On May 29, 2016, South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s spokesman announced that Uganda pledged to suspend all military and police ties with North Korea. This announcement followed a bilateral meeting, between Park and Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni. The Ugandan government has been careful to insist that Kampala will maintain diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, but the suspension of military cooperation is a historic move that ends a decades-long Cold War-rooted partnership.
This policy shift is a major victory for South Korea in its bid to get African countries to comply with the escalating UN sanctions regime against North Korea. Yet when placed in the broader context of diplomatic linkages between the Korean peninsula and Sub-Saharan Africa, there is a legitimate reason to believe that its impact has been overestimated by many media outlets and defense analysts.
North Korea has intensified its own diplomatic overtures toward African countries in response to Park’s trip. These efforts have been more successful than Western or South Korean policymakers have anticipated. Numerous authoritarian regimes in Africa at odds with international legal institutions have been unwilling to suspend long-standing arms contracts with the DPRK and align with the new UN sanctions regime. This non-compliance has continued despite numerous investment pledges from Seoul resembling those recently made with Uganda.
North Korea’s Strategy to Counteract South Korean Diplomacy in Africa
While the South Korean president’s travels to Africa have gained more Western media attention, Kim Yong-nam, North Korea’s nominal head of state, also embarked on an African diplomatic tour in late May. In order to maximize Pyongyang’s diplomatic leverage, Kim travelled to nine African countries where Park did not travel and did not make an official trip to the three countries chiefly targeted by the ROK: Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda.
The rivalry between North and South Korea over allies and leverage in Africa dates back to the early stages of the Cold War, when both countries sent diplomats to non-aligned countries in a struggle for international recognition. North Korea’s latest diplomatic outreach to Africa has a similar zero-sum competitive dynamic. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has actively sought to undermine the DPRK’s African alliances. She urged the African Union to recognize North Korea’s nuclear program as a “serious security threat.” But North Korea has considerable soft power in many Sub-Saharan African countries, due to authoritarian solidarity and its history of technological assistance to African militaries with anti-Western objectives.
Whether North Korea is seeking to merely protect existing alliances or expand its reach further at South Korea’s expense is debatable. According to South Korean foreign ministry officials, the primary objective of North Korea’s current diplomatic campaign is avoiding complete international isolation. DPRK elites are concerned by the potential for a geopolitical backlash emerging from the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) report on human rights in North Korea. By sending Kim Yong-nam to Africa, Kim Jong-un is re-assuring North Korea’s traditional allies of its continued viability as an arms salesman and trade partner.
The ROK’s official view that North Korea’s African diplomacy is a defensive reaction to fears of international isolation also has its critics. NK News intelligence director John Grifasi believes that North Korea’s African diplomacy is not a direct consequence of UN sanctions. Instead, it is an international status-building venture similar to China’s diplomatic overtures during the 1960s.
In Grifasi’s view, Africa is the ideal continent for countries isolated from Western-dominated international institutions to project influence. Therefore, the loss of Uganda is a blow to North Korea’s regional leverage. But recent confirmations of continued defense linkages to African countries suggest that it may be an isolated setback.
North Korea’s Remaining Trade Partners in Sub-Saharan Africa
While North Korea maintains diplomatic relations with other African states, four countries with highly authoritarian regimes are of paramount importance to Pyongyang’s current diplomatic strategy. These countries are Equatorial Guinea, Angola, DR Congo, and Burundi. Due to the stigma associated with cooperating with North Korea, the DPRK principally relies on covert arms contracts to secure its diplomatic linkages with these countries.
Kim Yong-nam’s May 23 talks with Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang received particular attention in the North Korean state media. According to Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reports, Obiang congratulated Kim Jong-un for his election victory at the recent Workers Party Congress, and pledged increased support for North Korea’s attempts to build a thriving socialist nation.
North Korea’s reaffirmation of ties with Equatorial Guinea is a continuation of an alliance dating back to the early 1970s. Despite his anti-Communist leanings, Obiang’s uncle and predecessor, President Francisco Nguema, welcomed North Korean military advisors and voluntarily changed the name of his ruling party to the United National Workers Party in 1971. This name change was an implicit display of admiration for the Kim Il-sung regime.
Revelations of a dialogue between Angola’s Secretary of the Interior and North Korean representatives on issues pertaining to security and public order in April 2016 provided a much-needed PR boost for Pyongyang’s diplomatic efforts. These discussions were received with considerable consternation in the West, due to Angola’s place as a temporary member of the UN Security Council. As a Security Council member, Luanda is involved in enforcing UN resolutions banning arms sales to the DPRK.
This enforcement role is particularly troubling as Angola purchased naval patrol boats from North Korea in 2011 in violation of sanctions. Despite these infringements, UN Panel of Experts member William Newcomb recently told NK News that Angola’s cooperation with North Korea will likely go unpunished due to the dearth of information on Luanda-Pyongyang relations. If Newcomb’s assessment proves correct, the DPRK will maintain yet another Cold War-formed partnership in Africa for the foreseeable future.
North Korea’s relationship with DR Congo also recently sparked an international controversy. A UN report was leaked on May 16, 2016 revealing that Congo had purchased pistols from the DPRK in 2014 and recruited 30 North Korean instructors to work alongside the Congolese police and presidential guard.
Congolese President Joseph Kabila’s desire to stay in office in violation of current election laws has strained relations between the United States and DR Congo in recent years. Kabila’s deals with North Korea will add more fuel to the fire, regardless of the steadfast denials from Kinshasa. They could also lead to a retraction of Washington’s 2001 praise for DR Congo’s more responsible behavior toward pariah states like Cuba, North Korea, and Libya.
North Korea’s linkages with Burundi can be attributed to Western condemnations of ongoing political violence. Burundi’s isolation from the international arms market makes Pyongyang a valuable trade partner. Therefore, Kim Yong-nam’s recent meeting with Burundi’s beleaguered President Pierre Nkurunziza could result in a repeat of Bujumbura’s illicit purchases of defective Chinese weapons from North Koreans in 2011. But North Korea needs to be covert in its assistance. Any public revelations of DPRK exacerbation of the Burundi conflict could cause African Union countries to become more accepting of Seoul’s anti-North Korean narratives.
North Korea’s bilateral linkages in Africa have remained largely under the radar of Western policymakers for decades. While Uganda’s defection to South Korea is a blow to Pyongyang’s status and leverage in Sub-Saharan Africa, it arguably has a wide enough range of regional investment partners to counteract this loss. Western policymakers should follow South Korea’s example of challenging the DPRK’s bilateral defense linkages one-by-one if they want to be successful in genuinely isolating the North Korean regime and forcing Kim Jong-un to pursue a less belligerent course.
Samuel Ramani is an MPhil student at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy. He is also a journalist who writes regularly for the Washington Post, Huffington Post, and Kyiv Post amongst others. He can be followed on Facebook at Samuel Ramani and on Twitter at @samramani2.