How Africa can help North Korea evade sanctions

As missile tests and alleged political assassinations deepen international concern about North Korea, the rogue nation may turn to the world's second-largest continent for help.

"In recent years, North Korea has sought to increase its trade relationship with Africa, both as a sanctions evasion technique since African enforcement tends to be lax, and as a way of reducing the country's enormous dependence on China," said Marcus Noland, executive vice president and director of studies, at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in a Tuesday note.

The national football teams of North Korea and Ghana at a quarter final match during the Women's 2016 FIFA World Cup in Jordan.
Steve Bardens-FIFA / FIFA via Getty Images

Indeed, an Africa pivot may be the only option left for the country officially known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) as Beijing—its traditional ally—increasingly distances itself from the decades-old bilateral relationship amid international pressure.

Following North Korea's sixth nuclear test over the weekend, the United Nations (UN) warned its members to "redouble efforts" to enforce existing sanctions against the pariah state but refrained from meting out new punishment. In November, the UN cut one of Pyongyang's major income sources, coal exports, in response to a nuclear detonation in September.

It may be surprising to some but Pyongyang has long fostered diplomatic, economic and military relations with various African countries, which have thrived even after the widespread international condemnation that followed North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006.

From 2007 to 2015, the value of annual trade activities between African states and the DPRK amounted to $216.5 million, higher than the average $90 million recorded from 1998 to 2006, according to a November report by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), a Pretoria-headquartered think tank associated with the UN.

Because only seven African countries, or 13 percent of African Union members, have participated in the implementation of UN sanctions, North Korea may deliberately target African countries as a circumvention strategy, Noland warned.

North Korea's master plan
North Korea's master plan

A friendship rooted in socialism

North Korea's ties with Africa date back to the 1970s, when the hermit nation participated in various cultural exchanges across the continent, establishing study groups and research institutes based on its state ideology of self-reliance, known as Juche, the ISS report explained.

At the time, several African governments admired Pyongyang's brand of socialist modernity, and the the relationship was sweetened by the offer of free education for African students in North Korea during the 1980s, the report added.

More recently, Pyongyang has built arms factories in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Madagascar and Uganda; it's also been contracted to construct military sites in Namibia , the report said. Police training and leadership-protection courses provided by North Korea have also been popular across the continent, including Benin, Mozambique, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe.

Pyongyang has also sold ballistic-missile manufacturing lines to Egypt and Libya, while South Africa intercepted a shipment of weapons from North Korea bound for the Congo in 2009, the ISS said.

A UN report in Feb. 2016 indicated Pyongyang was still exporting ballistic missile-related items to the Middle East and Africa.

"Many African states are not fully aware of the nature of the North Korean state," the ISS warned, explaining that media stories detailing humanitarian challenges in North Korea simply weren't highlighted in African press.

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