For decades, Uganda and North Korea have maintained a peculiar partnership, often defying international pressures and sanctions. The recent announcement of the closure of North Korea’s embassy in Kampala raises questions about the future of this controversial relationship. This feature delves into the complex history of their ties, characterized by military cooperation, diplomatic maneuvers, and shifting alliances.
A History of Unconventional Diplomacy
North Korea’s engagement with Uganda can be traced back to President Idi Amin’s rise to power in 1971. Just a year later, high-level military delegations from North Korea joined celebrations in Kampala, marking the beginning of their unconventional diplomatic relations.
A Lucrative Military Connection
Over the years, North Korea became a benefactor to Uganda, especially in providing military support. This partnership endured through multiple Ugandan presidents. Uganda’s military and police received weaponry, training, and even personnel from North Korea. Meanwhile, North Korean entities and citizens found business opportunities within Uganda.
The Embassy Closure Announcement
The recent decision to close North Korea’s embassy in Kampala followed a meeting between President Museveni and North Korean Ambassador Jong Tong Hak. The official explanation cited a strategic reduction of embassies in Africa to enhance external efficiency. However, the ties between the two nations are expected to continue, with diplomatic matters now handled through North Korea’s embassy in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea.
Continuing Cooperation through Malabo
Ironically, while North Korea’s diplomatic presence may be fading in Uganda, their cooperation is set to persist through Uganda’s military presence in Equatorial Guinea. Ugandan troops have been stationed there since 2016, providing security to President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has been in power since 1979.
A Historical Perspective
The relationship between Uganda and North Korea dates back to Idi Amin’s era. Agreements were reached in the early 1970s for military exchanges, weapon sales, and potential military construction projects in Uganda. Even after Amin’s fall, the cooperation continued under different Ugandan leaders, including Milton Obote and Yoweri Museveni.
North Korea’s Broader Role
North Korea’s involvement extended beyond military cooperation. They trained Ugandan police in martial arts, developed a marine unit, and contributed to Uganda’s domestic arms production efforts. Unconfirmed reports suggest North Korean assistance in setting up Uganda’s ammunition factory.
The Impact of UN Sanctions
In 2009, UN resolution 1874 banned military imports from North Korea after nuclear tests, impacting Uganda’s cooperation with North Korea. In 2010, a UN report found Uganda in violation of the resolution due to continued cooperation. However, North Korea’s public activities in Uganda were mainly seen in the police force.
South Korea’s Entry
In 2016, South Korean President Park Geun-hye visited Uganda, leading to multiple agreements between the two nations. Uganda agreed to cease cooperation with North Korea under US and UN pressure, including Resolution 2371. Despite these changes, North Korea’s legacy in Uganda remained.
Persistent Allegations of Cooperation
Accusations of ongoing cooperation between Uganda and North Korea continued, even after Uganda publicly committed to ending such ties. Reports suggested that North Korean personnel still worked in Ugandan hospitals, and North Korean mining and construction companies operated under different names in Uganda.