During the Cold War, Africa occupied a unique place in the North Korean consciousness, as it was a battleground with South Korea for votes in the United Nations, followers of its Juche ideology, and the recognition of Pyongyang as the legitimate Korean government.
In contrast to the present situation, in which the North Korean government receives aid from humanitarian organizations and foreign governments, from the mid-1960s through the early ’90s North Korea poured military and financial resources into Africa hoping to sway newly independent countries to recognize the leadership in Pyongyang as the official representative of the Korean people. As a result, North Korea set up dozens of embassies in sub-Saharan Africa from Conakry, Guinea to Pretoria, South Africa.
The maintenance of these embassies in cities far away from Pyongyang became a financial burden for the North Korean government. When funds for embassy staff in Africa started to dry up, the leadership in Pyongyang encouraged these embassies to embrace the self-reliant philosophy of Juche that the leader Kim Il Sung espoused in speeches and texts. In other words, these embassies had to fend for themselves.
After North Korean diplomats in northern Europe were caught selling drugs, alcohol and cigarettes in 1976, North Korean diplomats around the world had to change their tactics.
“North Korea has consistently evolved its economic activities, including the illicit ones, to adapt to the changing law enforcement and sanctions environment,” Sheena Greitens, an academy scholar at the Harvard Academy for International & Area Studies and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told NK News.
According to the 2014 report for the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea on the DPRK’s illicit operations to earn hard currency, there have been at least nine incidents since the early 1980’s in which North Korean diplomats have been found carrying large amounts of illegal ivory and rhino horns from Africa to Asia. Some of the largest seizures were 576 kilograms in France in 1998, 689 kilograms in Kenya in 1999, and 537 kilograms in Moscow in 1999.
The most recent incident was in October 2012 when a North Korean diplomat in Mozambique was caught with 130 pieces of ivory, which weighed about 3 kilograms and were worth about $36,000.
“I was engaged in trafficking ivory, gemstones, and rhino horns, which were sold to China and some Middle Eastern and Asian countries,” said Hyun Sung-il, a North Korean diplomat who served in Lusaka, Zambia and fled to South Korea in 1996 after his wife defected and his superiors gave him a pistol and orders to kill her. “It is really shameful some of the actions we did.”
On national holidays, the North Korean embassy staff in Lusaka would have to fish in order to have meat. The North Koreans would tell their foreign guests that the fish was “traditional Korean food.” The financial situation became so dire for the North Korean diplomatic personnel in Lusaka that they began a part-time taxi service, using their embassy’s official minibus to ferry local around town.
Said Hyun, the North Korean embassy in Mozambique asked the leadership in Pyongyang for funds and received a prompt response that Pyongyang could solve that problem by shutting down the embassy. After that incident, most North Korean diplomats in Africa did not discuss their financial issues with those in the capital.
While the Kim family dynasty can’t afford to pay their diplomats stationed in Africa, they apparently can pay for the transfer of wild animals from Zimbabwe to the Pyongyang Zoo.
In 2010, a “Noah’s Ark” assortment of birds, elephants, giraffes, zebras, antelopes, hyenas, and monkeys from Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park were to be sent to North Korea as part of a business deal. The head of the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA), Vitalis Chadenga said that the deal was a “legitimate business trade” and that the North Koreans had paid for the animals. Two baby elephants were sold to the North Koreans for $10,000 each.
This enraged many conservationists around the world as conditions in North Korea would not be suitable for many of these animals, especially the baby elephants.
“The problem is the trip to Pyongyang is extremely traumatic for the elephants,” Johnny Rodrigues, chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, told NK News.
“Once they arrived there, they had to undergo another trip to the zoos or wherever they were destined to go and the conditions at the zoos were terrible. They were put in small enclosures with a cold cement floor and very little vegetation. The temperatures were below freezing which the elephants were not accustomed to. It was extremely cruel and the people there are not famous for knowing how to care for wildlife.”
NK News contacted the ZPWMA about whether these wild animals were actually transferred from Zimbabwe to North Korea after conservation groups spoke out vehemently against this business deal with the North Koreans.
“The ZPWMA wants to put the record straight that the Authority NEVER transferred animals to North Korea,” Caroline Washaya, public relations manager of the ZPWMA, told NK News.
Rodrigues presents a different story and says that of the four elephants who were sent to North Korea, two died shortly after arriving in Pyongyang. He does not know if the remaining two elephants have survived.
Rodrigues believes the North Koreans tried to purchase more wild animals from Zimbabwe after 2010 but is “not sure if they succeeded in view of the stink we raised about the first shipment.”
Picture: Eric Lafforgue
During the Cold War, Africa occupied a unique place in the North Korean consciousness, as it was a battleground with South Korea for votes in the United Nations, followers of its Juche ideology, and the recognition of Pyongyang as the legitimate Korean government.In contrast to the present situation, in which the North Korean government receives aid from humanitarian organizations and
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.