The Namibian military’s commercial arm has been caught violating UN sanctions against North Korea, severely denting its reputation as an exemplary African government.
To make matters worse, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of International Cooperation Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah found herself in a diplomatic minefield after she confirmed a wide-ranging military cooperation program with North Korea – despite repeatedly claiming this cooperation ceased in 2005.
The United Nations’ Panel of Experts on North Korea noted in their February report on international compliance with sanctions against Pyongyang that this was about a decade short of the truth, and just how short would soon became apparent.
On the Sunday night of October 13, 2012, a convoy of about 20 privately owned trucks, their bulky loads covered with tarpaulins, left the Walvis Bay harbor under cover of darkness and the thick fog rolling in from the Atlantic and started winding their way 520 km inland to an old copper mine at Oamites, about 40 km south of Windhoek.
The client’s insistence on heavy tarpaulins to cover the loads struck the truck drivers as a little odd, and they initially thought they were moving mining equipment. Judging by the rusty condition of the several dozen high-pressure steel tanks, these had been at sea several months and looked like old junk – except that all the crates were marked as property of the Namibian Defense Force (NDF), and the owners were acting rather weirdly about it, eyewitnesses said.
“We were first told it was about 130 tons, but it was more like 200 tons or more of very big tanks,” and a large amount of large wooden crates marked “Contract STNK – 0103050” and with the NDF’s signatory red triangle, said one of the persons involved.
The client was August 26 (Pty) Ltd, the NDF’s commercial arm formed in August 14, 1998 under Namibian founding President Sam Nujoma’s prompting, to take advantage of military business opportunities arising as result of Namibia’s military backing of (later assassinated) President Laurent Desiréé Kabila in 1998.
August 26, named by Nujoma for the day when the now-ruling South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO)’s guerrillas were attacked at Ongulumbashe by South African forces in 1966, was initially used to hold the right to a diamond concession granted by Kabila to Nujoma in 1998 as payment for providing supplies to his tottering regime.
By 2014, it had grown to eight subsidiary companies, and even though tax dollars keep it afloat, in 18 years it has not submitted any financials or annual reports to the Namibian parliament, nor is it audited by the auditor-general.
The convoy’s destination was a newly built military complex about 140 km south of the capital Windhoek and next to the old Oamites copper mine, where they met by a contingent of North Korean engineers and technicians to supervise the off-loading.
‘I first thought the stuff had come from Thailand – the paperwork was in some weird handwriting, like Chinese but different’
A heavy-duty crane was also hired for the off-loading of the plant at two different areas of several large high-pressure chemical cracking towers and mixers and dozens of crates inside a large compound, surrounded by a 4-meter-high wall and tight security at the entrance.
“I first thought the stuff had come from Thailand – the paperwork was in some weird handwriting, like Chinese but different,” said the manager. Not knowing the difference, he had no reason to not believe it was anything else but mining equipment, a common sight in Walvis Bay’s busy harbor that serves as, among other things, the world’s fourth-largest uranium mining industry.
Like nearly everyone who agreed to be interviewed, he spoke on the condition of anonymity. With Namibia now possibly facing sanctions for violating mandatory United Nations sanctions imposed on North Korea, no one wanted to seen close to a developing diplomatic debacle seriously damaging the country’s international political standing.
Nandi-Ndaitwah last week confirmed to the Namibian, the nation’s largest daily, that the Namibian ministry of defense had several military cooperation agreements with North Korea, including the construction of a munitions factory, a new military headquarters and a new military school in Okahandja, where the North Koreans also built a mysterious military museum that remains closed to the public since its completion in 2006.
These contracts were implemented from 2002 to 2005, before United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718 was passed in 2006, and Namibia was therefore not in violation of any UNSC resolutions, Nandi-Ndaitwah told the newspaper.
The week before, Defense Minister Penda ya Ndakola denied to the Afrikaans-language Die Republikein newspaper that he knew anything about a munitions plant or North Korea being involved with the new defense HQ.
The Die Republikein’s questions were prompted by the leaking of a February 22 report by the UN POE on North Korea’s nuclear weapon development program.
The panelists noted that Namibia had, in correspondence with them, formally admitted to the North Korean joint ventures, but claimed these had all came to an end in 2005.
Satellite imagery used by the experts, however, showed that the construction projects at the main military base outside Windhoek were ongoing, and noted that “(a)t the time of writing, Namibia had not replied regarding the purpose of the facility under construction.”
The POE, however, appeared to not have been aware of the military complex at the old Oamites mine, as their report made no reference to it or the North Korean presence there.
Historical satellite imagery of the Oamites plant obtained via Google Earth showed construction complex starting in early 2010, six months after Resolution 1874 was passed unanimously by the UNSC. Sources at the nearby settlement of Groot Aub confirmed that the complex as well as separate, modern accommodation facilities for military staff next to it were all built by the North Korean team.
Several international weapon experts, agreed that the design of the complex closely corresponded to a typical design for a munitions plant.
