As relations get hotter between the United States and North Korea, U.S. officials say they are trying to cut off Pyongyang's income sources any way they can, especially on the African continent.
The U.S. argues that every penny, won, rand and franc that flows into North Korea from African countries is used to further North Korea's internationally condemned nuclear weapons program.
‘Everything is important’
Africa-North Korea trade, which often takes the form of petroleum deals, infrastructure projects and military assistance, is but a small part of North Korea’s income. The nation does not publish economic data, but the respected, Seoul-based Bank of Korea issues annual estimates.
In 2017, that bank estimated that North Korea exports were worth about $2.82 billion. China and Russia are far larger trading partners than any African nation, though experts say North Korea’s international dealings are poorly documented, as much of it is illegal.
Sandra Oudkirk, U.S. acting deputy assistant secretary for the Economic Bureau, says every penny counts.
“In some cases, people, whether they’re government officials or outside analysts, will look at the numbers and say, ‘Hey, that’s a really small number," she told journalists this week. “But the fact of the matter is that North Korea is qualitatively and quantitatively different from any other threat the United States faces. There is no trade flow, there is no revenue flow, that is too small or so small that it is insignificant. Everything is important.”
The United Nations has investigated at least seven African countries for ignoring international sanctions by trading with North Korea. Pyongyang has eight embassies in Sub-Saharan Africa and has trade links to at least 11 African countries.
Mark Lambert, U.S. deputy special representative for North Korean policy, says the United States has a clear message to African countries, and to North Korea, if they both cooperate.
“In Africa, we want to partner with you,” he said. “We want to work with you to send two clear messages to North Korea. First, the international community is united and has spoken that it will never, ever, ever accept North Korea as a nuclear power. And we will exert more pressure on North Korea until it returns to the table. But secondly, we want to make clear to the people of North Korea and the leaders of North Korea that there is a better future, that if North Korea in fact returns to negotiations, we can work with North Korea to help it develop its economy and better its people.”
Give up good deals in exchange for … disparaging words?
Researcher Zachary Donnenfeld, who studies North Korea-Africa relations at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, says many African nations maintain ties with North Korea because it supported them in their post-independence struggles and that because of its trade restrictions, North Korea offers good trade deals.
He also says the United States may face diplomatic difficulties in the wake of controversial, crude comments allegedly made last week by President Donald Trump about Haiti and African countries.
“To me, one of the ironic stories of the Trump foreign policy is that at the very moment he needs the international community, he seems to be actively alienating them,” Donnenfeld told VOA from Pretoria. “If the Trump administration is going to be successful in its efforts to ramp up sanctions, it will need the support of African governments. And in light of recent events and comments, it’s unclear to me whether or not African governments will be exceedingly willing to give up cheap natural resources and weapons for a country that is disparaging them.”
Challenge from the South
Chatham House analyst Daragh Neville studies diplomatic relations between Africa and the rest of the world. He notes that pressure on African countries to drop North Korea is also coming from elsewhere, including South Korea.
“The South, in the past — I think since maybe 2002, 2004 — they have started to really re-engage with Africa,” he told VOA. “They’ve held a number of continental forums, the Korea-Africa forum, the Korea-Africa economic forum, a number of these forums. They’ve begun to open more and more embassies in Africa, and they launched last year a new aid program for Africa.”
VOA called the North Korean embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, seeking comment. They did not answer our calls.