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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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N.Korea's ties to Africa help it bypass UN sanctions

Taro Mitamura

Nov. 7, 2017

North Korea may lie thousands of kilometers away from Africa, but it enjoys close ties with many countries across the continent. The North provides cheap labor and military equipment, but it's also accused of engaging in illegal activities. There are growing concerns that these transactions are helping Pyongyang bypass UN sanctions.

A video shot in Namibia obtained by NHK in September shows what seem to be East Asian workers at a construction site. North Korea has allegedly been sending laborers to Namibia to build military facilities and other structures. The activities breach UN Security Council resolutions against Pyongyang, but to some experts, this is no surprise.

"When I visited Namibia, I spoke in Korean with laborers working at a military base. They said they had come from North Korea, and that they'd been living in Namibia for 3 years," says Seigakuin University Professor Satoru Miyamoto. "From the point of view of Africa, there's no real merit in stopping trade with North Korea, as it can provide labor and weapons that are both affordable and high quality."

During the Cold War, Pyongyang competed with Seoul to bolster its international influence. North Korea established relations with many African countries that sided neither with the US nor with the Soviet Union. Sometimes, that meant lending military support to African countries fighting for independence from colonial rule.

One example is Mozambique. In the center of the capital Maputo stands a giant bronze statue of the country's first president, Samora Machel. The statue was made by North Korean workers. An avenue in Maputo is named after Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea and grandfather of its current leader Kim Jong-un. A recent report by the UN Security Council revealed that Mozambique may have imported weapons from North Korea in violation of UN sanctions.

NHK was able to interview the Mozambican Minister of Industry and Trade, Ernesto Tonela. But he did not comment on the allegations. "We are committed with the decision by the UN in regard to the sanctions, and we do not agree with the development of nuclear weapons. We want to help to work with the Japanese government in order to have stability in the region as well," he said.

North Korea's activities in Africa also include the alleged illegal trading of rhino horns and ivories. In September, an NGO produced a report accusing North Korea of abusing diplomatic immunity to smuggle rhino horns and ivory. It was based on interviews with North Korean defectors and African officials. The report says at least 18 cases have been identified since 1986.

Last year, 2 North Korean diplomats were arrested at an airport in Ethiopia. They were attempting to smuggle a large amount of ivory into China. In 2015, a North Korean diplomat was detained in Mozambique, who had secretly obtained rhino horns. The authors of the NGO report approached the North Korean Embassy in South Africa to ask about the allegations, but they were turned away.

"Africa is virtually the last stronghold for North Korea. That's why the North will probably do everything it can to maintain its relations with the African continent. And that will run against US and Japanese efforts to put an end to these relations. So in order to bolster sanctions against North Korea, it will be necessary to undermine or even cut off ties between Pyongyang and African nations," says Professor Satoru Miyamoto.

With North Korea trying to evade Security Council resolutions, Africa could become a battleground for diplomatic efforts to contain Pyongyang.