Despite international sanctions, North Korea has found partners across Africa willing to buy arms and make defense deals, says the head of a U.N. panel of experts that investigated the transactions.

According to a U.N. report released last month, North Korea has used a number of methods to avoid detection and has forged agreements with at least seven African nations to train soldiers, build infrastructure and sell a wide range of weapons and vehicles.

The deals violate U.N. sanctions banning transactions with North Korea involving weapons or military equipment and prohibiting the hosting of any North Korean trainers or advisers.

Hugh Griffiths, coordinator of the U.N. panel monitoring sanctions on North Korea, told VOA these sanctions are being flouted in some parts of Africa.

“North Korea generates revenue by supplying arms, military equipment, surface to air missiles, radar, MANPADS [Man-portable air-defense systems], a wide variety of goods and services to African states,” he said.  “And from this they derive significant amounts of foreign currency revenue for their own programs related to weapons of mass destruction.”

But Griffiths emphasized the isolated Communist nation, which has angered world powers with nuclear tests and missile launches, is also trying to win friends in Africa through these deals.

“North Korea has always pursued its diplomacy in a twin track approach that generally has involved military cooperation or ministry aid in the form of advisors, technicians, repair services and, of course, prohibited arms and related material such as rocket launchers, rockets, old Soviet-era tanks,” he said.  “So it’s diplomacy through military cooperation.”  

Sophisticated missiles for Sudan

One of the findings of the report was that North Korea supplied Sudan with sophisticated air-to-ground missiles that use satellite guidance systems.  Two deals valued at $6.4 million were made through a front company in 2013.

Pyongyang’s main military contractor, known as the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID), has been a designated entity by the United Nations since 2009, but continues to operate through a number of front companies.  

“The Sudanese military have been criticized in the past for using barrel bombs that have targeted civilian populations in various parts of Sudan.  That’s just bombs kicked out of the back of Antonov aircraft,” Griffiths said.  “But what our report shows is that the North Koreans have been supplying far more sophisticated air-to-ground guided missiles that use GPS, satellite guidance systems and that those are being constructed and sent to Sudan together with longer-range ground-to-ground missiles as well.”

Griffiths said, “Sudan had never been documented before as a North Korean customer, but now they have and that’s a very serious matter.”

According to the report, Sudan did not respond to the panel’s inquiries about the deals.

Other sales documented in the report span the continent.  North Korea shipped automatic pistols and other small arms to the Democratic Republic of the Congo where they were issued to the Presidential Guard and other special units.

In Mozambique, it signed a $6 million contract to supply surface-to-air missiles, radar and anti-tank armaments.  North Koreans worked there at a munitions factory that later exploded.

Mozambique has not commented on the contract but Mozambican President Filipe Jacinto Nyusi condemned North Korea’s nuclear tests and missile launches during a visit to Japan.  In a joint statement, Nyusi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged North Korea to “refrain from any provocation and fully comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions and other international commitments.”

In Angola, North Korea has trained the presidential guard in martial arts.  

In Namibia, it worked on a project to build a munitions plant using North Korean laborers and components.  The project began in 2010, but was discontinued in 2015, according to the report.  The United Nations alleges North Korea used its construction company known as Mansudae Overseas Projects, which primarily builds statues and monuments, as a front for the military work in Namibia.

“It’s quite important for African member states to be aware of not only what has been banned most recently, but also the ways in which companies such as Mansudae operate on behalf of U.N. designated entities such as KOMID under-the-radar to participate in prohibited activities,” Griffiths said.

In June 2016, Namibia announced it had ceased dealings with both North Korean companies in order to be compliant with U.N. sanctions.

Shining a light on violations

The U.N. report found that Africa has the worst rate of nations reporting compliance with U.N. sanctions on North Korea, 11 of 54 countries.

“This is not very high on the list of priorities for those countries and it is common for African countries and many other states in the world are not giving high priority to reporting to sanction regimes or any other United Nations arms control related activities,” said Pieter Wezeman, senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) Arms and Military Expenditure Programme.

Wezeman said the temptation for African countries to do business with North Korea is great because of the cheap cost, longstanding relations and even the country’s status as an outlaw could be appealing.

Some countries like Eritrea are under sanctions themselves and unable to purchase weapons on the open market.  Other countries do not know the rules.


“It may simply be the fact that those people who are responsible for the acquisition of arms in the African countries, which we are talking about, are simply not really aware and willing to become aware either of the international rules when it comes to arms procurement and of the stipulations of the U.N. arms embargoes,” Wezeman said.  

But the unwanted spotlight given by reports like this to African countries may change that.

“It attracts international attention and there are plenty of other member states whom they can legitimately buy weapons [from] providing they are not under sanctions themselves,” he says.  “The truth of the matter is that African member states can get all the weapons that they need from other countries.”

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