What are the North Koreans up to in Namibia?

John Grobler says an investigation by a UN Panel of Experts suggests that UNSC sanctions are being violated

Namibia has been secretly collaborating with the North Korean government on military and other politically construction prestigious projects for the past ten years and in defiance of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions imposed since 2006, an investigation by a UN Panel of experts showed.

A copy of the UN experts report, leaked to local media recently, showed that Mansudae Overseas Projects (MOP) was used to, among others, construct a new munitions plant for the Namibian Defence Force between 2009 and 2014.

Further, independent investigations showed that the plant was located at Oamites, a former copper mine located about 40 kilometres south of Windhoek. The six sets of sanctions imposed by the UNSC since 2006 on North Korea prohibits UN member countries from any trade except humanitarian aid.

The sanctions imposed under UNSC Resolutions 1718 (2006) and 1874 (2009) on the regime of Kim Jong-un specifically bans any trade in military equipment or financial transfers that could aid Pyongyangs nuclear weapon ambitions.

Namibias deputy Prime Minister and Minister for International Cooperation Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah admitted in parliament that the North Koreans were involved in constructing a new headquarters for the Namibian Defence Force (NDF) in Windhoek. This work also included expansion to the Leopards Valley base south of Windhoek

Nandi-Ndaitwah told parliament that the North Koreans were also involved in building a new military school at Okahandja, where they also built a military museum on request of ruling party SWAPO (South West African Peoples Organisation), but funded from the Defence budget.

Nandi-Ndaitwah claimed in parliament and in correspondence with the UN Panel of Experts that these projects all ended in 2005 - the year before the first international sanctions were imposed.

The UN weapon experts, using satellite imagery, established that this was about 10 years short of the full truth. At the time of writing, Namibia had not replied regarding the purpose of the facility under construction, the UN report noted.

While the military museum was completed in 2005 (and remained closed to the public ever since), all the other military construction projects commenced under previous President Hifikepunye Pohamba, who took over as President from founding President Sam Nujoma in March 2005.

A further, independent investigation brought to light that the NDFs commercial arm August 26 (Pty) Ltd. had moved about 200 tons of chemical plant equipment from Walvis Bay under great secrecy to a purpose-built site at Groot Aub in middle October 2012.

August 26, named by Namibias founding President Sam Nujoma after the day on which SWAPOs guerrillas were attacked at Ongulumbashe by South African forces in 1966, was initially used to hold the right to a diamond concession given by Kabila to Nujoma in 1998 as payment for supplying his tottering regime.

By 2014, it had grown to eight subsidiary companies, and even though tax dollars keep it afloat, has in 18 years not submitted any financials or annual report to the Namibian parliament, and does not get audited by the Auditor-General.

The Panel of Experts however appeared to not have been aware of the military complex at the old Groot Aub mine, as their report made no reference to it or the North Korean presence there.

Historical satellite imagery of the Oamites plant obtained via Google Earth showed construction complex starting in early 2010, six months after Resolution 1874 was passed unanimously by the UNSC.

Sources at the nearby settlement of Groot Aub confirmed that the complex as well as separate, modern accommodation facilities for military staff next to it were all built by the North Korean team.

Several international weapon experts, including several previously employed by the United Nations as consultants, agreed that the design of the complex closely corresponded to a typical design for a munitions plant.

The general opinion was that the chemical plant moved to Groot Aub in October 2012 was most likely part of a production line for propellants, while two dozen computer-controlled lathes spotted by one eye-witness in the main, central facility indicated that this facility was a major munitions plant.

Weapons expert Rod Barton, in his analysis said the outlay of the buildings and visible security around the central plant, said it closely corresponded with the design of a munitions plant - but not a chemical weapons plant, as some had feared.

Overall my view is that the plant is that it is not a major chemical production plant and almost certainly not a CW facility. It is consistent with a propellant mixing/preparation plant for example for the production of powder propellants. The buildings storing possible explosives and the possible [test] firing building would fit in with this, he said by email.

