Africa As A Source of Sanctions Evasion

Marcus Noland (PIIE)



There are reports out this morning that Kim Jong-nam has been assassinated in Malaysia. Setting aside the possibilities of unpaid gambling debts or jealous girlfriends, the speculation is that little brother Jong-un wasn’t taking any chances and ordered a hit. Beijing reputedly had told Pyongyang that Jong-nam couldn’t be touched in China, but that protection did not extend to Malaysia it seems.

Anyway, while that story is getting sorted out, let’s turn to a longer-term issue. North and South Korea are in an intensifying contest for influence in Africa (see posts here, here, and here, for example). Sandra Fahy passed along an interesting new report by the Institute for Security Studies, an Africa-based NGO, focusing on the possibility of North Korean sanctions evasion via trade with Africa.

North Korea has maintained some durable diplomatic relations in Africa, partly due to the legacy of its support for liberation movements during the period of decolonization. The country has attempted to reinforce those relationships, via soft power (don’t laugh), mainly in the form of juche study groups, aid and technical assistance (in Ghana, I once visited a juche demonstration farm, and on a more somber note, North Korean doctors have been killed by Boko Haram in Nigeria), and educational and cultural exchanges.

But the most intense relationship has been through military and police cooperation. North Korea has provided both hardware and training services, and even has constructed munitions factories in several African countries. At times, it has intervened directly, supplying troops to shore up allied regimes. 

Non-military trade and investment with Africa has been modest (with the exception of the Egyptian firm Orascom’s investment in North Korea). But 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.

Those two forces—a history of military cooperation and a desire to increase trade with Africa—bring the continent’s relationship with North Korea into increasing conflict with tightening UN sanctions. As the report, authored by Annie DuPre, Nicolas Kasprzyk, and Noël Stott, points out, most African states have refrained from directly criticizing North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, and only seven African UN member states (13 percent of those eligible) have submitted National Implementation Reports on sanctions enforcement to the UNSC as required. And apart from not submitting their homework, African countries generally need technical assistance on customs administration, particularly on identifying prohibited items. The inference is that North Korea may deliberately target African countries as a circumvention strategy.

“Those two forces—a history of military cooperation and a desire to increase trade with Africa—bring the continent’s relationship with North Korea into increasing conflict with tightening UN sanctions.”

The report uses the standard UN COMTRADE data to examine in detail North Korea’s trade relations with Africa. The challenge is that there is a well-known history of this data containing errors, generally relating to countries’ statistical authorities confusing North and South Korea in reporting. In the past countries such as Austria, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and Lebanon have made this mistake. Because North Korea’s trade volumes are low (and particularly small compared to South Korea) one misclassification could lead to really erroneous results, especially with respect to the commodity composition of trade. (One year, for example, it appeared that Mexico had suddenly began importing cars and cell phones from North Korea!) KOTRA tries to scrub the data, and for this reason a lot of analysts use it rather than the raw un-scrubbed COMTRADE data, but I am not sure that even KOTRA is carefully combing through the data reported by small African countries.

This is not all theoretical: according to the report there was a huge spike in North Korean trade with Africa in 2013.  When one starts to drill down, it appears that this increase was due almost entirely to exports of oil from Egypt to North Korea. Egypt exports oil and it is possible that in 2013 it exported $200 million of oil to North Korea that year (though not in the previous or following years). But seeing such spikes makes me wonder if the data are accurate or if something else is going on.

The misreporting issue may be acute when it comes to the arms trade since there are all kinds of incentives to misreport. So, for example, the report states that between 1995 and 2015 Ethiopia only reported $365,000 of arms imports from North Korea (in 2005). But it was widely reported that in 2007, in connection with its military incursion into Somalia to fight al-Shabab, the US turned a blind eye to a deal with North Korea to resupply parts for Ethiopia’s Soviet-era equipment.

The report makes a number of useful policy recommendations:

“• Including sanctions on the agenda of the annual consultations between the UN Security Council and the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC)

• Supporting the PSC in its efforts to operationalise its long-awaited subsidiary sanctions committee

• Offering specialised military teaching and training services, to undercut North Korea’s status as a favoured service provider in this area

• Training customs officials and professionals in the transportation industry in order to develop the capacity of African states to conduct cargo inspections and enforce travel bans

• Developing African initiatives to address the issues of the Korean Peninsula in a holistic manner and that support a negotiated solution to achieve the peaceful denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula

• Enhancing Africa’s socio-economic development through sustainable trade and aid programmes

• Undertaking systematic and sustained awareness-raising activities among the African elite and populace (in particular in those countries that have strong bilateral relations with the DPRK) on the socio-political and economic conditions under which North Korea’s citizens live.”

In short, it is an informative, sensible report, though it perhaps attaches excessive credulity to published international trade data.    

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