Korea Chair Explains - North Korean Diplomacy in Sub-Saharan Africa: Cases in Uganda and Namibia


By Greg Kelly

If you are driving down Fidel Castro St. and take a right on Robert Mugabe Ave. in Windhoek, Namibia, you will be greeted by the Independence Memorial Museum. It is a striking golden building that stands across from the Parliament Gardens. However, the most notable fact about the Independence Memorial Museum’s architecture is who built it. It was built by Mansudae, a North Korean state construction firm. The Independence Memorial Museum is one of many buildings, statues, and factories in Sub-Saharan Africa with similar origins. Historically, the Kim dynasty fostered partnerships throughout Africa by appealing to a shared belief in anticolonialism and demonstrating its self-reliance, known as juche in North Korea. Although these commonalities in ideology helped Pyongyang open diplomatic ties in Sub-Saharan Africa, they soon evolved into economic and military relationships. North Korea was an ideal arms dealer for many cash-strapped autocratic rulers throughout the continent. It provided inexpensive weapons without human rights-based prerequisites that Western support is often contingent on. ​​Let’s examine what North Korean diplomatic efforts are like in Namibia and Uganda.


What have North Korea’s relationships with Sub-Saharan African nations looked like in the past?


While the United States and Soviet Union waged much of the Cold War in Eurasia and Latin America, both superpowers largely ignored Africa. Pyongyang worked for decades to foster connections with political leaders throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. Mansudae was one of its favourite tools to do so. The relatively neutral continent proved to be optimal for Pyongyang’s diplomatic efforts. North Korea’s relationship with Uganda goes back to 1971, when Pyongyang provided weapons and training to General Idi Amin, who later staged a coup d’état. The following year, a North Korean embassy was opened in Kampala. When current Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni gained power in 1986, he maintained and expanded Amin’s policy of welcoming training and munitions from Pyongyang. Over the next several decades, the North Korean embassy in Kampala served as a hub for weapons to be funnelled into Uganda through Korea Mining and Development Trading Corporation (KOMID). In 2014, Kim Yong-nam, the President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea, visited Kampala to emphasise Pyongyang’s commitment to Uganda and to establish a Consultative Committee for bilateral affairs between the two countries. On the same visit, the North Korean delegation asked Uganda to vote against a UN resolution subjecting its leadership to prosecution at the International Criminal Court. Although Uganda abstained from this vote, South Korean president Park Geun-hye recognised the threat of North Korean influence in the region. She visited Kampala in early 2016 and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Museveni tocooperate on ten fields, including defence. Park later published an article in one of Uganda’s top newspapers stating this commitment. Within days, Seoul and Kampala were sharing intelligence with each other and Uganda soon replaced North Korea with China for military training. In response, North Korea attempted to test a ballistic missile, but it botched the launch.


North Korea has also played a role in training military and police forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Namibia. Between Namibia’s independence in 1990 and 2005, President Nujoma visited Pyongyang eleven times. Nujoma has also awarded Mansudae with multiple contracts, including a munitions factory, a headquarters and school for the military, and the aforementioned Independence Memorial Museum. The United Nations investigated Windhoek for awarding these contracts to Pyongyang. The Namibian government defended its work with North Korea, arguing that Pyongyang had been an ally during its fight for independence from South Africa, and claimed that the contract had been completed a year prior to the sanctions levied on North Korea for its nuclear program. However, investigations by the United Nations and United States demonstrated that business between Windhoek and Mansudae continued long after 2006. The Namibian government admitted to working with Mansudae and KOMID to build light weapons and ammunition until early 2015. North Korea pursued this ‘construction diplomacy’ policy far beyond Uganda and Namibia. Zimbabwe’s National Heroes Acre and Botswana’s Three Dikgosi Monument were both built with Mansudae labour.


What does North Korean diplomacy with Sub-Saharan Africa look like today?


Although Western-allied nations like South Korea and multilateral governance organisations like the United Nations have mitigated North Korea’s diplomatic efforts, Pyongyang’s work abroad hasn’t been forgotten. In 2017, Namibia’s minister of presidential affairs lauded North Korea’s assistance with their infrastructure. The following year, Namibia’s president deemed North Korea a friend. Although Pyongyang has halted virtually all trade since the start of the pandemic, the conditions that allowed it to capitalise on relationships with nations in Sub-Saharan Africa remain present. Many governments in the region are underfunded and lack the governance capacity to enforce sanctions. Much of the sanctions burden North Korea faces are levied from the United Nations Security Council, where five permanent members have disproportionate power to set global laws and norms. This position of power has been a source of resentment, not just for Pyongyang, but nations around the world who don’t have any significant leverage in setting the international status quo. Nations like Zimbabwe, Libya, and Sudan are under sanctions regimes of their own and can sympathise with Pyongyang.


North Korea and many governments in Sub-Saharan Africa see mutual benefit in fostering illicit partnerships. Pyongyang is willing to provide labour, training, and weapons overseas at lower prices than other contractors. Meanwhile, governments in Kampala, Windhoek, and elsewhere are willing to flout sanctions and provide the Kim regime with much needed funding. As long as wealthy nations continue to exploit countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and isolate North Korea, these relationships are likely to thrive. The combination of economic expediency and shared anti-colonial resentment means it is unlikely that North Korea will halt its military support for African dictatorships in the near future.




About The Author


Greg Kelly is a research intern at the KF-VUB Korea Chair. He is a Master’s student in International Affairs at Syracuse University’s Maxell School studying governance, diplomacy, and international organisations. He is currently in his final semester studying abroad at Yonsei University (Seoul). Prior to his studies, he was a Fulbright English teaching assistant in Terengganu, Malaysia. 

Research areas involved