Last week, the US announced additional sanctions on North Korean government officials and state-owned entities in response to the cyber-attack on Sony, which both the FBI and President Barack Obama have attributed to Pyongyang.
The Kim regime should be well-versed with US and international sanctions by now. UN Security Council resolution 1874, passed in 2009, proscribes just about any cooperation with North Korea’s arms industry. The US has banned most forms of business with government-linked North Korean entities since 2008, thanks to a series of provocations from Pyongyang that includes the construction and repeated testing of nuclear weapons. The new measures seemed aimed at closing the last remaining holes in the sanctions regime, targeting “seven officials who represent North Korea’s arms dealing trade in Africa, Iran, Russia and Syria,” according to CNN.
Outside of its often-fraught alliance with China, North Korea has been shunned and essentially banished by virtually every mainstream member of the international community, limiting its close relations to fellow sanctioned regimes like Syria, Iran, and Sudan. But there’s an odd and persistent exception to this involving a key US strategic ally.
As Royal United Service Institute scholar Andrea Berger explained in an article for Johns Hopkins University’s 38 North website last month, there are “two Ethiopian defence industry sites believed to have ties to North Korea.”
The Ethiopian state-owned Homicho Ammunition Engineering Complex produces “small, medium and heavy ammunition; tank shells, mortar bombs and grenades; and 120mm ‘Katyusha’ rockets,” Berger writes. A UN Group of Experts Report determined that North Korea may have assisted in production at the site as late as 2014. But Homicho, which opened in the late 1980s when Ethiopia’s then-communist government was fighting two brutal and inevitably futile counter-insurgency campaigns in Eritrea and Tigray, owed much of its capabilities to the Kim regime.
“Pyongyang’s involvement probably centered on the design and establishment of production lines for munitions,” Berger writes. “These forms of assistance apparently continued through to at least late 2007, and included help manufacturing rocket-propelled grenades and truck-mounted multiple rocket launchers.”
Another facility, the Gafat Armament Industry, was also founded by Ethiopia’s embattled communist regime in the late 1980s and produces small arms of North Korean and Chinese design. According to a US diplomatic cable published by Wikleaks, US officials questioned their Ethiopian counterparts over North Korean assistance in upgrading an AK-47 production line at Gafat in early 2008.
North Korea is a veritable pariah state. In contrast, Ethiopia is one of the US’s security partners in the Horn of Africa and a major recipient of American aid. The US often coordinates policy with Ethiopia in neighbouring Somalia, most notably during Ethiopia’s 2007 invasion of the country to dislodge the jihadist Islamic Courts Union from power. Addis Ababa is set to receive $US485 million in American aid in 2015 and the country has hosted American drones.
It might seem puzzling that a close US ally and the host country of the African Union’s headquarters would have defence ties with perhaps the most sanctioned regime on earth. As Berger explained to Business Insider, Ethiopia’s relationship with North Korea is one perhaps-regrettable result of the east African country’s longstanding and by no means unique desire to develop a domestic defence industry.
“Over the past few decades, numerous countries have sought North Korean assistance with arms production,” Berger explained. “Most want an inexpensive shortcut to indigenous capability, without first developing the scientific and technological base within their own country to be able to wean themselves off of North Korean supplies and expertise further down the road.”
The defence relationship with North Korea began in the late 1980s, when Ethiopia was ruled by a fellow communist government and Pyongyang wasn’t under restrictive international sanctions. The Ethiopian government’s investment in a domestic defence industry outlasted the fall of the communist regime. And Addis maintained a need for North Korean help in running its arms facilities even as the Kim regime turned into one of the most despised governments on earth.
This tension isn’t lost on the Ethiopians. “Recently, Ethiopia is more of a reluctant than a determined customer of North Korea’s,” said Berger. “Though it probably prefers to buy from other countries, or eschew the need for foreign assistance at these two particular arms factories entirely, North Korea’s historical involvement has created unwanted dependency.”
David Shinn, who served as the US ambassador to Ethiopia in the late 1990s, believes Addis continued its defence relationship with North Korea in order to keep its options open. “Ethiopia’s always been a fairly major purchaser of weapons,” Shinn told Business Insider. “It’s maintained a longstanding policy of keeping supply corridors open, perhaps with the thought that they might lose sources from one or another country.”
Shinn doesn’t believe there’s any deeper political motive attached to Ethiopia’s relationship with North Korea. As he notes, Ethiopia and South Korea enjoy excellent relations. Shinn recalls only a scant and even invisible North Korean diplomatic presence in Addis Ababa during the period he served as US ambassador.
Even so, Shinn says that Ethiopia purchased weapons from North Korea during its war with neighbouring Eritrea from 1998 to 2000 — a time when both combatants were eager to obtain weaponry from anyone willing to supply them. Ethiopia is still on a war footing towards Eritrea and has troops in Somalia fighting al Shabaab, an Al Qaeda affiliate. Its government might also worry about internal uprisings by the country’s Oromo and Somali communities. Since the fall of communism in the early 1990s, Ethiopia’s by no means democratic leaders have had several reasons for wanting to remain as armed as possible.
Still North Korean cooperation with Ethiopia is an odd historical holdover, albeit an an instructive one. North Korea has a domestic arms industry that produces weaponry largely based on Chinese and Soviet design. And Africa and the Middle East are full of countries with Soviet-supplied arsenals that may need to be maintained or replaced — countries like the Republic of Congo, which was caught using North Korean-supplied parts to repair its Soviet-built tanks as recently as 2010.
And the ties with Ethiopia are a stark reminder that weapons and defence expertise are North Korea’s single export that’s potentially worth breaking sanctions to obtain.
North Korea has produced its own firearms and ballistic missiles — not to mention nuclear weapons. For all its poverty and recalcitrance, very few countries can say the same.
And because North Korea is desperate for foreign currency and external trade, Pyongyang will always be among the cheapest suppliers for a purchaser that wants to kickstart its defence industry or maintain its existing arsenal. Even now there are several actors that are too isolated or impoverished to turn elsewhere: North Korea provided ballistic missile technology to Syria’s Assad regime and North Korean arms have ended up with both Hamas and Hezbollah.
Ethiopia shows that even a country with reliably western-friendly foreign policy can go into business with Pyongyang. Even if it’s a reluctant or even waning relationship it’s still a sign of what the Kim regime can still provide to the few remaining countries that are willing to cooperate with it.