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North Korea's loyal allies in Africa

Martina Schwikowski
September 21, 2017

Despite UN sanctions against North Korea, a number of African countries share a cosy trade relationship with the pariah state. Old alliances dating back to Cold War times have persisted - and remain important even today.

The Samora Machel statue in Maputo
A statue of Samora Machel in MaputoImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Joe

Pyongyang's presence in Africa is impossible to ignore. In many countries, bronze statues in the monumental style are reminiscent of the bonds of communism that once linked the continent to North Korea.

Zimbabwe's National Heroes Acre, an imposing cemetery at the gates of the capital, Harare, could be a memorial in Pyongyang. In the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, the towering figure of former despotic leader Laurent Kabila rises up, his finger pointing towards the heavens. In Mozambique, it's Samora Machel, the once popular leader of the independence movement, who dominates Maputo's square of independence from atop a marble platform.

The presidential palace in Windhoek, Nambia
The presidential palace in Windhoek was designed and constructed by North Korean company Mansudae Overseas Projects Image: imago/imagebroker

Made by North Korea

Many African countries have bronze sculptures commemorating prominent personalities - and many of them bear the artistic signature of the North Korean monument factory, Mansudae Overseas Projects (MOP). For decades, the state enterprise has earned a fortune for the North Korean regime with the construction of monuments and military installations abroad.

Read more: A closer look at which countries trade with North Korea

The company has just erected four gigantic buildings in Namibia. The presidential palace in Windhoek, completed in 2008, has also helped boost the income of the North Korean leadership. But this isn't just about monumental art.

According to the United Nations, Namibia has invested an estimated $100 million (119 million euros) in Kim dynasty projects, including ammunition factories, since 2002. Facing accusations they had violated international sanctions, the Namibian government in 2016 vowed to uphold these punitive measures in the future. But, it said, the "warm" diplomatic relationship with North Korea would also remain strong.

Kim Jong Un flanked by military officials
Experts say Kim Jong Un's regime is skilled at bypassing sanctions to do businessImage: Reuters/KCNA

Cold War allies

Daragh Neville of the British think tank Chatham House says the ties that many African countries share with North Korea date back to the Cold War - a time when Pyongyang was looking for allies and lent its support to a number of African liberation movements seeking to overthrow colonial leaders.

"There's still a lot of sympathy for North Korea in many African states," he told DW. "They still remember the important diplomatic links and cultural exchanges from the 60s, 70s and 80s."

Politically too, North Korea is continuing to build in Africa. Not an insignificant detail, given that the countries of the continent represent a quarter of UN membership.

Read more: Guns, gold and gas. What UN sanctions target North Korea?

Missile test in North Korea
North Korea's missile launches have alarmed the international communityImage: Reuters/KCNA

'Half of Africa' trades with North Korea

According to a new report from the United Nations, Tanzania, Uganda, Angola, Congo, Eritrea, Mozambique, Botswana, Benin and Zimbabwe are now under investigation for violating the Security Council sanctions.

The first penalties against Pyongyang were implemented in 2006 over the regime's nuclear program. The measures aimed to block arms trafficking and economic transactions. However, according to the UN report, North Korea was still able to sell military radio equipment to Eritrea, and automatic weapons to Congo. Pyongyang also reportedly organized military training in Angola, Uganda and Congo, and supplied weapons to Mozambique.

A meeting of the UN Security Council
The UN has imposed nine rounds of sanctions on North Korea since 2006 Image: Getty Images/AFP/K. Betancur

However, experts believe that a number of other countries are also doing business illegally with North Korea. 

Read more: Is Berlin violating UN sanctions on North Korea?

Sanctions undermined

Trade between Africa and North Korea is worth a total of around $100 million per year, according to data from the Observatory of Economic Complexity. North Korea's biggest African importer is Burkina Faso, with around $32.8 million - or 1 percent of the country's annual imports. 

"Although $100 million may not sound like much, it's actually a pretty big overseas earner for the DPRK, because obviously foreign currency is quite difficult for North Korea to come by," Neville says. "It's easier for African states to do business with North Korea because it can often be cheaper and North Korea will ask fewer questions regarding certain business practices than Western partners."

That's allowed North Korea to bypass sanctions and operate under the cover of shell companies for years, Neville says, adding that the UN and the international community need to keep a closer eye on banks and financial institutions worldwide.

Shinzo Abe
Japan's Shinzo Abe: 'The sanctions must be respected'Image: Reuters/I. Kato

"We're seeing some countries around the world, not just in Africa - and whether knowingly or unknowingly - providing banking and financial services to North Korean companies and individuals that are known to be affiliated with the regime," he said.

The South African Institute for Security Studies also put forward a series of concrete recommendations in a recent report. It said African countries should better train customs officials and inspectors to allow them to effectively detect prohibited deliveries at airports and seaports.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called for pressure on African states to be stepped up to ensure the latest sanctions, imposed earlier this month, aren't flouted. The measures now include caps on oil supplies to North Korea and a ban on textile exports. African countries must abide by these measures, Abe said. Observers, however, warn these words may fall on deaf ears.