North Korea ranks among the most prolific arms-exporting nations of the world. With virtually every one of its weapons systems available for sale, Pyongyang remains popular among low-budget sanctions-ridden countries that seek conventional or strategic equipment. While it is commonly known for its proliferation of ballistic missile systems, the DPRK is also a major player in the conventional arms trafficking market.
Ethiopia once enjoyed warm relations with the West during the ’50s and ’60s, ultimately becoming a major U.S. ally in the African continent. This fruitful relationship went as far as securing the participation of Ethiopian troops in the Korean War in the early ’50s.
In 1973, Emperor Haile Selassie’s power began to crumble as Ethiopia, heavily hit by the worldwide oil crisis of 1973, experienced a wave of demonstrations and riots against the government. The army subsequently mutinied and forced the government to step down. In September 1974, the emperor’s 44-year reign came to an end.
The Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia, commonly known as the Derg, took over and embraced communism as its ideology. Then, in 1977 Ethiopia looked east for the delivery of weapons.
Somalia, taking full advantage of the chaos raging through Ethiopia, subsequently invaded the Ogaden region to achieve the longtime goal of creating a greater Somalia.
The Soviet Union, formerly a firm supporter of Somalia, found a new ally in Ethiopia and assumed the role of its primary supplier of weaponry until the end of the Cold War, most of which was free of charge.
At around the same time North Korea was also looking to increase its presence in Africa, ultimately leading to strong ties with the Derg regime.
This expressed itself in the form of agricultural and infrastructural cooperation, namely irrigation projects, hydropower plants, geological surveys, improving the fishing industry and even providing an interest-free loan for the purposes of constructing a shipyard.
WAR-TIME MILITARY SUPPORT
Of course, with Pyongyang involved, military cooperation was inevitable. In the early ’80s, the DPRK offered to train a People’s Militia, equipped with North Korean small arms and operating under North Korean supervision. Pyongyang also trained Ethiopian special forces at the Tatek Army Camp, Ethiopia, forming the elite of the Ethiopian Army in the ’80s.
However, the acquisition of North Korean military expertise and weaponry didn’t stop here. In 1985, the DPRK supplied a plethora of heavy armor, armored personnel carriers (APCs) and artillery, as well as associated munitions and technical assistance.
The 1987 parade commemorating the 13th anniversary of the revolution revealed the full extent of these deliveries. Among the equipment showcased were Cheonma main battle tanks, VTT-323 APCs and a VTT-323-mounted 122mm self-propelled howitzer known under its U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) designation of M-1977.
The Cheonma is an indigenously produced version of the Soviet T-62 main battle tank, upgrading its secondary armament from a 12.7mm DShK to the cumbersome 14.5mm KPVT machine gun, which is more adept at dealing with aerial threats and fortified structures. This tank supplemented Soviet-delivered T-54s, T-55s and T-62s in Ethiopian service and formed the elite of the army’s armored divisions.
To further boost their mechanized forces, Ethiopia bought VTT-323 APCs, North Korea’s take on the Chinese YW531A. This vehicle features a lengthened chassis and is equipped with two 14.5mm KPVTs and an additional 7.62mm machine gun installed in a one-man turret.
Fire support was provided in the form of self-propelled artillery. Only known under its U.S. DoD designation M-1977, the vehicle boasts a Soviet 122mm D-30 howitzer on a North Korean VTT-323 chassis. This vehicle saw heavy use against Eritrea during the Eritrean War of Independence and the Eritrean–Ethiopian War.
The reason for importing North Korean military equipment is because of the cheap prices for which they’re offered on the international market, a short delivery time and the availability of various types of military equipment, without imposing any restrictions on the buyer.
For the DPRK, selling conventional weaponry or ballistic missile technology is one of the few ways to acquire hard currency, which is of the utmost importance for the survival of the regime.
Pyongyang’s support for Ethiopia fell in line with the policies of other communist states, which typically backed allied communist regimes in case of a war or internal conflict. Ethiopia had much of the Communist Bloc supporting its fight against the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), which was fighting for independence in a nearly 30-year war.
Although the EPLF received much of its aid from communist countries before Haile Selassie was overthrown, it saw most of its supporters switching sides to Ethiopia when the Derg took over.
Despite their previous status as top-of-the-shelf weaponry, these vehicles now either lay scattered on the former battlefields due to their destruction in one of Ethiopia’s many conflicts, or are rusting away in the unforgiving climate of Ethiopia. The acquisition of more modern equipment from China and Russia removed the need for these now obsolescent vehicles.
However, despite the post-Cold War taboo on North Korean arms deliveries, business with the repressive regime remains to be thriving. Ethiopia still maintains formal diplomatic relations with the DPRK and remains interested in North Korean weaponry, much to the annoyance of the U.S. government, which is encouraging Ethiopia to break ties with the DPRK.
Under the rule of Meles Zenawi, prime minister of Ethiopia from 1995 to 2012, Ethiopia was reported to have acquired more North Korean arms, supposedly receiving tanks and other weaponry.
As recently as 2001, Ethiopia spent as much as $20 million on North Korean weaponry and spare parts. As part of the continued military cooperation, Pyongyang helped set up an advanced munitions factory near Ambo, which produces rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), 122mm rockets for the BM-21 multiple rocket launcher (MRL) and various other kinds of ammunition and small arms.
As Ethiopia has been looking for a replacement of its dated AK-47 and AKM automatic rifles, and a deal with Russia to manufacture the AK-103 wasn’t agreed upon, the DPRK offered support for the production of small arms. The 5.54mm Type 88 automatic rifle is believed to have been offered as a replacement for the AK-103, although North Korea hasn’t lived up to their end of the deal, with only hundreds of rifles delivered as opposed to the promised 10,000.
In early 2007, it was reported that an Ethiopian cargo ship left a North Korean port loaded with an unknown amount of military equipment, underlining the continued relations between the two nations.
Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons
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