Countries in southern and east Africa are buying missiles and other arms from North Korea despite UN sanctions following that country's nuclear tests in 2006. Picture: Wong Maye-E/AP

Buying weapons in violation of the UN embargo from the hermit kingdom is funding its nuclear programme, writes Shannon Ebrahim.

As editors, we sometimes wonder whether readers in southern Africa really care that much about North Korea’s nuclear tests on the other side of the world, as on the surface it has very little to do with our daily realities.

But a new report by the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) has brought some of the culpability for North Korea’s verbosity to our doorstep. The report outlines how a number of southern and east African countries are actually providing the necessary revenue to North Korea to enable it to fund its nuclear programme. That seems impossible, but it is true.

Despite the fact that North Koreans are starving, its government manages to come up with between $1.1 billion (R17bn) and US$3.2bn annually to spend on its nuclear programme, according to South Korean estimates. While it does make use of home-grown technology and free labour, it still needs to import parts, and paying for those parts is not easy.

The regime of Kim Jong-Un has become increasingly reliant on its east and southern African consumers of North Korean weapons and weapons-related goods and services in order to fund its nuclear programme, at a time when other global consumers have dried up.

Countries like Libya, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates reduced or ceased their military trade with North Korea over a decade ago due to American pressure and the imposition of the UN Security Council arms embargo of 2009, which was expanded to include a ban on all imports of North Korean arms and related materiel and services.

The aim of the UN embargo is to disrupt North Korea’s proliferation network, and to reduce revenue sources for its nuclear and missile programmes, given that its domestic coffers are largely filled by overseas arms sales.

But it is countries within sub-Saharan Africa that have chosen to flout the UN arms embargo and continue to procure North Korean technology, training and weapons systems. Despite being exposed, many refuse to be shamed out of their contracts with the hermit kingdom.

This is not out of any ideological affinity with the Kim regime, but rather out of a desire to procure inexpensive weaponry and training, and to utilise North Korea’s ability to repair and refurbish ageing weapons systems. The fact that the continued flow of foreign currency back to North Korea is enabling the regime to continue its aggressive behaviour, which has resulted in its fourth nuclear test carried out just recently, is lost on our continental compatriots.

Uganda is probably the most notable culprit, and President Yoweri Museveni has no intention of dumping his North Korean suppliers any time soon. After all, they supplied his predecessors, Idi Amin and Milton Abote, and Museveni’s own police force has largely been trained by North Korean instructors.

In 2014, 700 Ugandan police officers were trained by North Korea. A year later, the report of the UN Panel of Experts on North Korea stated that the training of police forces by North Korea is illegal, but the training in Uganda continues.

North Korea has a vast catalogue to offer its African buyers, including complete off-the-shelf weapons systems, spare parts for systems and infrastructure, weapons design and technology, whole arms manufacturing lines, repair, maintenance and upgrade services, as well as military training. The country has 54 factories producing conventional arms and since 1996 has been selling weapons manufacturing technology.

What North Korea has in effect provided African states with is the ability to establish indigenous defence-industrial capabilities. Kampala has prioritised the creation of a domestic arms-manufacturing capability to reduce its dependence on outside suppliers.

But it is not just Uganda. Zimbabwe has joined Uganda in utilising North Korean training in homeland security, intelligence operations and reconnaissance, and combat engineering. In the early 1980s, it was North Korea that trained President Mugabe’s elite combat unit, the Fifth Brigade, which, shortly after training, committed the infamous atrocities in Matabeleland.

Nigeria still pays for its army personnel to attend courses in leadership protection in North Korea, and the armed forces of the DRC have long received training from North Korea, including the Presidential Guard Brigade. North Korea was involved in the construction and operation of an ammunition production facility at Likasi in the DRC, which produces ammunition and explosives.

Even Ethiopia continues to court North Korean assistance to keep its ageing weapons systems operational and to provide tank parts and munitions components. Tanzania, which had engaged North Korean military technicians to refurbish its fighter jets, has now ended this relationship following heavy criticism and allegedly expelled North Korean technicians.

While a nuclear conflagration on the Korean peninsula may not directly affect us, we must accept some culpability within the AU that our member states are financially empowering North Korea through their continued violations of the UN arms embargo.

* Ebrahim is the foreign editor of Independent Media.

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