North Korea’s haughtiness may be 10,000km away from Nairobi, but Africa’s rich resources may be aiding its latest nuclear weapons scorpion show.
After its failed nuclear launch on Sunday, the country’s national propaganda newspaper Rodong Sinmun boasted of readiness to crash the US.
“The DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is sure of its final victory in its showdown with the US. The Korean War in the 20th century brought about the beginning of a downhill turn for the US but the one in the 21st century will end in the final doom of the US,” the paper wrote, referring to the war in the 1950s in which it invaded South Korea
“The foolhardy manoeuvers of the puppet forces are reminiscent of a puppy knowing no fear of the tiger,” it said.
Yet, North Korea’s economy is 600 times smaller than that of the US and its diplomats around the world have been seen shopping for second-hand clothes, failing to pay rent or dealing in contraband.
With little information about its economy, the CIA World Fact Book says the country is one of the least open economies in the world with “chronic economic problems.”
“Industrial capital stock is nearly beyond repair as a result of years of underinvestment, shortages of spare parts, and poor maintenance,” says the CIA.
“Large-scale military spending draws off resources needed for investment and civilian consumption. Industrial and power outputs have stagnated for years at a fraction of pre-1990 levels,” CIA adds.
Pyongyang has not published economic data since the 1970s, but the World Bank estimates that its economy is worth $30 billion, 2.2 per cent the size of its liberal neighbour South Korea. That means Kenya’s economy is two times that of North Korea.
So where does this hermit kingdom, mostly isolated from the world, get the money to build these humongous nuclear warheads? Countries like Kenya are still struggling to tap nuclear energy for power generation alone.
The answer may lie in Africa. A recent report by the South African Institute of Security Studies (ISS) says despite international isolation coupled with UN sanctions, North Korea has continued to enjoy covert trade links with African countries.
This often involves smuggled goods, poaching and illegal weapon deals, which in turn enriches the government in Pyongyang.
“Africa’s increasing trade activities with the DPRK after 2006 may be a sign that the Pyongyang regime is trying to diversify its economic partnerships to reduce its dependency on China,” says the report on cooperation between African states and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“Overall, of cases involving diplomats, North Korean embassy officials have been implicated in 16 of 29 cases of rhino horn and ivory trade. In these illicit activities, ‘driven by economic necessity and justified with ideological veneer’, North Korea’s embassies appear to play a key role,” reveals the report.
North Korean diplomats smuggle banned wildlife products and launder money using diplomatic bags which are normally exempted from security searches.
A report by the Global Initiatives, a Swiss anti-organised crime watchdog last year, said North Korean diplomats in Africa were arrested ferrying rhino horn and huge sums of cash.
The report suggested that illicit activities sustain diplomats abroad, but Pyongyang still taxes certain amounts, often half of it.
In February this year, a UN Panel of Experts reported to the Security Council that the country continues to trade in arms and related material, exploiting markets and procurement services in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
“The regime’s ongoing violations of United Nations resolutions continued to deepen its international isolation, with the exception of several traditional relationships with countries in Asia and Africa,” the report says.
The UN has imposed sanctions gradually on North Korea since 2006 in a bid to discourage its nuclear arms race. But somehow, it has beaten those blockades.
The sanctions require all UN members to implement them. But less than a dozen African countries have even submitted reports to the UN about implementation.
In recent times, countries like Kenya and Botswana formally condemned the nuclear tests, with the latter formally terminating any diplomatic relations.
But neighbours like Uganda, Congo-Brazzaville, Namibia, Ethiopia, Congo-Kinshasa and Madagascar have continued to enjoy military relations with North Korea.
In Uganda, one of the few countries on the continent where Pyongyang has an embassy, North Koreans trained police officers there.
In Namibia, they were contracted to build a military site. In the DRC and Ethiopia, they helped build arms factories there.
ISS says that from 2007 to 2015 the value of trade activities between African states and the DPRK amounted to an average S$216.5 million per year, against an average $90 million per year from 1998 to 2006.
North Korea poor with wealth of nuclear weapons?
- Engulfed by economic sanctions, the North Korean economy can only generate $3.2 billion, often in deficit with what it needs to run its affairs.
- The ruling Workers’ Party, the Korean People’s Army and members of the cabinet run almost every enterprise in the country where they often compete among themselves and routinely determine levels of production from ordinary citizens.
- The 2017 World Economic Freedom Index ranks it at 180, and calls it the most “repressed economy.”
- The CIA says North Korea’s exports are mainly minerals, metallurgical products, textiles, weapons and some manufactured products.
- But the UN has imposed sanctions against normal trade with North Korea with exceptions.
- North Korea often traffics its own citizens to forced labour and sex abroad, where it then taxes them for revenues, says the State Department.
- Sometimes government officials engage in drug trafficking to earn foreign exchange.