Madame Park Goes to Africa


In this bidding war, the victor is preordained.



In May 2002, US Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill arrived in Uganda’s capital Kampala ready to dispense aid. His sidekick, rock star Bono, was peddling debt relief. The pair got an earful from Uganda President Yoweri Musaveni. After explaining to the American politician that a large infusion of aid could trigger a Dutch disease appreciation of the Ugandan currency crippling the economy, Musaveni told the Irish singer that debt relief could be helpful, but only if it were accompanied by expanded access to international markets—the kind of access that powered the South Korean development drive beginning in the 1960s. Channeling Park Chung-hee, the Ugandan leader observed that “The market has to be the decisive arm of the economy, but the government has to be stimulative and assistive.” 

I was reminded of this episode during President Park Geun-hye’s recent visit to Africa—while Uganda and other African countries may have maintained relationships with North Korea, it is South Korea’s development model that has long beckoned. Several years ago, in an earlier meeting with Park, Museveni even expressed interest in her father’s Saemaeul (“New Village”) Movement, South Korea’s 1970s-era plan to revitalize its rural economy, which Seoul has been trying to export to Africa.

Park was criticized in some South Korean quarters for going on the trip at all. She had apparently passed up some special honorary guest invitation to attend the G7 summit in Ise-Shima, Japan, to visit Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya. But once she arrived, the significance of the trip became apparent. Due to historical circumstances, North Korea had maintained vestigial arms sales and training relationships in Ethiopia and Uganda. Now by offering to increase cooperation in the military and defense sectors, and backed up by UNSCR 2270, which now bans the export by North Korea of all weapons and military services, the goal was to displace North Korean influence in East Africa, and further tighten the noose around the Kim Jong-un regime.

North Korea has a long and convoluted relationship with Ethiopia. The Emperor Haile Selassie sent a sizable contingent of Ethiopian soldiers to support South Korea as part of the UN forces in the Korean War. But he was overthrown by the Soviet-allied Derg, and Ethiopia switched allegiances from Seoul to Pyongyang. In time, North Korea came to supply both material and personnel to the Derg in its unsuccessful effort to retain power in the face of an uprising by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. Once in power, the new EPRDF government maintained the military relationship with North Korea insofar as both it and the Derg had used Soviet origin weaponry in their fight, and the new government needed the North Koreans to supply spare parts and training for the military equipment it had inherited from the losing side. Later, during Ethiopia’s intervention against the al-Qaeda allied al-Shabab in Somalia’s civil war, the US turned a blind eye toward a shipment of North Korean military supplies to replenish the Ethiopian forces.

Needless to say, with Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and the Sudan in the mix, the geopolitics of the Horn of Africa are exceedingly complex, and no major announcements on the defense cooperation issue emanated from Ethiopia. Nevertheless, UNSCR 2270 is an irritant that Ethiopia does not need, and if South Korea is willing to take up the slack, one might expect the EPRDF regime to make the appropriate switchover.

Things were more out in the open in Uganda where Musaveni is still in power. North Korea and Uganda had long cooperated in the military sphere. Somewhat similar to the case of Ethiopia, since the 1960s, successive Ugandan regimes, faced with the prospect of armed insurrections, maintained the North Korean connection as a means of bolstering internal security. But Musaveni appears to have been trying to slowly distance himself: a year ago he declined to personally accept the Kim Il Sung Prize created to “Promote countries that fought vigorously to actualize Juche ideology and who are dedicated to world peace.”  

While North Korea may retain some connections among world-class rogues like the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, and oil producers who at times appear to be immune from outside pressure (though at $50 per barrel, even Malabo may be having second thoughts), the Africans are not stupid.

After some initial confusion over the specifics of the agreement between South Korean and Uganda, the Ugandans confirmed that pursuant to UNSCR 2270, they were severing military relations with North Korea while maintaining diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. South Korea announced that it would commence shipping police and military supplies and initiate training efforts, along with expanded cooperation in a wide range of fields focusing on economic development. Musaveni was polite about it: KCNA announced last week that he had sent the ritual congratulatory message upon Kim Jong-un’s appointment as head of the Korean Workers Party. Right. Sort of like telling your girlfriend after you’ve dumped her, “We can still be friends.”

President Park’s last stop was Kenya, which unlike Ethiopia and Uganda, does not have a history of significant cooperation in the military sphere with North Korea. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta dutifully condemned North Korea’s provocations and pledged to faithfully implement UNSCR 2270. President Park observed that South Korea had become an aid donor, that South Korean firms were deeply involved in massive Kenyan infrastructure projects and were eager to do more, and committed South Korea to constructing a large KIC-like industrial park. Subject to rules of origin requirements, products such as textiles and apparel produced in the zone would be eligible for duty-free access to the US market under the African Growth and Opportunity Act. 

In the meantime, while President Park was addressing a session of the continent-wide Africa Union in Addis Ababa, North Korea’s 88-year old Supreme People’s Assembly President was in Equatorial Guinea. Then he went home. The two itineraries pretty much say it all. An ersatz bidding war reminiscent of the China-Taiwan competition for diplomatic recognition is playing out between Seoul and Pyongyang in sub-Saharan Africa (and Iran, and Cuba) as Seoul methodically attempts to pick off North Korea’s historic allies. On the one hand the premier development success story of the last half century is offering to expand economic development programs and open up cooperation in the defense sphere if its partners will just implement UNSCR 2270; on the other, an increasingly isolated regime is offering cheap arms from yesteryear and the diplomatic equivalent of mercenaries. While North Korea may retain some connections among world-class rogues like the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe, and oil producers who at times appear to be immune from outside pressure (though at $50 per barrel, even Malabo may be having second thoughts), the Africans are not stupid. In the end, South Korea simply has more to offer. 

On to Cuba.

(Well, before heading to Cuba, let’s listen to Teddy Osei butcher Swahili. But what a groove.)  

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