Africa has taken center stage in recent months as Seoul and Pyongyang jockey for influence within the Third World. Much attention has been given to South Korea’s recent charm offensive, led by President Park Geun-hye’s May tour of Africa. The trip culminated in a key victory by Park to undermine North Korea’s influence in the region — an announcement by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni that his country would sever military and security ties with Pyongyang, ending a long-standing Cold War partnership.
Uganda’s decision was followed by Namibia, another longtime ally of Pyongyang, agreeing to comply with UN sanctions by ousting two North Korean firms that were constructing an arms and munition factory in nation’s capital, Windhoek. The further chipping away at North Korea’s dwindling list of allies has been lauded as an indication that international pressures are further isolating Kim Jong Un’s regime. Despite the losses, North Korea’s ability to appeal to leaders across Africa, in particular authoritarian regimes with a similar pariah status from Western institutions, remains strong and a region of potential growth for North Korea’s foreign relations.
The recent victories of Seoul won’t fully stamp out the long-seated suspicions many African leaders have harbored toward Western institutions and meddling, to which North Korea has historically asserted itself inimical. North Korea’s influence across Africa dates back to the earliest years of the decolonization movement and was a key zone for Kim Il Sung’s fledgling foreign policy to spread its wings as an anti-imperialist power. Pyongyang would draw similarities between the Korean historical experience — imperialist plunder, international marginalization, and stagnated national development — and the experiences of other Afro-Asian nations. North Korea would have its greatest diplomatic successes with nations of a common-ilk — those that felt victimized by the dominant global order and who resented a Washington knows best paternalism toward their internal affairs.
In the earliest years of the Cold War, Africa was a hotbed for national independence movements, revolutions, and a laboratory for nation-building that brought to light the difficulties faced by post-colonial regimes. As the dominoes of colonialism fell across sub-Saharan Africa in the late 1950s, Pyongyang would employ its still budding foreign policy apparatus to fan the wildfire of revolution. Kim Il Sung would devote resources to support the Namibian War of Independence of 1965 and deploy military aid to the DR Congo, Zambia, and Tanzania.
North Korea’s mélange of diplomacy toward Africa in recent months continues to draw on these foundations. As can be seen by Pyongyang’s enduring alliance from the Cold War, their reputation as an outsider to international norms acts more a lure than deterrent. Similar to Beijing’s attempt during its height of radicalism during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) to enlist support of Third World nations to gain international prestige, African leaders today stand less likely to acquiesce to UN finger wagging and more likely to see Pyongyang’s willingness to operate outside international norms a potential boon for their own regimes.
This is because many of North Korea’s closest partners in Africa — Angola, DR Congo, Zimbabwe, Burundi, and Equatorial Guinea — are also on the receiving end of UN sanctions. Pyongyang provides soft aid — laudatory national monuments and heroic statues of leaders — but also weapons and training for nations like the DR Congo, whose access to arms is limited by UN sanctions. While recent UN reports that highlight North Korea’s ability to circumvent sanctions can potentially create more effective means to strangle revenue streams, it also shows that there is no shortage of willing partners to defy international norms to engage Pyongyang.
Perhaps most importantly, North Korea and its closest allies in Africa are able to solidify relationships that insulate them from further international isolation — potentially forming a bloc reminiscent of the Afro-Asian movement born in Bandung in 1955, and the Non-Aligned Movement, both of which North Korea played an active role throughout the Cold War. They provide rhetorical and material support for regimes whose legitimacy and stability is threatened by international criticisms. Kim Yong Nam, North Korea’s nominal head-of-state, focused on this support base in May. He met with leaders from the DR Congo, Mali, Equatorial Guinea, and Burundi, amongst others, who would voice their support for North Korea’s struggles. The measure was a move to counteract Park Geun Hye’s diplomatic tour that unveiled a South Korean development aid package to Africa. The meeting of Kim with nine African leaders — all different from Park’s targets — also shows that Pyongyang’s competition with Seoul and international bodies like the UN won’t be along standard diplomatic rules but will target nations with similar pariah status.
The sit-downs with leaders from the DR Congo and Equatorial Guinea come at a time of UN scrutiny for both nations. A recent UN report accused DR Congo officers of receiving North Korean pistols and security training in violation of sanctions. DR Congo officials have denied any involvement, their own military activities subject to UN approval. The UN had previously commended the DR Congo for reform measures in 2001 but recent years have shown Joseph Kabila’s, the Congolese President, alliance with North Korea remains defiantly strong. Kabila has come at odds with the United States over his suspension of election laws to keep himself in power. Pyongyang built statues commemorating his father in 2010 and North Korean tank parts were seized on their way to the Congo the same year. By sitting down with Kim, the DR Congo is making a statement that it is not shy about its willingness to engage with Pyongyang, nor the stigma it brings —a common theme across sub-Saharan Africa.
Kim Yong Nam’s meeting also solidified an older alliance with Obiang Ngeuma Mbsogo, President of Equatorial Guinea. North Korean media paid careful attention to publicize Obiang’s comments of support for Kim Jong Un and the struggles of the Korean people. The two nations have been allies since 1969 and his regime has been criticized by international bodies like the Freedom House, the U.S. State Department, and Amnesty International that have lumped Equatorial Guinea with Eritrea and North Korea as the worst violators of human rights.
However, the current climate also shows that North Korea cannot simply rest on its laurels in retaining and building partnerships. Robert Mugabe, the longtime dictator of Zimbabwe, admitted his regime had lost touch with North Korea since Kim Jong Un took power. Perhaps in a nod to Western powers to stand alert, Mugabe mentioned he was always open to restarting relations. Zimbabwe had previous arms and uranium agreements with North Korea. Mugabe and his wife have had their international assets frozen, a club Kim Jong Un recently joined. With Pyongyang’s relations across Africa taking a recent hit, a restart with Zimbabwe may prove a prudent strategy for both Kim and the aging Mugabe.
This is not to say North Korea’s greatest appeal abroad is international admonition, saber-rattling, or belligerency. However, as North Korea and nations like Zimbabwe become increasingly isolated by sanctions, the legitimacy and ability for regime survival will depend on alternative avenues to import weapons, access to hard currency, and international alliances that draw together common victim mentalities. It also means that any declaration that Seoul is ready to push North Korea from Africa is premature.
Featured image: Kim Yong Nam visits Equatorial Guinea, May 2016 | Photo: KCNA
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