The general opinion was that the chemical plant moved to Oamites in October 2012 was most likely part of a production line for propellants, while two dozen computer-controlled lathes spotted by one eye-witness in the main, central facility indicated that this facility was a major munitions plant.
Weapons expert Rod Barton, in his analysis said the outlay of the buildings and visible security around the central plant, said it closely corresponded with the design of a munitions plant – but not a chemical weapons plant, as some had feared.
“Overall my view is that the plant is that it is not a major chemical production plant and almost certainly not a CW facility. It is consistent with a propellant mixing/preparation plant for example for the production of powder propellants. The buildings storing possible explosives and the possible (test)-firing building would fit in with this,” he said by email.
What also remained unstated in the POE’s report is that the new military HQ and new military school are both financed by soft loans from China
Interestingly, inscriptions engraved on some of the tanks are all in Chinese, one of which translated as “Do not vent contents,” suggesting that at least some of the plant may have originated in China, rather than North Korea.
What also remained unstated in the POE’s report is that the new military HQ and new military school are both financed by soft loans from China – a permanent member of the same UNSC council that in 2009 unanimously approved a total ban on any arms or related trade with North Korea.
China’s Poly Technologies have become Namibia’s main suppliers of military equipment since the early 2000s, having equipped the Namibian air force with Chengdu F-7 and Hongdu K-8 fighter-trainers, a large number of armored personnel carriers, and other things.
Because of the sensitivity of the matter, none of the UN experts contacted were willing to comment on the record, save to say that the challenge now lay in proving that Mansudae Overseas Projects (MOP) was in fact just a factotum for North Korean companies specified under the five different sets of sanctions imposed since 2006.
The Namibian government, however, seemed unconcerned: The cooperation with North Korea was based on Pyongyang’s historical support for the liberation struggle (1966-1989), Nandi-Ndaitwah said in the interview.
Historians were, however, puzzled by this alleged history: North Korea never featured among the 30 countries where SWAPO had representation, André du Pisani, professor emeritus for political science at the University of Namibia pointed out.
Instead, this relationship appeared based on the personal relationship between Nujoma, still the major force in Namibian politics, and the Kim family. A review of news articles dating back to independence in 1990 showed that he had visited North Korea no fewer than 11 times.
On his last visit in 2005, 100,000 North Koreans lined the road to cheer Nujoma on his way to Pyongyang, where current North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s father Kim Jong Il presented Nujoma with a Korean translation of his hagiography Where Others Wavered, Xinhua news service reported that year.
Nujoma also personally pushed for each of the prestige projects that the North Koreans were involved in, from the new State House (funded by a $300 million Chinese grant) to personally selecting the site for the Independence Memorial in Windhoek that dominates the skyline, well-placed sources said.
What rankled even more was that Namibia’s independence was directly brought about by the UN in 1989, when they supervised the first-ever direct elections of the incoming government. Even then, SWAPO showed its reluctance to adhere to international agreements, sending 3,000 soldiers into Namibia from neighboring Angola in violation of the UN-brokered cease-fire agreements on April 1, 1989 in an act that nearly scuttled the entire peace process.
Namibia, which also recently signaled its withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC), was fast losing its role as a normative leader in Africa, Du Pisani warned.
“And to think that the UN paid the rent for SWAPO’s office from 1974 to 1989,” he said. “Some people will be very disappointed in Namibia.”
All the experts consulted were in agreement on one aspect: Namibia was clearly in violation of the UNSC sanctions, and especially of those passed since June 2009. Manufacturing munitions with North Korean training “falls under same rubric” as sanctions banning the transfer of any military technology, one highly placed source said.
All told, Mansudae has been handed construction projects exceeding $100 million in value since 2002 – and it was unlikely they would have kept working if their North Korean masters were not being paid
Namibia now also faced questions as to how Mansudae Overseas was being paid by the Namibian government, as North Korea is banned from participating in the international financial system under Resolution 1874.
All told, Mansudae has been handed construction projects exceeding $100 million in value since 2002 – and it was unlikely they would have kept working if their North Korean masters were not being paid, sources close the matter said.
The possibility was that Mansudae would be classified along with seven other North Korean companies used by Pyongyang to advance their military ambitions as sanction-busters, experts said. August 26’s role would also come under the magnifying glass – and that could open a whole Pandora’s box of systematic breaches since 2006, with grave consequences for Namibia.
Annexes to the Experts report showed that two key officials had effectively used Namibia as their base, leaving the country every two months to return to North Korea via Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, another close ally of the SWAPO government.
Whatever the case, Namibia could expect another visit from the POE on North Korea soon – and it is not going to be a very convivial one for all concerned.
This investigation was supported through the African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR) and the Connecting Continents Grant.
Main image: A shipment of chemical plant equipment containing several large, heavy crates, marked with CONTRACT NO: STNK-0103050 and bearing the Namibian Defence Force’s (NDF) red triangular marks is transported to Walvis Bay Harbor by independent contractors. Photo: Contributed
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