North Korea's surprising African legacy

From vocal critics, through tongue-in-cheek commentary to rose tinted nostalgia, North Korea’s impact in Africa runs the full spectrum.

Just the Basics

  • North Korea enjoys a soft spot in the hearts of many ageing African autocrats thanks to Pyongyang’s history of supporting African independence movements

  • Africa is fertile ground for North Korea to dodge international sanctions and raise much needed funds

  • From fan clubs to giant statues, North Korea’s African legacy makes for interesting (if bizarre) reading

Pyongyang’s antics continue to dominate the news; one region - Africa - is also following events on the Korean peninsula, while playing host to a wide range of attitudes about the hermit kingdom. From vocal critics, through tongue-in-cheek commentary to rose tinted nostalgia, North Korea’s impact in Africa runs the full spectrum.

North Korea (DPRK) enjoys a long legacy of friendly relations with African nations, many of whom it supported during their independence struggles. From material assistance and weapons to training, North Korea has left a marked impact on the continent. During the Cold War, North Korea provided an alternative to reliance on Washington, Moscow or Beijing, championing the cause of small nations seeking self-reliance. By exporting its ideology of self-reliance or juche, North Korea was exporting a development model, one that appealed to many wary of the Washington Consensus.

Prior to its disastrous famines and economic collapse in the 1990s as Cold War funding dried up, North Korea was able to present itself as a postcolonial success story. Even after South Korea’s economy began to outpace it in the 1970s, and even with its 21st century brinkmanship, North Korea continues to enjoy warm relations with many African countries.

Pyongyang’s African friends list

In the 1980s Robert Mugabe sent two rhinos to North Korea in thanks for its help in Zimbabwe’s independence struggle. The capital of Mozambique, Maputo is home to a street called Avenida Kim Il Sung, in honour of the great leader’s contributions. Long-time Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni even learned Korean, crediting Kim Il Sung with teaching him the language during his trips to North Korea.

Then there is the smattering of North Korean friendship associations scattered across Africa. While such as statement conjures up the atrophied remnants (and their equally atrophied custodians) of a bygone era, one of the largest was founded just six years ago. The Nigerian-DPRK Friendship Association, founded in 2011, has since grown to some 2,000 members, led by the energetic and devoted Alhassan Muhammad.


Kim Il Sung holds hands with Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe


An expert in all things North Korea, Muhammad a middle-aged, environmental science professor makes at least two trips a year to North Korea. One of only four Africans to receive the “Friends of North Korea” medal, Muhammad and his like-minded colleagues look longingly to North Korea’s constancy and singularity of vision, contrasting it to the inefficiency and corruption which has dogged Nigerian politics for decades.

Indeed, such are Pyongyang’s lingering ties in the continent that South Korea regularly courts African nations with a fervour akin to Beijing’s campaign against Taiwan’s supporters in accordance with its ‘One China’ policy.

North Korea can draw on decades of Cold War support to temper its tarnished 21st century image. For instance, in May the North Korean embassy in South Africa released a document highlighting the role played by Kim Il Sung in the anti-colonial movements in Algeria, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Having retreated from the international stage in the 1990s, North Korea is again increasing its involvement in Africa with trade between the hermit kingdom and Africa averaging $216.5 million between 2007-2015 versus $90 million between 1998-2006.

Dodging sanctions and building giants

Shut out from most overseas markets, North Korea is again turning to Africa, where a raft of weak or failed states and ageing autocrats ensures lax to non-existent enforcement of UN sanctions. Attempting to diversify away from its near total reliance on China, North Korea seeks partners for construction contracts and weapons sales in Africa.

