Painful divorce as Uganda ends 50-year military cooperation with North Korea

Friends. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea military. They have supported Uganda in the past. INTERNET PHOTO

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Allies. The end to the five-decade long relations between Uganda and North Korea came hot on the heels of mounting pressure from the United Nations. In December 2015, Uganda was listed among the top six closest allies of Pyongyang, Ivan Okuda & Risdel Kasasira write

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), better known as North Korea, military has had history with a resume coated with assistance that is a cocktail of many things.
It has supported fighting groups, including “terrorist groups” in more than 62 countries with an aggregate total of more than 5,000 foreign personnel trained in North Korea, and more than 7,000 military advisers posted to 47 countries.
Organisations like the Polisario Front, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, the Communist Party of Thailand, the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, Zimbabwean Fifth Brigade received its initial training from Korean People’s Army instructors, according to online sources.
According to North Korea’s state news agency, military expenditure for 2010 hogged 15.8 per cent of the state budget while the International Institute of Strategic Studies estimates that North Korea’s defence budget accounted for 25 per cent of central government spending in 2003.
As of 2016, with 5.8 million paramilitary personnel (representing 25 per cent of the North Korean population) this country was home to the largest paramilitary organisation in the world.
That urge now suffers a setback as pressure mounts on countries to stop military and commercial cooperation with North Korea because of its nuclear and ballistic weapons programme. Uganda has since terminated its contract, bringing to a rude halt a more than 50-year relationship.
The end to the five-decade long relations between Uganda and North Korea came hot on the heels of mounting pressure on Uganda from the United Nations.
In December 2015, Uganda was listed among the top six closest allies of Pyongyang. The other five were; Syria, Iran, DR Congo, Burma and Cuba.
In September, an eight-member panel of experts asserted in a report to the UN that they would probe North Korea’s military cooperation with 11 African countries. The dossier claimed North Korea circumvented international sanctions to provide military and security assistance to Tanzania, Uganda, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Mozambique, Namibia, Benin, Botswana, Mali, and Zimbabwe using private companies and embassies as a front to sell arms and offer security and military training.
As the US, which commands a voice in the United Nations Security Council, called for stricter sanctions against the communist nation that continues to face criticism accruing from its human rights record and nuclear weapons programme, allies of the world’s super power like Uganda had to acrimoniously seek a separation and probably, just probably, not a divorce, with the troubled ally.
That Uganda now has to freeze military relations, which formed the bedrock of the connection between the two countries not of her own volition but complex international system dynamics beyond her control is a painful experience for either country.
At a summit in Kampala in May 2016, South Korean officials announced that Uganda pledged to stop military dealings with North Korea after a UN report revealed the pariah state was offering security training to the Uganda Police Force.
On March 24, this newspaper reported that the ambassador of North Korea, Mr Ri Hung Guk, had warned the US against trying to further interfere with the relations between his country and Uganda.
Speaking to selected journalists at his residence in Kololo, Ri Hung Guk said at the time North Korea and Uganda have historic relations of friendship, cooperation and solidarity, insisting that his country is committed to keep the relations intact. The ambassador’s statement followed media reports that the US has warned Uganda over relations with North Korea.
For North Korea, having to watch African countries such as Uganda close the door of age old relations is a sordid experience laden with nostalgia considering the fact that the relationship between North Korea and Africa dates back to the Cold War where the country was looking to find allies among newly liberated, socialist countries in Africa.
Like China and Russia, “it was looking to stamp out Western influence on the continent, and present its adversary, South Korea, as a puppet of the US. And while China’s relationship with Africa is now mainly concerned with trade and development, North Korea is determined to find military and diplomatic support on the continent”.
President Museveni, according to one publication, “has proven to share North Korea’s disdain for Western foreign policy and influence and has hosted a banquet for North Korean diplomats in Uganda and defended his relationship with the country, once describing them as ‘friends who have helped Uganda for a long time’.”
On September 5, Daily Monitor reported that government had expelled a team of North Korean military experts who had since 2004 been offering military training to the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), in effect severing military ties with the embattled nation after pressure mounted from United Nations.
At the time, 24 North Korean military experts attached to the Nakasongola District-based Uganda Air Force Aviation Academy departed the country while a couple of others teaching at the Uganda Air force Secondary School in Entebbe were also shown the exit with a small party organised for the departing military officers.
Ministry of Defence and UPDF spokesman Brig Richard Karemire said then, “In view of resolution 2270 of 2016 of the UN, we have had to comply and sever military cooperation with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Their experts have been stopped from rendering training and have gone back home. We are not renewing their contract.”
The military experts had offered training in martial arts, acrobatics, teaching UPDF pilots, and technicians attached to the air force since 2004 when Uganda first signed an agreement with North Korea and renewed the same in 2007, cementing military cooperation till recently when Kampala bowed to pressure from New York.
The army says it has built capacity to do what the North Korean military experts were doing in Uganda, an assertion that remains to be seen.
State minister for International Relations Henry Okello Oryem said Uganda is fully complying with the UN resolution on North Korea sanctions.
“That’s why we ended the defence and security cooperation with North Korea,” he said.
Last year, Uganda disengaged relations with N. Korea over nuclear weapons following the UN sanctions against N. Korea after the country launched ballistic missiles. The sanctions prohibit all UN member states from engaging with embargoed states in activities such as trade or transfer of technology.
North Korea enjoys friendly relations with China, and Russia has, in the wake of hostility and highhandedness from the West moved to expand its diplomatic frontiers in Africa with Uganda, Equatorial Guinea, Angola and Benin on its quick dial list of allies.
Last year, Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s impeached president, called on President Museveni to disengage ties with N. Korea, a development that saw Uganda expel 60 North Korean advisers and military staff resident in Uganda. North Korea, according to international media, “had previously made a vast amount of money selling low-grade weapons to Uganda.”
In response to a missile launch last year, the Security Council passed Resolution 2270 and renewed sanctions recently. In August this year, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to impose strict new sanctions on Pyongyang — a response to North Korea’s launch of two intercontinental missiles in August this year.
The UN Charter, which is considered an international treaty, empowers the organisation’s Security Council to impose sanctions in lieu of a threat to international peace and security. Member states like Uganda are bound by UN sanctions, an instrument used under international law in furtherance of its founding objective, set out in the preamble, to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained.
Whereas Uganda and North Korea would do anything under the sun to maintain and even bolster their military cooperation, that marriage is a no-go zone for the international system led by the USA, the self-anointed prefect of military and political discipline that still has an axe to grind with the nation led by a belligerent and bullish leader in Kim Jong-un.
Countries such as Uganda that continue to struggle to find their footing in the international system and influence so much can only ask how high they should jump, and not why when bound by international law but also pressure from the powers that be to freeze relations with North Korea.