For several years now, the sight of North Korean construction labourers working in Namibia’s capital, Windhoek, has been a common one. This is no surprise given that over the last few decades, Mansudae, a North Korean company that does business across Africa, has built some of the country’s most prominent government projects. Amongst many others, these have included Windhoek’s massive new state house and towering independence museum.
However, as normal as their presence has become, allegations have emerged suggesting these North Korean workers should never have been in Namibia in the first place. In February, a Panel of Experts convened by the UN suggested that Namibia’s dealings with Mansudae violated UN sanctions on North Korea.
Several activities have come under suspicion. For instance, the UN sanctions specifically prohibit member-states from receiving “assistance relating to the provision, manufacture or maintenance of arms and related materiel”. Yet Mansudae assisted in the construction of a munitions factory at Leopard Valley, close to Windhoek. It built a new military academy as well as the headquarters for the Ministry of Defence. And it was involved in unspecified construction at the Suiderhof military base.
Aside from specific projects, the UN panel also questioned the relationship between Namibia and Mansudae, and raised the possibility that Mansudae acted as a front for the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID). KOMID, an organisation that has been described as North Korea’s “premier arms dealer”, is explicitly covered under sanctions.
Mansudae’s activities in Namibia have thus come under scrutiny recently – perhaps drawing particular concern as Namibia is one of the biggest producers of uranium in the world, while North Korea is a nation intent on expanding its nuclear capabilities – but they are far from unique.
In fact, they follow a pattern of North Korean behaviour that stretches across the continent. As Pyongyang has become increasingly isolated by sanctions over the past decades, it has engaged in a series of deals with African nations – including Ethiopia,Uganda, and the Republic of Congo – that has seen it supply military hardware and expertise in exchange for the hard currencies it so desperately needs.
Links with Namibia opened up during the southern African nation’s armed struggle for independence, when Pyongyang supported the military wing of the former national liberation movement and now ruling party, SWAPO. And the ongoing ties have been helped by the fact Namibia’s foreign policy is founded on the idea that “Namibia is a friend to all and enemy to none”, a mantra that has led to a voting record at the UN characterised by abstentions more than anything else – including on votes to condemnNorth Korean human rights violations.
When news of North Korean involvement in military projects splashed across Namibia’s front pages in March, the government scrambled to put together a response, though in the first few days, senior officials seemed confused about the issue at hand as ministers contradicted one another’s statements.
In one particularly bizarre incident, two Japanese journalists reporting on the issue were reportedly detained at the airport and their footage confiscated. The Minister of Information and Communication Technology denied this was the case, however, and claimed the journalists had been filming naked Korean labourers taking baths outside their compounds.
Soon though, officials began responding in tandem, stressing Namibia and North Korea’s long-standing relationship and emphasising that the UN sanctions still left room for legitimate forms of cooperation. The government repeated the answer it had given the UN Panel of Experts in professing not to know of any links between Mansudae and KOMID. And though admitting Mansudae had constructed the munitions factory outside Windhoek, it claimed that work was completed in 2005, before new UN sanctions forbidding such a project came into force.
The UN panel, however, procured Mansudae documents advertising the construction of a “Research Centre” at Leopard Valley in 2010, while satellite images showed that construction at the base continued until 2014.
The whole episode cast the Namibian diplomatic corps in a rather unflattering light. Whether at the UN office in New York or back in Windhoek, someone was either deliberately taking a decision to violate sanctions or was asleep at the wheel.
According to nuclear proliferation expert Andrea Berger, the government’s claim that it did not know of Mansudae’s KOMID links and did not think these activities risked violating sanctions “puts Namibia somewhere on the spectrum between naiveté and disingenuous cooperation”.
“Awarding defence contracts allegedly valued at N$5 billion ($335 million) to a North Korean company and assuming that North Korea’s primary military contractor overseas (KOMID) would not be involved is, at a minimum, enormously ignorant,” she said.
Exposed so publicly, and with talk of possible UN sanctions in the air, the Namibian government has had to make amends. In April, President Hage Geingob led a high-powered delegation to New York to explain Namibia’s actions to the UN. And while there was never an official admission that sanctions had been violated, Namibia decided to terminate Mansudae’s current projects and ask them to leave.
This looked like a distancing of relations, but it was notable that Namibia decided to break this news to North Korea with an official state visit by the Deputy Prime Minister this June – a move that hardly looked like the cutting of diplomatic ties. Indeed, a statement released upon the minister’s return, assured: “while Namibia remains committed to the implementation of all UN sanctions resolutions…the warm diplomatic relations with the DPRK [the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] will be maintained.”
North Korea surely hopes so. As sanctions tighten, the country is increasingly desperate to maintain the flow of currency from their African deals. Yet just a couple of years ago,Botswana cut diplomatic ties entirely, and Pyongyang will be concerned that what happened in Namibia might lead other African states to distance themselves too.
However, North Korea won’t have lost hope from recent events completely. Pyongyang has a lot of experience in exploiting sanctions loopholes and finding ways of maintaining ties without technically breaking the rules. And given Namibia’s foreign policy and long-standing ties with North Korea, it seems unlikely they will follow Botswana’s example.
Furthermore, Pyongyang will be taking heart from the fact that after explaining Mansudae would have to leave the country, the Namibian government later added that they would in fact stay on for few more months. Renovations at the State House had recently begun and, as a minister explained, “we do not want them to leave the renovations hanging just like that”.
You don’t leave old friends hanging just like that either, and it appears there is business left between these two old partners. What shape it takes remains to be seen, but the story of Namibia and North Korea’s relationship is not over just yet.