North Korean foreign minister Pak Ui Chun paid an official visit to Cameroon on Wednesday as part of a two week diplomatic tour of western and central African nations.
The tour, which has seen Pak’s Foreign Ministry delegation also visit Benin, Guinea, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been touted by North Korean media as an effort to foster “friendly and cooperative” relations in the region.
In Cameroon, Pak told Minister of External Relations Pierre Moukoko Mbonjo that he hoped North Korea and Cameroon would continue to strengthen their bilateral relations, local media said on Wednesday.
Pak also congratulated “the government and people of Cameroon who under the leadership of President Paul Biya, have had much success in development and stability”.
Prior to visiting Cameroon, Pak’s delegation was in Kishasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to meet with Tunda Ya Kasende, acting minister of Foreign Affairs on August 19.
North Korea’s state news agency KCNA said on Monday that Pak and Kasende “exchanged views on further developing the friendship between the two countries and matters of mutual concern”.
But it was also reported that “the two countries signed a protocol on negotiations and cooperation between the two foreign ministries.”
This is not the first instance of recent North Korean involvement in the DRC – in 2009 the United Nations accused Pyongyang of smuggling close to 3,400 tons of weapons into the DRC, some of which went to foreign-backed insurgents.
AFFECTION FOR AFRICA
Pak’s trip also saw him visit the Francophone start of Benin, where on August 16 President Thomas Boni Yayi was quoted by KCNA as having praised founding North Korean leader Kim Il Sung for extending “aid and cooperation to Benin for its socio-economic development”.
President Yayi also described North Korea-Benin relations as “excellent ones of friendship and cooperation with a long history and tradition”.
And Pak made a similar trip to Guinea on August 15, where representatives of both sides were quoted by KCNA as having “exchanged views on the development of the friendly relations between the two countries and other issues of mutual concern”.
Together, Pak’s tour of west African nations comes amid a sharp increase in recent North Korean interest in the continent.
In June North Korea dispatched its Vice Minister for People’s Security to Kampala to help train Uganda’s police force, while state media reporting on the specific countries that Pak has visited this August have been on the sharp increase since 2010:
While North Korea has long enjoyed close diplomatic ties with a number of African nations, understanding Pyongyang’s increased interest in the continent is difficult. Pak’s current tour, for example, has been shrouded in mystery, with little coverage in regional African media and no details of the itinerary published in advance by North Korea’s Foreign Ministry.
NK News repeatedly attempted to get comment from the embassies of the African countries involved, whom either declined to comment or did not respond to emails and phone calls.
The permanent mission of the DPRK to the United Nations in New York, when asked about the trip, told NK News that they were “not aware of that”.
Steve McDonald, Director of the Africa program at the Wilson Centre, told NK News that the North’s intentions are unclear, as “unlike South Korea, China, Japan, or Hong Kong, the DPRK would not really have much to offer any of these countries in development terms”.
“The only other reason, which is pure speculation, is that they are exploring arms sales, or arms trafficking”, he said, arguing that “both Guinea and the DRC might be capable and willing to engage in some illicit trade of that nature. It would surprise me if Benin did so.”
An expert in North Korean affairs and diplomacy, who wished to remain anonymous, told NK News that the loss of traditional sources of income, such as aid from China, as well of the growth of demand for imports of foreign goods among the Pyongyang elite, meant that Pyongyang was now beginning to look to other sources of foreign currency.
But it was unlikely that North Korea would try to do this through arms sales, the source said: “Not only are DPRK weapons of low quality but they are mostly the wrong sort of weapons, meant for 1980s battlefields”.
“Even if they can find buyers there is a significant risk that their illegal arms exports will be intercepted and confiscated under UN sanctions before they reach their customers.”
But, the source said, “one thing the North Koreans are very good at is repairing and refurbishing decrepit Soviet-era weaponry, and it seems likely that they are trying hard to win more of this kind of business”.
“The UN Panel of Experts’ 2012 report described in detail an interrupted operation of this kind in the Republic of Congo, where the North Koreans were repairing ancient tanks,” the source continued.
“The suspicion must be that Pak is trying to sell maintenance contracts for the obsolete ex-Soviet weaponry that all these countries hold”.
This could be seen as part of a general pattern of increased interest by the DPRK in Africa – last week NK News covered the report by investigative online magazine Africa Review that, despite the country’s close diplomatic ties with the United States, North Korean military officials were working in the East African country of Tanzania.
The report suggested that the Tanzanians had hired engineers to repair its Soviet-era MiG-21 fighter jets, and that two North Korean officials were working to help import arms via private front-companies to Tanzania.
When asked about the allegations, a spokesman from Tanzania’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told NK News that the case was being “dealt with at another level” and that they “didn’t have the facts” to confirm or deny the reports.