Debt ridden African nations receive cheap services which can be paid for in kind, either in resources or land, while “Pyongyang’s ties to Africa allow it to show it still has friends abroad and benefit from their political support. They also represent a source of revenue, new entry points into the international financial system, and a haven in which to base North Korean representatives and front companies,” notes Andrea Berger of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

Take the case of Namibia, which was accused of breaching UN sanctions in 2016 after contracting North Korean firms to construct the national history museum, presidential palace, defence headquarters and a munitions factory. Despite pledging to disentangle itself from such dealings (the extent to which said distancing has occurred remains dubious), Namibia stated it would continue to maintain “warm relations” with North Korea. Similarly, after North Korean trainers were photographed wearing Ugandan military uniforms in 2016, Uganda made similar overtures, pulling back its economic ties, while maintaining friendly diplomatic engagement.


Kim Il Sung meets Namibia's SWAPO (independence group & later government) delegation


One of North Korea’s flagship exports are giant statues exuding all the subtlety of the Berlin Wall - glorious throwbacks to the type of socialist realist monumental architecture that now litters the former Soviet Union. The company behind the giant monuments - Mansudae - has channelled the energies of its 4,000 strong workforce to carve out a niche market: “the Russians and Chinese don’t make that kind of stuff any more. The appeal is in the statement of the obvious - and of course size is everything,” explains art critic William Feaver.

North Korea has sold giant monuments of independence-era African leaders and other revolutionary motifs to the likes of Mozambique, Botswana, Benin, Angola, Chad, Ethiopia, Togo and both Congos: Zimbabwe even has two giant Mugabes in storage ready for when he dies. A prime example of the kind of work on offer is the African Renaissance Monument in Dakar, Senegal. Unveiled in 2010 to a bizarre guest list including: African heads of state, North Korean representatives as well as Jesse Jackson and Akon, the monument - larger than the Statue of Liberty - displays the standard muscled hero-worker striding into the future, with woman and child in tow.

While various African autocrats may sympathize with Pyongyang’s clamour for recognition and respect (and its perennial middle finger to the West) few are willing to risk alienating Africa’s largest aid donors, such as the United States. With a nominal GDP of some $30 billion, North Korea does not even break into same league as the top fifteen largest African economies, instead sitting somewhere between the Ivory Coast and Cameroon.

Africa and the nuclear question

Giant statues and friendship societies aside, African countries are keenly aware that North Korea’s brinkmanship does nobody any favours. A comedy twitter feed purporting to be the official North Korean account called out Nigeria recently, warning the country to stop mocking Kim Jong Un. Nigerian web users in turn responded with their own humorous retorts. On a more serious note, the North Korean embassy in Uganda issued a statement saying that its nuclear weapons are not directed at Africa, with ambassador Myong Kyong Chol calling out the regime's opponents for spreading false rumours, and reaffirming his country’s long-standing support for the continent and their shared colonial legacy.


More of Mansudae's handiwork on display, this time in Botswana


African countries also bring a unique outlook to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Two of the five founding leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) - Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt and Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana - were African. All African nations, except South Sudan, are members of the NAM, with regional powers such as South Africa playing leading roles in NAM. This gives actors such as South Africa the kind of credentials and influence to perhaps act as a mediator in the conflict.

South Africa is also a strong advocate of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and as the first country to voluntarily disarm its nuclear arsenal, South Africa offers an important case study for North Korea, demonstrating that nuclear weapons are not a necessity. South Africa’s experiences with global condemnation and embargo during the Apartheid years also mirrors some of the hardships facing Pyongyang.

This history places South Africa in a unique position to better understand North Korea and work as an intermediary: the transition from Apartheid in the 1990s also placed a premium on dispute resolution. South Africa has filled this role before; working as an intermediary for Libya following the Lockerbie incident, Israel and Palestine and Northern Ireland.

The problem so far has been that North Korea has not paid attention to South Africa’s lesson, instead focusing on Africa’s other nuclear story - Libya. Having witnessed the destruction of the Gaddafi regime and Libya’s descent into failed state territory, North Korea likely links this downfall to the rollback of the Libyan nuclear weapons program in 2003. Africa offers many lessons; however, you can lead a regime to water, but cannot make it think.

Jeremy Luedi is the editor of True North Far East. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, Courrier International, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, and FACTA Magazine. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, Radio Free Europe and the Washington Times, among others.