While Cuba is receiving ample headlines for its role in helping to defeat apartheid, North Korea’s role in the anti-apartheid movement is lesser known. From training guerilla fighters to denouncing South Africa in its propaganda, North Korea supported Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress during apartheid. Today, the two countries maintain friendly relations even as South Africa calls on North Korea to denuclearize.
As a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, North Korea believed that African nations, still suffering under white minority rule, should overthrow their oppressors. In its media, North Korean propagandists frequently cited the “South African racist clique” as an imperialist force in southern Africa that prevented the independence of black South Africans and the neighboring countries of Namibia, Lesotho, and Zimbabwe.
In an attempt to gain international recognition as the legitimate government of Korea, Pyongyang sent military advisors, doctors and engineers to sub-Saharan Africa. According to Dr. Bruce Bechtol, Jr.’s The Last Days of Kim Jong Il: The North Korean Threat in a Changing Era, North Korean officials aided Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) by providing military training to ANC guerillas in camps that were set up in Angola. In these camps, North Koreans taught terrorist tactics.
“North Korea trained and equipped several countries and non-state actors in Africa during the Cold War,” Dr. Bruce Bechtol, Jr., an associate professor of political science at Angelo State University, told NK News. “They did this as a proxy of the Soviet Union. Much of the same activity continues today. The difference is that now North Korea does it on a cash and carry basis. Many of the same countries – and non-state actors – are still supported in the form of small arms, armor, artillery, and training – only now, it is based on either money or resources going directly into North Korean bank accounts that are almost always offshore.”
It is estimated that over 3,000 North Korean soldiers and a thousand advisors participated in the Angolan Civil War in the late 1970s and 1980s, where they fought against South African troops. On May 8, 1983 the Rodong Sinmun, the propaganda organ of the Korean Workers’ Party, announced, “The South African racists’ brigandish armed invasion of Angola and other countries of Southern Africa shows their maneuvers to block the road of independent development and the building of a new society in these countries.”
In the 1970s, North Korean military advisors brought members of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwean African National Liberation Army to training camps near Pyongyang, where they were taught how to use explosives and arms. During the Rhodesian Bush War, these North Korean-trained militants fought against South African-backed Rhodesian troops.
“North Korea was not very active in assisting the worldwide ‘progressive’ movements, and its aid efforts in Africa in the 1970s and early 1980s might be the only exception to the rule,” North Korea scholar Andrei Lankov told NK News. “Some role was probably played by the national vanity, the dream of promoting Juche and making it into a truly international ideological force, but to a large extent these North Korean efforts reflected sincere idealism and solidarity, the belief in the unity of what was seen as the ‘downtrodden nations’ of the world.”
In 1998, after the end of apartheid, South Africa and North Korea established diplomatic relations and a North Korean embassy was established in Pretoria. South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Co-operation (DIRCO) thanked the North Koreans for their support for the anti-apartheid movement. “The two countries enjoy a cordial relation that dates back due to the historic support which the DPRK provided during the struggle against colonialism and apartheid,” according to a statement released by DIRCO.
After Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj’s noteworthy visit to North Korea in late October 2013, South Africa’s foreign deputy minister Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim visited Pyongyang in early November 2013 to discuss diplomatic and economic matters. However, according to the statement from DIRCO, “Economic relations between the two countries remains limited due to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) imposed sanctions on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a result of DPRK’s nuclear program which plays out on the ongoing Korean Peninsula tension.”
Ebrahim also raised the issue of nuclear proliferation with the North Koreans during his recent visit to the DPRK. Amid international pressure, South Africa abandoned its own nuclear program in the 1990s, making it the first nation to have voluntarily given up nuclear weapons it had developed itself. Subsequently, South African officials have seen themselves as models for North Korea and have urged North Korea to terminate its nuclear weapons program.
Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi gave up his nuclear weapons and later lost his country and his life, a turn of events frequently cited when discussing the prospects for North Korea’s abandonment of nuclear weapons. However, South Africa represents the other side of denuclearization. When it abandoned its nuclear weapons program, it peacefully transitioned from apartheid to a democracy and was accepted into the international community. After its own positive experiences with denuclearization, South African officials now hope for a denuclearized peninsula and the eventual reunification of Korea.
The recent deaths of leaders in both nations have resulted in condolences being exchanged between the two. After Kim Jong Il’s death in 2011, the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) sent condolences to North Korea and credited Kim Jong Il with stopping homelessness, poverty, and unemployment in the DPRK. Bizarrely, the Youth League also praised Kim Jong Il for combatting climate change with his invention of an air sterilizer. “We support North Korea, unapologetically,” said Floyd Shivambu, the spokesperson of ANCYL. “We have never said anything except declaring support for North Korea.”
On December 7 of this year, Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, sent his condolences to South African president Jacob Zuma over the death of Nelson Mandela. The message stated, “The feats performed by Nelson Mandela in the struggle against racism and for democracy in South Africa would always be remembered by the South African people and progressive mankind.”
While Cuba is receiving ample headlines for its role in helping to defeat apartheid, North Korea’s role in the anti-apartheid movement is lesser known. From training guerilla fighters to denouncing South Africa in its propaganda, North Korea supported Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress during apartheid. Today, the two countries maintain friendly relations even as South Africa calls on
Benjamin R. Young is an Assistant Professor at Dakota State University. He holds a Ph.D. from George Washington University, and focuses his research on modern Korea, Cold War international history, and Marxism in the Third World.