North Korea has operated various aid projects in West Africa since the independence period of the early 1960s. In 1997, I visited a juche demonstration farm in a remote corner in Ghana which was supposed to be teaching the local peasants the juche technique for growing corn, the essence of which seemed to be to put a single seed in the planting mound, not several seeds as is the conventional technique. (If the irony of the people who were in the midst of a catastrophic famine teaching people with no recorded history of famine how to grow corn had occurred to the North Koreans, they weren’t letting on.) Yet I suspect few of us knew that North Korean doctors were in Nigeria until reports emerged that three had been killed, with suspicion falling on the group Boko Haram (“Western education is forbidden.”)
For whatever reason, a number of groups which preach a return to Islam as they imagine it practiced in the 7th century seem to have sprung up in the Sahel. (Someone from the CIA once told me that they had counted hundreds of such sects.) One such group that I encountered in Mali (unfortunately I cannot remember what they called themselves) struck me as a sort of Islamic Amish—they didn’t use electricity and other modern conveniences and seemed to just want to stick to themselves, living peacefully. But tensions were rising with other local residents (also Muslim) who said that this group had migrated from Nigeria, and were now encroaching on their space. Needless to say, things have taken a turn for the worse in northern Mali since I was there in 2004.
Islamic Amish, Boko Haram are not. The militant group has carried out numerous acts of violence, including car bombings, suicide bombings, and assassinations aimed at the Nigerian government, fellow Muslims whom they regard as apostates, Christians, and most recently health care workers, particularly those involved in vaccination campaigns. (Around the same time the North Koreans were being killed, nine female Nigerian health care workers were also murdered.) If it turns out that Boko Haram was indeed behind these murders, it is likely that the victims were targeted because they were non-Muslim heath care workers, not North Koreans. One thing that struck me as a little odd, is that some of the news stories reported that their spouses were spared, and if these were indeed North Korean aid workers, I am a little surprised that their spouses were permitted to travel with them.
In fact, there was initial confusion as to the nationality of the murder victims with them variously described as North Korean, South Korean or Chinese (sometimes within the same report). In some sense this is not surprising—Africans can get a little hazy when distinguishing among Asian nationalities. Back in ’97, when I was asking directions to the juche demonstration farm, the local peasants referred to the North Koreans as “Chinamen,” a term used colloquially to encompass all East Asians. (So much for juche soft power diplomacy.)
All one can do is express condolences to North Korea, or wherever these guys were from. Whatever one thinks of their government, no one deserves the fate that these doctors met.