It is often said that politics can make strange bedfellows. In no arena is this more true than international relations, where often the mantra, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” is taken to extremes.
This has been on full display over the past weeks as North Korean diplomats worked to strengthen ties between the Asian “Hermit Kingdom” and countries throughout East Africa.
The North Korean diplomatic tour has made stops in Uganda, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as representatives from the normally reclusive state attempt to foster alliances with countries that share its deep skepticism of Western foreign policy.
In this two-part AFKInsider series we will attempt to examine the alliances that have been built with little in common other than a shared disdain of western hegemony. This piece will examine not only the experience of the North Korean diplomats, but similar allegiances cultivated between relatively minor players on the international affairs scene and African states. Part two of the series will examine the universal answer to American hegemony, China, by looking at inroads the Middle Kingdom has made across Africa as a counterpoint to Western dominance.
While North Korea regularly shuns diplomatic normalcy, one of the country’s highest-ranking officials, Kim Yong-Nam has spent recent weeks receiving a king’s treatment as he paraded through Eastern African states that share little other than a frustration with American foreign policy.
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According to the Independent, upon his arrival in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, Kim was treated to a state banquet by President Yoweri Museveni where the Ugandan strongman “praised North Korea for what he described as its prominent role in combating imperialism.”
North Korea is, of course, not the only state that has made inroads due to its staunch anti-American (or anti-imperialist, depending on one’s outlook) stance, but it is the most incredible for its sheer lack of diplomatic interest in the rest of the world.
According to Embassy Worldwide, a website dedicated to cataloging embassies and consulates across the globe, North Korea hosts 17 embassies in Pyongyang. This diplomatic presence is miniscule when compared to the southern half of the Korean peninsula which boasts 114 embassies abroad and hosts representatives from 103 countries in Seoul.
Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir has similarly used anti-Western enmity to bolster his international relationships. For Bashir, an indictment hanging over his head from the International Criminal Court has created a de facto travel ban to state parties to the Rome Statute that would be treaty bound to arrest and transfer him. This has not stopped him from moving around to a small number of countries that either reject the court as illegitimate or simply prefer a relationship with the aging strongman. The past six months have seen the Sudanese dictator travel to both Egypt and Qatar, flouting the travel restrictions. Such defiance nearly cost Bashir his freedom in 2013 when he was forced to leave an African Union summit in Nigeria early after a group of human rights lawyers filed a lawsuit to force their government to detain and transfer Bashir to the International Criminal Court.
It is not just state dinners and political ties that come from such anti-Western relationships. Wealthier countries often give substantial economic concessions to countries that operate within their worldview. One particularly prominent benefactor of anti-Western states was the late Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, himself a significant proponent of an African turn away from the West.
According to one Al Jazeera analysis at the time of Chavez’ death, he spent time in a number of African countries that had never before been visited by a South American leader, including South Africa, Mozambique, Algeria, Libya, Mali, Gambia, Benin and Angola. He similarly broadcast his historic links to the continent, declaring himself of African descent and blaming imperialism and capitalism, both rooted in racism, for the continent’s woes. Bolstered by the country’s one-time vast oil wealth, he awarded favorable contracts to similarly minded leaders and “critically shifted the monopoly of energy multinationals on the continent.”
There is a long history of countries preferring an independent foreign policy to one aligned with a major power. This goes back to the non-aligned movement, originating in 1955 between countries that wished to align with neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In such countries there are independent-minded leaders who prefer to make their own decisions in addition to the fire-breathing and virulently anti-Western leaders such as Bashir, Chavez and a trio of consecutive leaders in North Korea named Kim.
During the Cold War there were economic incentives for an aligned anti-American stance that stemmed from becoming a client state of the Soviet Union just as there were significant economic incentives attached to a pro-American, anti-Soviet Union stance. However, when the Soviet Union broke apart, so too did the funding. China has emerged as a global superpower capable of providing funding for such states in a distinctly non-ideological manner, in stark contrast to the Socialism of the USSR.
The relationships the Middle Kingdom has built across Africa as a counterweight to Western ideological dominance will be examined in part two of this series.
Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.