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North Korea in Africa: Surprising business ventures, including munitions factory in Namibia

North Korea in Africa: Surprising business ventures, including munitions factory in Namibia

As Donald Trump in on the cusp of his departure for a visit to Japan, China, Vietnam, the Philippines and South Korea (and perhaps even to tip-toe right up to the dividing line – the DMZ – between the South and North Korea and to peer first-hand at the Little Rocket Man’s domain), J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look at an intriguing part of North Korea’s connections to countries in Africa – and efforts to earn export earnings to pay for those missile and nuclear ambitions.

Daily Maverick intern Puseletso Nthate assisted in researching this article.

A few years back, travelling around Madagascar, I came across a giant – albeit down-at-the-heels – sports stadium in the capital city, Antananarivo. Since this construction seemed more substantial than practically every other building in the city, and because it looked nothing at all like any still-remaining examples of colonial French-style architecture that were part of the city’s heritage, the origin of the massive stadium was a bit of a puzzle.

Querying people in the area, with a mixture of French, English and even a few words of the local language, it was explained to me this structure had been a kind of “gift” from North Korea. Ah, of course. Over the years, one of the hereditary communist hermit kingdom’s more unusual activities globally has been dispatching architects, construction and mechanical engineers, and construction battalions to erect a whole panoply of modernist monstrosities, all built in a particular brutalist style, often in unlikely spots. In addition to the buildings themselves, there has also been a steady stream of those Stalinist-style-more-than-life-size heroic public art statues of presidents, freedom fighters, glorious revolutions and the like.

Beyond demonstrating the undying ties of friendship between Pyongyang and wherever such things have been placed, a key part of the equation is that these activities have also served as a valuable source of foreign exchange earnings for a regime that has become increasingly cut off from other sources of hard cash.

Pre-eminent in this construction work has been a North Korean company named Mansu Dae, with its two public art and construction wings. Mansu Dae was established nearly half a century ago, and it has become North Korea’s most visible art studio – now with business connections throughout Africa and on into Southeast Asia. It has been estimated by people who do such things that six years ago it earned around $160-million from its various overseas building monuments and memorials. In its projects it operates as a closely held company, using only North Koreans as artists, engineers, and general construction workers, rather than employing any local people for these tasks.

About 15 years ago, Namibia began issuing major construction projects to Mansu Dae. And now, there are reports that Mansu Dae both built and operated a munitions factory there. This, not surprisingly, has been described as a significant violation of UN-voted sanctions directed against North Korea by the UN staffers assigned to monitor such efforts.

Of course, this kind of eliding around the rules behaviour may also parallel reported carryings on of North Korean diplomats. For years, it was common knowledge – according to the diplomatic rumour mill – that the North Koreans financed much of the overhead costs of their embassies through some really good quality, painstaking counterfeit US dollars. There have also been allegations that drug smuggling was part of their oeuvre as well.

Over the years, in Africa, there have also been frequent allegations of the illegal exportation of products like rhino horn via the diplomatic bag. As The Guardian reported last year,

Since the mid-1970s, North Korea’s involvement in transnational organised crime – particularly drug and cigarette trafficking, weapons smuggling and the production of counterfeit US currency – has grown steadily, peaking during the severe economic crisis and famine the country faced in the early and mid-1990s.”

The Guardian went on to say,

Mozambique has become a major trading point for illegal rhino horn, much of which is being smuggled out by North Korean ‘dodgy diplomats’, a new report claims. Released by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, the report found that the corruption permeating every level of the Mozambican state – including the country’s ports, airports and borders – has made it a smuggler’s paradise.

One example cited in the report details the arrest, in Maputo in May 2015, of a North Korean diplomat and a taekwondo instructor after 4.5kg of illegal rhino horn and $100,000 was allegedly found in their vehicle. Police detained them and impounded the car. Within hours of learning of the incident, the North Korean ambassador to South Africa, Yong Man-ho, was on a flight from Johannesburg to Maputo. The two men were later released after paying a $30,000 fine and the vehicle was returned to them. It’s unclear whether illegal contents were ever seized. Diplomatic and government sources in South Africa have made similar claims, telling Global Initiative that the North Korean embassy in Pretoria is ‘actively involved in smuggling ivory and rhino horn’ and may be linked to other illegal activities.”

Similarly, at least one North Korean diplomat assigned to Pretoria was withdrawn for other dodgy circumstances. A year before The Guardian report, News24 had reported, “A high-ranking North Korean diplomat accused of abusing his diplomatic immunity and his embassy’s diplomatic bag to smuggle rhino horn out of South Africa has been expelled from the country. News24 has learnt that Park Chol-jun – also identified in some news reports as Pak Chol Chun – quietly left the country on December 11.” That is definitely not what is supposed to go into the diplomatic bag.

But let’s return to the activities of Mansu Dae. This would come with the understanding that even a so-called company in North Korea is exceedingly unlikely to be “private” in the way that term is used everywhere else, rather than effectively an arm of the state, given the government’s near-total control of industry, exports and strategic equipment, raw materials or technology.

Moreover, Defense News reported in 2016 that Mansu Dae was an uncle in the armaments business in Namibia, noting,

The Namibian government has confirmed that North Korea built an arms and ammunition factory in the African country and is in the process of executing other contracts for the construction of the country’s first military academy, military barracks and a new headquarters for the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The confirmation came a week after the government refuted the recent United Nations Panel of Experts (PoE), which found that Pyongyang has continuously violated UN Security Council sanctions imposed to protest its nuclear weapons program by providing military weapons, training and embarking on military-related construction projects in African countries, including Uganda and Namibia.

This week, Namibian Deputy Prime Minister Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah confirmed that the North Korean state-owned firm Mansu Dae Overseas Projects, through its subsidiary Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID), had indeed built a small arms and ammunition factory in the capital Windhoek. The arms and ammunition factory was completed in 2005, although the company continued doing business in Namibia until early last year.

The US Treasury defines KOMID as ‘North Korea’s primary arms dealer and main proliferation channel’ for goods and equipment related to ballistic missiles and conventional weapons. Nandi-Ndaitwah said North Korea and Namibia have a long history of military co-operation, which dates back to the struggle for independence. [Older folks may remember the work of a certain North Korean military training unit further north in Zimbabwe.]

According to the leaked UN report, Namibia also confirmed that KOMID had been contracted to implement several other multibillion-dollar government projects, including the construction of the State House, the National Heroes Acre, the Namibian Defence Force (NDF) Military Museum and the Independence Museum. However, Nandi-Ndaitwah said the Namibian government co-operated with the UN requests for information because there was nothing wrong with contracting the sanctioned North Korean company to build Namibian infrastructure and provide technical training to its armed forces.

She said the small arms and ammunition factory built by North Korea cannot be seen as a contravention of UN sanctions because all the products it manufactures are not for export but for use by Namibian security agencies. Further, Nandi-Ndaitwah said the UN sanctions are primarily aimed at North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and do not prohibit Namibia from having diplomatic or other military relations with Pyongyang.

However, Namibia’s assessment varies with the leaked UN report, which concluded that ‘the construction of any munitions factory or related military facilities is considered to be services or assistance relating to the provision, manufacture or maintenance of arms and related material and therefore, prohibited under the resolutions.’ ”

In fact, in a number of African nations, governments have been doing deals with North Korea for years, and some of these may be for more than building ostentatious, splashy buildings or more of those appalling statues. There is, obviously, a geo-political element to this. With North Korea’s continuing efforts to develop a nuclear weapon that can be fitted onto a intercontinental ballistic missile, CNN had reported, “United States and United Nations investigators are looking a lot more closely at Pyongyang’s African connection. The UN says many of the contracts are with Mansu Dae, a North Korean state-owned enterprise and a cash cow for the rogue regime.”

Despite this growing interest about Pyongyang’s efforts, things in Namibia might have remained in a kind of stalemate, with the UN quietly crying foul over sanctions violations, North Korea being mum about everything, and Namibia insisting everything was above board, save for the fact that CNN reported in-depth on this issue just the other week. CNN’s correspondent, visiting the Mansu Dae compound outside Windhoek, had found that the North Korean enterprise had purchased the site and had been carrying on rather heavy-duty work there until just a few weeks ago, with a large contingent of North Koreans living there – and even raising food in gardens inside the compound.

The Namibian government admits they had contracts with the company, but they have insisted nothing was amiss. Deputy Prime Minister Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah told CNN, “All of these were agreed before the sanctions by the UN. But when the sanctions were imposed we had to comply and then we had to cease all the contracts, we had to terminate the contracts we had with North Korea.”

But, when CNN spoke to the UN co-ordinator on North Korean sanctions, he said the UN panel hasn’t received responses from Namibia to specific queries for over a year. “It is not enough to talk in the media. It is not enough to say you have been exonerated by the UN for North Korean sanctions violations because that is not true. The panel deals with hard facts – with evidence – and this is what we have been asking for many months now,” said Hugh Griffiths, the co-ordinator of the UN Panel of Experts on North Korea, the body charged with monitoring sanctions enforcement on the country.

CNN’s correspondent went on to explain, per the UN panel, that Namibia had contracted North Korean workers and state companies to construct a munitions factory. While the Namibian government told Griffiths’ predecessor they were fully compliant with applicable UN sanctions, “In fact, at the time there was a large group of Korean workers building a munitions factory in direct violation of the resolutions. So they were being untruthful,” Giffiths noted. While the Namibian government said that work had ceased last year, local observers told CNN that didn’t appear to be the case. In fact, Namibia is not alone in having found a way to a defence relationship to the isolated Asian nation in the recent past; even nations like Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda now insist that they are in compliance with UN rules.

But according to the panel’s annual report, beyond Namibia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Tanzania and Angola have yet to reply to inquiries, according to the panel’s annual report, which came out in February. However, since the panel has no direct enforcement wing, it has sometimes been difficult to gain information from UN members. As John Park, director of the Korean Working Group at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, told CNN, “It’s a function of not being forthright and dragging your feet. All of those things give the opportunity for those types of governments to use plausible deniability.”

Still, there is some evidence the heightened scrutiny from the UN panel and elsewhere has been boxing in the North Koreans and their efforts in working across Africa. As CNN’s reporter noted, “There are circumstantial signs that that is happening. In Windhoek, the vast construction site of the new Ministry of Defence headquarters, built by North Koreans, is standing idle. The Mansu Dae industrial headquarters CNN visited outside Windhoek is also quiet.”

Beyond the Namibian government’s assertions that everything is as it should be, when Daily Maverick attempted to obtain clarifications from the North Korean Embassy in Pretoria about this cessation of work, we were unsuccessful.

However, the editor of the leading Namibian online news service, Oshili, issued an emailed comment that dismissed any concerns. In their message, Oshili said, “This week when news spread about CNN sensationalised reporting on the purported violation of UN Sanctions on North Korea by Namibia, I commented on Twitter saying as far as I am concerned as long as our government in its engagement with North Korea, if it was done transparently and without corruption save in the national interest, I would fully support our government’s bilateral relationship with North Korea.” Deciding to rub some salt into the paper cut, the editor added the counter-example that a country like Israel fails to adhere to many UN resolutions and is defended by the US, with the editor’s apparent meaning being: one’s friends are one’s friends no matter what they do.

The challenge going forward, of course, is that the US and North Korea still appear to be on a collision course over Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear ambitions and with a continuing regimen of taunts and insults. Accordingly, one might wonder if being such a close friend to North Korea right about now is the best possible bet to make.

Heretofore, it has been rather rare for the US and Namibia to find much to quarrel about. But when the Trump administration gets into a huffy “if you are not with us, you are against us” mood about Kim Jong-un’s military initiatives, someone in Washington may just possibly remember – with something approaching a frown – North Korea’s unlikely teammate in southern Africa. DM

Photo: (Left) Independence Memorial Museum in Windhoek (Photo by Wikimedia Commons); (Right) An undated file picture released by the Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of North Korea’s ruling Workers Party, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un observing a multiple-rocket launching drill at an undisclosed location in North Korea. EPA/RODONG SINMUN

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