The US is stepping up pressure on African states to cut longstanding military and diplomatic ties with North Korea as part of its push to squeeze the funding of Kim Jong Un’s nuclear missile programme.
US officials want African countries to expel North Korean workers and diplomats, alleging that Pyongyang’s 13 embassies on the continent double up as “profit making centres”.
Washington says Pyongyang, which is seeking to develop nuclear missiles that can hit American cities, is using its military co-operation and arms deals with African states to obtain precious foreign currency.
It also accuses some of the several thousand North Koreans believed to be living in Africa, including diplomats, of trafficking wildlife parts, such as rhino horn, another relatively easy source of foreign currency.
US officials estimate that Pyongyang makes at least $100m through the supply of arms, military training, construction contracts and smuggling.
Peter Pham, head of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center in Washington, said that, although it might seem like “chump change”, it was “a fairly significant sum to the regime given the overall squeeze on its finances.” It was roughly 3-5 per cent of Pyongyang’s total annual foreign exchange earnings, he said.
Last September, a UN panel of experts identified 11 African countries — Angola, Benin, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe — as having suspected military ties to Pyongyang.
Some African countries, including Sudan, which the US lists as a sponsor of terrorism, have responded to Washington’s demands in an effort to curry favour and extract concessions.
Last October, after Khartoum committed itself to downgrading North Korea ties, the US eased some sanctions.
Namibia also initiated steps to cut military ties. But other countries, say experts, are either resisting or quietly ignoring US pressure.
“There are things that African states can get from North Korea that they’re not going to get from anywhere else,” said Daragh Neville, an expert on Africa-North Korea ties at Chatham House, a UK think-tank.
North Koreans were among the few countries able to maintain and upgrade Soviet-era military equipment cheaply, he said.
Eritrea, an isolated state in the Horn of Africa, has refused to supply information to the UN on its North Korean links.
Other countries, including Mozambique, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where North Koreans are said to help train Joseph Kabila’s presidential guard, have taken a more ambiguous approach.
Some have said they will co-operate but have been slow to provide information, let alone act, according to officials.
Even some of supposed US allies, including South Africa, where Pyongyang has an embassy and which the US considers a hub of North Korea’s arms trade, have been slow to respond to Washington’s demands.
“South Africa has not given us a clear answer” on its policy, said Robert Scott, the state department’s acting deputy assistant secretary for Africa.
Many African states, including Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, have maintained close ties with North Korea since the cold war, when Pyongyang offered material and ideological support to black liberation movements.
In Maputo, Mozambique’s capital, for example, one of the main thoroughfares is named after Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea.
Construction company Mansudae Overseas Projects Group, which is subject to sanctions by both the US and UN, has erected dozens of monuments and buildings across Africa, including Namibia’s state house and official presidential residence in Windhoek.
US officials believe Mansudae continues to employ North Korean labourers throughout the continent.
Since September, when President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13810, the US has been able to threaten any individual or company with a ban on business in the US if they deal with North Korea, ratcheting up the pressure.
Grant Harris, an adviser on Africa to Barack Obama as president, said Washington needed to offer economic and security incentives, as well as threats, if governments were to “discard longstanding ties with North Korea”.
Mr Trump has alienated some African leaders with his comment on “shithole” countries.
Mr Neville of Chatham House said African states had more to gain and less to lose than others from dealing with Pyongyang. “The threat of North Korea is to the US, Japan and South Korea,” he said. “It’s not threatening to bomb Kinshasa or Addis.”