Why Is Japan Investing In Zimbabwe And What Does N. Korea Have To Do With It?

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Written by Staff

From The Zimbabwean. Story by Samuel Ramani.

On June 14, 2016, Zimbabwe and Japan signed a major automobile industry trade deal to ship 10,000 Japanese tractors to Harare and train 40 Zimbabweans in Japanese automobile manufacturing techniques.

This deal mirrors similar contracts signed by China, Zimbabwe’s principal Asian partner, and reaffirms Japan’s desire to compete with China for economic influence in sub-Saharan Africa.

Japan’s investment in Zimbabwe’s automobile industry is the latest step towards stronger ties between Tokyo and Harare. In late March, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe signed a $5.8 million US deal to finance road construction on Zimbabwe’s resource-rich north-south corridor.

Even though Japan risks criticism from Western powers who have isolated the Mugabe regime with sanctions, Abe’s outreach to Zimbabwe strategically benefits Japan in two main ways.

First, Abe can use a closer partnership with Zimbabwe as a springboard for expanding Japan’s network of allies in sub-Saharan Africa. As an added bonus, by providing Zimbabwe with much-needed foreign capital, Tokyo can gain economic leverage over one of Beijing’s closest African allies.

Second, Zimbabwe is a long-standing ally of North Korea. Closer Harare-Tokyo ties could convince Mugabe to break off relations with Pyongyang, a move that would further isolate Kim Jong-un’s increasingly belligerent regime.

Abe’s diplomatic outreach to Zimbabwe benefits Japan’s economy and increases Tokyo’s geopolitical influence.

Mugabe is respected by many African leaders for his role in liberating Zimbabwe from white minority rule in 1980. Abe’s praise of Mugabe as an “iconic” leader and as the “most revered patriarch of Africa” in late March, was a veiled appeal to African leaders who admire Mugabe for his steadfast resistance to Western neo-colonialism.

Japan is strongly positioned to re-establish trade linkages with Zimbabwe, as it did not follow the West in imposing sanctions on Zimbabwe for Mugabe’s forcible land seizures in 2000. Those sanctions isolated Mugabe diplomatically and economically from the West, forcing Zimbabwe to adopt an Asia-Pacific centered “Look East” foreign policy targeting Chinese foreign investment.

Mugabe has responded positively to Japan’s diplomatic overtures, and has urged Abe to expand Japan’s investment in Zimbabwe’s gold, platinum, and nickel.

Deepening ties between Japan and Zimbabwe could also impact security in the Korean peninsula, as Zimbabwe has historically been one of North Korea’s closest international allies.

Mugabe visited North Korea in 1980 shortly after his ascension as prime minister and became an admirer of Kim Il-sung’s cult of personality. Upon his return to Harare, Mugabe distributed Juche: The Speeches and Writings of Kim Il-Sung to Zimbabwean officials and praised the North Korean regime as a model for Zimbabwe’s state-building efforts. Mugabe subsequently hired North Korean military advisers to assist his repression of the Ndebele community from 1983-1987, a crackdown which resulted in at least 20,000 casualties.

While the extent of Zimbabwe’s trade linkages with North Korea is unknown, there is compelling evidence of bilateral cooperation between Mugabe and Kim Jong-un. In 2013, Mugabe agreed to an arms-for-uranium pact with North Korea. This pact allowed the DPRK to send scientists to Zimbabwe’s uranium-rich Kanyema dirstict, and access the yellowcake uranium required for nuclear weapons development. In exchange, Zimbabwe received unspecified quantities of arms and ammunition from Pyongyang.

Japan’s diplomatic overtures toward Zimbabwe occur at a time when North Korea’s long-standing African alliances are being challenged by South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s recent sub-Saharan African tour and offers of investment. The defection of Uganda from Pyongyang’s security umbrella after Park’s visit demonstrated to Japanese policymakers that sustained diplomatic outreach can convince even North Korea’s strongest allies to comply with international sanctions.

Read more at The Zimbabwean.