North Korea is losing its friends in Africa

On his own.
On his own.
Image: Reuters/Damir Sagolj
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African countries are distancing themselves from an old partner.

Sudan has reportedly cut off ties with North Korea, the result of negotiations with the United States over lifting sanctions on Khartoum, officials told the Financial Times. That follows Uganda, which announced the end of ties with Pyongyang last year and kicked out North Korean military trainers teaching martial arts and acrobats last month. Botswana ended ties in 2014, stating it could not support a government with such “total disregard for the human rights of its citizens.”

For the better part of the last 70 years, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has been wooing African states. After its founding in 1948, North Korea sought international recognition and allies in the Cold War, supporting liberation movements in Zimbabwe and Angola. Since being placed under international sanctions in 2006, Pyongyang has depended even more on its African partners for hard currency as well as a way out from complete international isolation.

Today, North Korea imports everything from frozen fish and vegetables to scrap iron from Africa while exporting refined petroleum, telephones, and packaged medicine, according to data from the Observatory of Economic Complexity, part of MIT’s Media Lab.

The Mansudae Overseas Projects, a North Korean monument building factory has built statues in Botswana, Senegal,  Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Congo.

Botswana’s Three Dikgosi Monument, built by the North Korean firm Mansudae in 2005.
Botswana’s Three Dikgosi Monument, built by the North Korean firm Mansudae in 2005.
Image: CC/US Army Africa

North Korean arms factories can be found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Ethiopia, Madagascar, and Namibia. According to a UN report last year, Sudan had bought air-to-ground missiles worth $6.4 million from North Korea’s main military contractor.

North Korea may soon lose some of these friends. Eleven African countries are currently under investigation by the UN for violating sanctions and buying arms from Pyongyang. The US is calling for tougher sanctions as well as limiting the country’s foreign engagement.

Even before North Korea’s recent ballistic missile tests, trade between North Korea and Africa had diminished. Trade averaged about $110 million a year, between 2011 and 2015, according to data from the World Customs Organization. Trade was higher at $337 million a year between 2007 and 2010.

Trade and military ties will likely continue under the radar. After being accused of violating international sanctions last year, Namibia last year said it would cut off commercial ties but maintain “warm diplomatic relations” with North Korea. North Korean workers were still there as of June, building the country’s new Ministry of Defense.