Pyongyang’s defense ties in Africa have been overlooked by the West.
On June 11, 2015, a UN report revealed that North Korea had provided marine engines and military patrol boat replacement parts to Angola, in violation of UN sanctions. Similar long-term contracts for military equipment have also been developed between North Korea and East African nations, like Uganda and Tanzania. North Korea’s trade partnerships with anti-Western regimes in Sub-Saharan Africa have largely been formed under the radar of the Western media, which has typically focused its coverage on Chinese economic investment in Africa as the principal link between Africa and the Asia-Pacific region.
Insufficient attention to North Korea’s bilateral defense linkages has helped give North Korean foreign policy an irrational image. In Africa, however, North Korea possesses a coherent strategy and its bilateral defense ties with African countries must be considered in the broader context of Kim Jong-Un’s attempts to create allies for North Korea through shared opposition to Western neo-colonialism.
North Korea’s attempts to forge durable cooperation with African strategic partners are based on a two-pronged strategy: soft power building and the strategic strengthening of African nations’ defense sector production capacities. While North Korea’s abysmal economic performance in recent decades, totalitarian regime structure, and communism’s decline as an ideological force has caused it to be viewed as a pariah state in the West, its Africa strategy is a salient example of how the regime has attempted to ameliorate its international isolation and craft an anti-Western identity that can be projected on the world stage.
On November 2, 2014, the U.K. Independent newspaper reported that North Korea’s titular head of state, Kim Yong-nam, was invited to a state banquet by the Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni. Museveni praised the North Korean regime for its leadership role in the crusade against Western imperialism. Uganda has emerged as a natural target ally for North Korea, as Museveni has exploited public disdain for the British colonial legacy, to condemn Western pro-democracy and human rights organizations for fostering social imperialism in Uganda. In particular, Museveni has been scathingly critical of Western gay rights organizations, whose efforts drastically conflict with widespread homophobic sentiments in Ugandan society.
The North Korean regime’s perception of gay rights converges closely with this view, as its propaganda stations have frequently described gay rights in the West as the product of moral degeneracy. Social conservatism and criticism of Western assaults on “traditional values” have also been hallmarks of Russia’s foreign policy under Vladimir Putin, and it is no coincidence that Russia and Uganda have also recently expanded economic ties with a $4 billion oil refinery deal earlier this year. North Korea has strengthened economic and security cooperation linkages with Russia, in tandem with Russia’s efforts to reach out to Uganda and other anti-Western regimes in Africa. Therefore, North Korea’s soft power campaign in Sub-Saharan Africa is effectively a form of free riding off of Russia’s efforts to present an alternative authoritarian, socially conservative model of governance to the developing world.
Cold War Legacies
In addition to a shared deep suspicion of the West’s focus on civil liberties, the countries North Korea has targeted most extensively for its soft power offensive have had pre-existing Cold War-era partnerships with the DPRK regime. Ethiopia, for example has been a locus for North Korean ammunitions exports and armament engineering projects in recent years, and the partnership between Ethiopia and Pyongyang dates back to the 1970s. Mengistu’s Communist military dictatorship actively courted North Korean military advisors during the 1980s civil war, creating a historical legacy for the current defense deals.
While North Korea has consistently targeted specific African countries like Ethiopia, Angola and Tanzania regardless of regime changes, the rationale behind forging these linkages has evolved substantially over time. During the Cold War, North Korea targeted African countries to undermine the legitimacy of South Korea and to reinforce an image in the Third World of South Korea as a U.S.-allied imperial client state. North Korea was actively obstructionist in denying South Korea membership to the Non-Aligned Movement by currying African support, and its alliance with Egypt was particularly crucial in achieving this goal.
Due to Nasser’s personal clout and Pan-Arab nationalist legacy, Egypt possessed a major symbolic leadership role in the non-aligned movement. Its delayed recognition of South Korea was undeniably caused by extensive North Korean military assistance to Egypt against Israel. North Korea’s commitment to Egypt extended beyond its typical means of securing alliances through arms contracts and Scud missile shipments to active combat duty; as North Korean air force personnel, actually flew Egyptian military jets during the 1973 war.
The collapse of communism as an ideological force has led to broad-based recognition of South Korea amongst Third World countries, and opportunities for North Korea to achieve further diplomatic victories was severely limited by the 1990s. Therefore, the rationale motivating North Korean defense linkages to Africa shifted from contributing to an ideological struggle to the much less ambitious goal of avoiding complete international isolation.
Defense Capacity Building
North Korea’s soft power in the defense sector has survived since the Cold War due to its unique approach to arms sales. Great powers such as the United States, Russia and China, have typically used arms sales for revenue, diplomatic leverage or the creation of client states. North Korea, as a lesser power, has not concluded arms contracts with expectations of these kinds of returns, but has instead sought to develop military facilities in countries like Nigeria and Madagascar.
Ironically, North Korea is investing in African nations’ defense sectors for brief short-term revenue and long-term loss, as the development of indigenous defense sectors will wean these countries off their dependency on North Korean military support. Nevertheless, the internal military development facet of North Korea’s Africa strategy explains why African countries have risked Western condemnation and isolation by dealing with a rogue regime like North Korea. Their strategic calculus is based on the assumption that the long-term defense benefits of cooperating with the North Korean regime might outweigh the risk of temporary Western alienation.
Therefore, Western policymakers seeking to restrict the security threat posed by North Korea should look beyond its immediate region and the dangers the country’s nuclear buildup poses to Japan and South Korea, and also pay attention to North Korea’s network of arms deals in the developing world, specifically in Sub-Saharan Africa, which are preventing the regime from collapsing economically. For a policy of internationally isolating North Korea to be viable, Sub-Saharan African states that are willfully violating international law by purchasing North Korean military hardware must face at least the credible threat of sanctions and economic repercussions.
If developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa can be encouraged to fully comply with UN sanctions on North Korea, the regime’s stability could become more tenuous and the costs of subsidizing it could escalate to a level that could cause even its long-term sponsors, China and Russia to scale back or at the very least make their alliance commitments to North Korea more conditional. The unwillingness of Western policymakers, however, to look beyond the “irrational North Korea” trope and truly examine the mechanisms behind the regime’s survival makes this an unlikely scenario in the immediate future.
Samuel Ramani is an MPhil student in Russian and East European Studies at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford.