Relations between North Korea and Equatorial Guinea were first established in 1969, only a year after the Central African country gained its independence from Spain. At the time, Equatorial Guinea was led by Francis Macias Nguema, a former colonial official who severed many of the country’s economic and political ties with Spain during its first year of independence. This resulted in a drastic deterioration in relations between Equatorial Guinea and Spain, which reached a tipping point with an attempted coup d’état in 1969 that Macias believed was supported by Madrid. Following the coup attempt, Macias ruled Equatorial Guinea as a despot, including public executions of those he perceived to be opposed to him. This had a dramatic impact on Equatorial Guinea’s economy, leading Macias to enter into accords with countries in the eastern bloc including Cuba, Vietnam, and North Korea.
Relations between Equatorial Guinea and North Korea continued to grow across multiple areas of governance. One of the fields of cooperation was security. In the years following the attempted coup of 1969, Kim Il Sung provided troops to Macias from the Korean People’s Army (KPA), the armed wing of the Korean Workers Party. Some members of the Equatoguinean military later traveled to Pyongyang for training at military academies and North Korea is believed to have supplied arms to Equatorial Guinea. The relationship between Macias and Kim was symbolic, as was made clear in July of 1971 when Macias was inspired by North Korea to rename his “United National Party” the “United National Workers’ Party.” This occurred even though Macias was generally opposed to communism and by no means ideologically aligned with Kim Il-sung. The renaming of the party came a year after Macias outlawed all opposition parties, cementing a one-party political system.
The strength of the relationship between Macias and Kim was demonstrated when Macias visited several eastern bloc countries in Asia, including North Korea, in 1977 on the first trip he took outside of Equatorial Guinea in several years.
In 1972, Macias was declared president for life and the political and economic situation in Equatorial Guinea began to rapidly deteriorate. In August 1979, Macias was overthrown in a coup d’état that was spearheaded by a member of his own family, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who subsequently became president (and remains so — Obiang is currently the world’s longest-serving non-monarchical head of state). In September of that same year, Macias was sentenced to death and executed by a Moroccan firing squad.
The removal of Macias revealed the depth of the relationship between him and Kim Il Sung. Not only is it suspected that North Korea attempted to rally pro-Macias segments of the military during the coup, but in the months prior Macias’ wife and children fled to Pyongyang as his future became uncertain. While Macias’ widow left North Korea, his children remained there for nearly 15 years and became fluent in Korean. One of Macias’ daughters, Monique, wrote fondly of her time in North Korea, noting how she lived under the direct care of Kim Il Sung and attended the Mangyongdae Military Boarding School in Pyongyang.
Despite the close personal relationship that his processor had with North Korea, Obiang worked to continue Equatorial Guinea’s relationship with Pyongyang. Similarly, North Korea remained present in the Equatoguinean capital of Malabo to the point of attempting to influence the country’s internal affairs. In 1984, Pyongyang promised $10 million in assistance to finish the construction of the Equatoguinean parliament, a project that had been started by North Korean labor during Macias’ rule. During the mid-1980s, North Koreans became involved in smuggling and also attempted to bribe local officials.
Even though Obiang continued cooperation with Pyongyang, he also formalized diplomatic ties with South Korea in 1979. This is in part because during the aftermath of the Korean war there was a deep geopolitical competition between the two Koreas, especially in Africa. Obiang attempted to use this competition to his advantage by playing off of the rivalries between the North Korean Embassy in Malabo and South Korea’s accredited diplomats in neighboring Cameroon, as he believed it would result in greater assistance being given to his country. South Korea also exerted diplomatic pressure on Equatorial Guinea to prevent the country from participating in the eastern-bloc boycott of the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. Their efforts proved fruitful, as Malabo refused to abide by the boycott and sent six athletes and four officials to partake in the games.
Up to this point, Equatorial Guinea was of little geopolitical concern and mainly attracted international attention because of its gruesome human rights record. However, this changed in 1995 when large deposits of offshore oil were discovered in Equatorial Guinea’s waters. This resulted in widespread foreign interest in the country, with American companies such as ExxonMobil, Marathon Oil Corporation, and Hess Corporation having stakes in Equatoguinean hydrocarbons. This coincided with a rapid upgrading in relations between the United States and Equatorial Guinea, climaxing in the appointment of the first U.S. ambassador to the country in 2006 after over a decade of a duly accredited ambassador based in Cameroon. Earlier that same year, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Obiang at the Department of State and said to him, “You are a good friend and we welcome you.” This rapid improvement in relations occurred despite a U.S. Senate investigation, which revealed members of the ruling family in Equatorial Guinea were keeping ill-gotten gains in a Washington, D.C., bank in addition to underscoring the abysmal human rights record of the country.
Despite the rapid improvement of relations between Malabo and Washington, the relationship between Equatorial Guinea and North Korea remained strong. Pyongyang maintained an embassy in Malabo, one of its oldest on the continent of Africa. The cooperation between the two countries was largely economic and was done through North Korean parastatal entities. For instance, in 2010 the now sanctioned company Mansudae Overseas Projects built both a conference hall and stadium in the small Equatoguinean city of Luba. North Korean companies also became involved in agriculture and forestry. These companies were at times used for cultural promotion and public diplomacy, one example being in 2006 when a North Korean forestry company by the name of Chilbo had a workshop at its premises that featured the writing of Kim Jong Il. North Korean companies based in Equatorial Guinea were also used to launder money and avert international sanctions regimes.
One of the most striking aspects of the relationship between Pyongyang and Malabo was the high-level, public engagement between the two countries’ governments. In 2011, the then-vice president of North Korea, Yang Hyong Sop, visited Equatorial Guinea. During the visit he met with various ministers along with Obiang and also met with representatives of North Korean companies operating in the country. Equatoguinean state media also said that Yang visited “sites of interest” in Malabo prior to leaving the country. In 2013, Obiang was given the Kim Jong Il award, which was created nearly a year after Kim’s death. Obiang was given the award in recognition for “his special contribution to the justice and development of the world, human dignity and equality and peace, friendship and unity among countries.” During the ceremony when he received the award he spoke highly of North Korea’s prospects under the country’s new leader, Kim Jong Un.
In 2016, the president of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Yong Nam, visited Equatorial Guinea and held talks with Obiang. During the talks, Obiang extended his congratulations to Kim Jong Un for his recent election as head of the Workers Party of Korea (WPK) and discussed strengthening the bilateral relationship between the two countries. Accords were signed to increase cooperation in multiple realms, including agriculture. Kim also attended the inauguration of Obiang after he won over 90 percent of the vote in presidential elections earlier that year.
Still, at times, Equatorial Guinea voted against North Korea in international forms, such as when it supported a United Nations General Assembly Resolution in 2007 that expressed concern about North Korea’s human rights record.
The strong relations between Equatorial Guinea and North Korea faced an unprecedented challenge following the uptick in tensions between Washington and Pyongyang in 2017. This was particularly due to the extensive sanctions regimes passed by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which severely limited the activities of North Korean parastatal companies and overseas workers. In particular, UNSC Resolution 2397 called for all North Korean workers to be expelled from all countries within a year. Equatorial Guinea officially stated that it complied with the resolution, indicating in its National Implementation Report (NIR) August of 2018 that it had identified and begun the process of expelling North Korean workers from the country. That being said, no specific quantities of workers were given, nor was information provided on their expulsion date. This has led to speculation that North Korean workers may remain in Equatorial Guinea, and that the previously existing parastatal companies may have been replaced by shell companies under a different name. Such actions would not be difficult to imagine, both given the change in posture that the United States has taken toward North Korea and evidence that other African countries have found methods of circumventing the sanctions. Similarly, there is no evidence that the North Korean Embassy in Malabo has closed, despite the Equatoguinean government saying that it will examine the potential of closing the mission. It is feasible that Malabo believes it will be given a pass on violating such sanctions, given the interest that American companies have in accessing the country’s hydrocarbons.
The relationship between North Korea and Equatorial Guinea has existed for decades and has endured changes in leadership in both countries and changes in Equatorial Guinea’s geopolitical standing. One thing has remained constant, however: the two countries often share low rankings in international human rights reports, such as that of Freedom House where they are both ranked among the 10 least free countries in the world. Given the evolution and durability of the relationship throughout recent decades, it is likely that Malabo and Pyongyang will continue to strengthen their diplomatic ties, even if it is done more covertly in light of Western pressure.
R. Maxwell Bone is an MPhil Candidate in African Studies at the University of Cambridge, Jesus College. His writing has appeared in the Diplomat, African Arguments, and the Mail and Guardian. Follow him on Twitter @maxbone55.