Interestingly, inscriptions engraved on some of the tanks are all in Chinese, one of which translated to Do not vent contents, suggesting that at least some of the the plant may have originated in China, rather than North Korea.

What also remained unstated in the Experts report is that the new military HQ and new military school are both financed by soft loans from China - a permanent member of the same UNSC council that in 2009 unanimously approved a total ban on any arms or related trade with North Korea.

Chinas Poly Technologies have become Namibias main suppliers of military equipment since early the 2000s, having equipped the Namibian airforce with Chengdu F-7 and Hongdu K-8 fighter-trainers, as well as a large number of armoured personnel carriers, amongst others.

Because of the sensitivity of the matter, none of the UN experts contacted were willing to comment on the record, save to say that the challenge now lay in proving that Mansudae Overseas Projects (MOP) was in fact just a factotum for North Korean companies specified under the five different sets of sanctions imposed since 2006.

The Namibian government however seemed unconcerned: the cooperation with North Korea was based on Pyangyangs historical support for the liberation struggle (1966 -1989), Nandi-Ndaitwah said in the interview.

Historians were however puzzled by this alleged history: North Korea never featured among the 30 countries where SWAPO had representation, André du Pisani,Professor Emeritus for Political Science at the University of Namibia pointed out.

Instead, this relationship appeared to be based on the personal relationship between founding President Sam Nujoma, still the major force in Namibian politics, and the Kim family. A review of news articles dating back to Independence in 1990 showed that he had visited North Korea no fewer than 11 times.

On his last visit in 2005, 100,000 North Koreans lined the road to cheer Nujoma on his way to Pyongyang, where current North Korean leader Kim Jong-uns father Il-sung presented Nujoma with a Korean translation of his hagiography Where others wavered, Xinhua news service reported that year.

Nujoma also personally pushed for each of the prestige projects that the North Koreans were involved in, from the new State House (funded by a USD$300 million Chinese grant) to personally selecting the site for the Independence Memorial in Windhoek that dominates the skyline, well-placed sources said.

What rankled even more was that Namibias independence was directly brought about by the UN in 1989, when they supervised the first-ever direct elections of the incoming government. Even then, SWAPO showed its reluctance to adhere to international agreements, sending 3,000 soldiers into Namibia from neighbouring Angola on 1 April 1989 in an act that nearly scuppered the entire peace process.

Namibia, who also recently signalled its withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC), was fast losing its role as a normative leader in Africa, he warned.

And to think that the UN paid the rent for SWAPOs office from 1974 to 1989, said Du Pisani. Some people will be very disappointed in Namibia.

All the experts consulted were in agreement on one aspect: Namibia was clearly in violation of the UNSC sanctions, and especially of those passed since June 2009. Manufacturing munition with North Korean training falls under same rubric as sanctions banning the transfer of any military technology, one highly-placed source said.

Namibia now also faced questions as to how Mansudae Overseas was being paid by the Namibian government, as North Korea has been banned from participating in the international financial system under Resolution 1874.

All told, Mansudae has been handed construction projects exceeding USD $100 million since 2002 - and it was unlikely they would have kept working if their North Korean masters were not being paid, sources close the matter said.

The possibility was that Mansudae would be classified along with seven other North Korean companies used by Pyongyang to advance their military ambitions as sanction-busters, experts said. August 26s role would also come under the magnifying glass - and that could open a whole Pandoras box of systematic breaches since 2006, with grave consequences for Namibia.

Annexes to the Experts report showed that two key officials had effectively used Namibia as their base, leaving the country every two months to return to North Korea via Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, another close ally of the SWAPO government.

Whatever the case, Namibia could expect another visit from the UN Panel of Experts on North Korea soon - and it was not going to be a very convivial one for all concerned.

Research for this article was supported by ANCIR and the Connecting Continents grant.