On November 14, 2017, a UN report revealed that a French frigate ship had captured North Korean machine guns bound for Somalia in 2016. These North Korean guns were being transported to Somalia via an unmarked Iranian dhow and were possibly a portion of a larger arms cache destined for the war-torn country.
Even though countries across the continent have been linked to illicit North Korean arms deals, the Horn of Africa is a particularly egregious violator of UN sanctions against Pyongyang. In recent months, Eritrea has faced tightened U.S. sanctions for its alleged weapons deals with North Korea, and Ethiopia has faced criticism for its lingering military ties with the Kim regime.
North Korea’s diplomatic and economic links to the Horn of Africa can be explained by the legacies of Cold War cooperation, which enhanced Pyongyang’s credibility as a defense partner within the Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Somali military establishments. Even though Ethiopia has recently taken steps to curb its ties with North Korea, the Horn of Africa’s relative isolation from international arms markets and weak law enforcement capacity ensure that the region remains a stronghold for North Korean arms deals in sub-Saharan Africa.
North Korea’s Long History of Ties With the Horn of Africa
Since the 1970s, North Korea has maintained strong diplomatic links with countries on the Horn of Africa. Somalia was Pyongyang’s first partner in the region. Somalia established diplomatic relations with North Korea in 1970, and entrenched ties by sending its Marxist President Siad Barre to Pyongyang in 1971. The North Korean military provided technical assistance to Somali forces against their Ethiopian rivals, because of Barre’s diplomatic overtures and Pyongyang’s desire to retaliate against Ethiopia’s support for South Korea during the Korean War.
The 1974 overthrow of Ethiopia’s pro-American Emperor Haile Selassie and establishment of a Marxist government in Ethiopia caused the Soviet Union to redirect its military resources away from Mogadishu and toward building an alliance with Addis Ababa. North Korea followed the USSR’s lead, and provided support for Ethiopian forces during their successful efforts to withstand Somali aggression in the 1977-78 Ogaden War.
The 1991 collapse of Marxist regimes in Somalia and Ethiopia caused North Korea to adopt a more balanced approach to the region. During the 1990s, North Korea assisted Ethiopia’s counter-insurgency efforts in Eritrea and Tigray with provisions of ammunition, rocket launchers, mortar bombs, and grenades. Despite U.S. attempts to convince Ethiopia to comply with UN sanctions against North Korea, the Ethiopian military authorized a major purchase of North Korean weapons in 2007 to strengthen its counterterrorism campaign, further consolidating the Addis Ababa-Pyongyang relationship.
When Eritrea became an independent state in 1993, North Korea sought to erase negative memories of its alignment with Ethiopia during the Eritrean war of independence by establishing robust diplomatic relations with Asmara. These diplomatic ties swiftly converted into military cooperation, as Eritrea purchased North Korean communications technology, aimed at increasing the accuracy of its naval missions on the Red Sea.
North Korea has also benefited from the collapse of state authority in Somalia. Since the early 1990s, Pyongyang has sold equipment to Somali government forces and militant groups alike. In 2013, Voice of America reported that North Korea used Somaliland as a base to ship IEDs and machine guns to al-Shabaab.
Even though comprehensive UN sanctions against North Korea have caused many African countries, like Uganda and Sudan, to abandon links with Pyongyang, efforts to achieve similar compliance in the Horn of Africa have been more uneven. Somalia’s political instability, Eritrea’s international isolation, and Ethiopia’s capital shortages ensure that purchasing inexpensive and useful weaponry from North Korea remains enticing.
The Future of North Korean Military Ties with the Horn of Africa
As the UN sanctions regime against North Korea continues to consolidate, the cost of violating the embargo against Pyongyang will rise steeply. These costs could convince Ethiopia, a critical U.S. partner in East Africa, to comply with international law and avoid the aid cuts Egypt endured due to its North Korea links. On August 5, the Ethiopian government announced its decision to limit the number of bank accounts held by North Korean diplomats in Ethiopia. To further demonstrate its commitment to a peaceful resolution to the North Korea standoff, Ethiopia chaired an emergency UN Security Council meeting on September 5 to discuss the implications of North Korea’s sixth major nuclear test.
Despite these positive steps, Ethiopia’s willingness to fully comply with sanctions is unclear, as Addis Ababa has continued to maintain diplomatic links with Pyongyang. In June, North Korea sent a diplomatic delegation to Ethiopia, which reaffirmed the strong bilateral relationship between Pyongyang and Addis Ababa.
Eritrea and Somalia are also unlikely to suspend links with North Korea as their security interests could be benefited by maintaining ties with Pyongyang.
Eritrea’s links with North Korea can be explained by the Eritrean military’s long-standing isolation from international arms markets. The imposition of comprehensive UN sanctions against the Eritrean military in 2009 as retaliation for Eritrea’s alleged support for al-Shabaab has ensured that North Korea is one of the only countries willing to sell arms to Eritrea. As Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki uses militarization as a vehicle for regime consolidation in Eritrea and Eritrea-Ethiopia border tensions remain unresolved, the Eritrea-North Korea clandestine military partnership has survived international sanctions.
Somalia’s willingness to maintain ties with North Korea can be explained by Mogadishu’s desire to cooperate with Pyongyang on anti-piracy efforts. The October 2007 Dai Hong Dan incident, which resulted in the temporary seizure of a North Korean ship by Somali pirates, caused Pyongyang to view Somalia’s piracy crisis as a security threat. As North Korea possesses arms that could assist Somalia’s efforts to combat piracy and has links with Somali militant groups, cooperation with the Kim regime could prove beneficial for the Somali government’s efforts to weaken organized crime in the war-torn country.
Despite stringent sanctions against the North Korean regime and the rising stigma associated with maintaining links to Pyongyang, North Korea continues to maintain significant diplomatic and military links with the Horn of Africa. Despite positive signs emerging from Ethiopia, Cold War legacies, international isolation, and the region’s desire for cheap weaponry could ensure that clandestine links between North Korea and the Horn of Africa remain a blank spot in the UN sanctions regime for the foreseeable future,
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who writes regularly for the Washington Post and National Interest magazine. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2, and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.