North Korea is pursuing an aggressive strategy to develop nuclear weapons and increase its power projection capability. In a few years, North Korea could have the intercontinental missiles necessary to perform nuclear strikes not only within Asia but against North America as well. Elsewhere in the world, North Korea’s influence is waning.
This is particularly true in Africa, the continent where North Korea’s influence has in the past been most prominent. North Korea’s presence is visible across the region from Dakar, where a massive statue built in the North Korean style dominates the skyline, to Cairo, where North Korean artists worked on a panorama of the 1973 October War. This North Korean handiwork dates back to the Cold War, when North Korea began expanding its relations in Africa to find economic opportunity and increase its prestige—and to undercut similar diplomatic overtures from South Korea towards the newly independent African states, many of which were ruled by Marxist-Leninist or communist-sympathizing regimes.
North Korea’s African connections have served both strategic and economic goals. African countries have been an important source of hard cash for the North Korean regime for decades. The total value of trade between North Korea and nations in Africa averaged $111 million per year between 1990 and 2015. A United Nations report completed earlier this year declared that even today North Korea is using its African connections to escape economic sanctions.
North Korea’s overseas combat operations have also taken place almost solely in Africa. North Korean troops have reportedly fought in Angola, in Egypt during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and in Zimbabwe. Africa is the only continent where North Korea can compete diplomatically and militarily with the influence of great and medium-sized powers.
North Korea’s strongest and bloodiest relationship has been with Zimbabwe. In Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, North Korea helped build a massive complex in 2010 to glorify the Rhodesian Bush War, which brought Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union to power. The complex was largely built and designed and built with the aid of the Mansudae Overseas Project—the enormous state-owned art production studio that rakes in money for Kim Jong-un by creating monumental propaganda statues and murals across Africa and the world.
While Mugabe’s relationship with North Korea is close, other Zimbabweans have a different view of the country. In 1981, 106 North Korean trainers arrived to train Zimbabwe’s Fifth Brigade. Sent to Matabeleland, the North Korean-trained unit killed somewhere between 20,000-30,000 people between 1983 and 1987. As a thank-you, Zimbabwe sent Pyongyang two rhinoceroses. A native of Matabeleland told the author that North Korean military ties with the country continued during the period known as the Gukurahundi genocide. In 2010, North Korea’s football team scheduled a game in Matabeleland, but anti-North Korean sentiment remained so strong that the team had to relocate to Harare because of threatened demonstrations. In addition to labeling the Matabeleland massacres a genocide, some Zimbabweans are demanding North Korea pay reparations.
Relations between North Korea and Zimbabwe extend to the recent past. In 2013, Zimbabwe signed an agreement to export yellowcake uranium from Kanyemba region to North Korea in exchange for weapons. However, under international pressure Harare-Pyongyang ties have cooled. Last year in Japan Robert Mugabe downplayed his relationship with North Korea and denied any ties at present.
Other countries have gone a lot farther. In June 2016, Namibia officially ended its ties to North Korean companies. (According to one report, however, the North Koreans have re-entered the market posing as a Chinese company.) That same month, Uganda, a dictatorship with deep defense ties to North Korea, announced that it had asked the 60 North Korean soldiers and security personnel training its police forces to leave the country. The status of a separate North Korean deal to train Uganda’s air force is unclear from press reports.
In November, Sudan made a clean break with North Korea as well as with Iran, both of which formerly supplied it with arms, in order to re-establish ties with the West. In the 1960s, Sudan’s ruler Gaafar Nimeiry flirted with the Soviet Union. That changed in 1971 when Major Hashem al-Atta launched a communist coup that plunged the country into chaos for a few days. The experience changed Nimeiry’s outlook, and he moved the country into the western camp for the duration of the Cold War. In the 1990s, while under US sanctions, Sudan began purchasing North Korean weapons out of necessity. That has now ended. “Historically our military equipment has been from West Germany and America,” said Sudan’s foreign minister Ibrahim Ghandour in an interview with the author. “We no longer have any military or economic relationship with North Korea. We also have no embassies or exchange of ambassadors, nothing.”
With over 20 ongoing conflicts on the continent, there are plenty of potential buyers of North Korean weapons in Africa. However, North Korea’s emphasis on developing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons program has resulted in conventional weapons that are a generation behind what other countries could offer. Few African countries, regardless of their political orientation, have much use for ballistic missiles.
North Korea will find it more difficult to find friends among a new generation of African leaders. Few African leaders see North Korea as an inspiration. Robert Mugabe, a Marxist, is believed to be in his nineties, and Uganda’s President Museveni is not much younger. In short, North Korea’s African safari appears to be drawing to an end.