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Why southern Africa is full of North Korean monuments

North Korean workers designed and built numerous monuments, museums and other buildings in southern Africa. This is clear from research by history student Tycho van der Hoog for his master's thesis. These monuments can be an important source of income for a country that has become quite isolated on the world political stage.

When Tycho van der Hoog was wandering through the centre of Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, a few years ago, he could hardly believe what he saw. Suddenly, in the middle of the city, an independence museum that looked decidedly Stalinist loomed up ahead of him. This is the kind of construction you expect to find in countries like China or the former Soviet Union, but what is it doing in southern Africa? 

Van der Hoog learned from the local population that this was a North Korean construction. And his research has shown that this museum is by no means unique:  throughout the whole southern part of Africa there are buildings designed and built by the North Koreans, from Zimbabwe to Angola and from Botswana to Mozambique. Many of them depict the African countries' fight for independence, and are designed in typical North Korean style. 

The statue of the Unknown Soldier at the heroes' cemetery in Windhoek.

‘Some of these monuments could just as well be in Pyongyang,' says Van der Hoog, who graduated on 31 August with his thesis on this research. 'As an example, the graveyard for heroes in Windhoek that was completed in 2002  is a replica of a similar war monument in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. The external appearance and the purpose of both monuments are virtually the same. The monuments commemorate the glorious struggle for independence by both nations and, at the same time, they legitimise the authority of the current regime.' 

Thanks partly to an army of forced labourers, North Korea exports its architecture to countries that are able to pay for it. In spite of strict economic sanctions against the North Korean regime, this trade has been going on for decades, although it generally goes on below the radar. The contacts that are made in the course of constructing such monuments provide a platform for shady dealings such as weapons export to Africa and a steady flow of hard foreign currency to leaders of the regime in North Korea. As a result, African countries are indirectly funding the development of North Korea's nuclear weapons programme. 

Depiction of Namibia's struggle for independence

This is, of course, no coincidence, Van der Hoog writes in his master's thesis. The alliances between southern Africa and North Korea go back to the previous century, when the North Korean regime supported numerous African independence movements with weapons, equipment and training. Just like North Korea, many countries on the African continent have a history of colonialism and anti-imperialist conflict. In many African countries, what was then the independence movement is today's government, which explains why these states now give political support to North Korea and do business with the country. 

‘North Korea shows how you can use this anti-imperialist struggle to give some legitimacy to the postcolonial regime,' Van der Hoog explains. ‘In North Korea, a whole cult has been set up around the nation's struggle for independence, honouring war heroes and important leaders. Coincidence or not, the same regime is still in power there. It may seem strange, but North Korea can serve as a source of inspiration for countries that intend to survive in an unpredictable international arena.’

The heroes' cemetery in Harara, Zimbabwe. Seen from above, the monument resembles two AK-47 rifles.

If Van der Hoog's thesis shows one thing, it is that North Korea has never been completely isolated, neither in the past nor today. In spite of all the sanctions against the regime, North Korea maintains close relations with many countries, which results in lucrative trade. This goes completely against the image that many people have of the country, namely that it is an isolated state led by an insane dictator. Van der Hoog: ‘It gives an insight into the question of why North Korea is able to continue to exist while it comes under so much pressure from outside.'

Van der Hoog recently joined Leiden's African Studies Centre as a junior researcher. He will be conducting a further study of diplomatic relations between North Korea and southern Africa.  

Forced labour in Eastern Europe, too

The export of forced labour is an important business model for the North Korean regime. A year ago, Professor Remco Breuker – one of Van der Hoog's thesis supervisors – found evidence of forced labour being used in Polish shipyards and in the horticultural industry.