that bedevils many African nations’ foreign policies. What does Uganda’s autocratic President Museveni care if North Korean weapons cause destruction in Japan or his trade with Pyongyang facilitates an invasion of South Korea, as long as his own regime materially benefits? This unattractive solipsism was on display in Ethiopia, Namibia and Rwanda long after it was revealed that North Korea is not just another struggling Third World country oppressed by Western powers and as such, worthy of solidarity with African countries. Namibia is also showing wilful ignorance of Pyongyang’s well-publicised and therefore impossible-to-ignore crimes against humanity.

Kim Jong-un runs his country the way ISIS would run any nation it might control, as an absolute dictatorship maintained by a reign of terror where the people are broken and starved so that leadership may exult in its own power. African governments that forge toxic relations with this regime will remain tainted until they are held accountable for their dealings. Meanwhile, overtures from South Korea to sway African nations to shift diplomatic ties are set to continue, offering inducements for change that African governments are likely to accept.