In the face of North Korea’s repeated provocations, the United States is taking up a familiar refrain: soliciting tougher international action to tighten the sanctions noose. To its credit, the Trump administration has scored successive victories at the United Nations to squeeze the regime. To its detriment, however, the administration is undermining American relationships around the world — especially in Africa — and, as a result, providing North Korea with an avenue to evade sanctions.
The theory of sanctions is simple: Stifle the funding for North Korea’s weapons programs and eliminate the regime’s political cover. In practice, however, it’s up to U.N. members to thoroughly heed the sanctions in order to build enough economic pressure to bring North Korea to the negotiating table. Notably, despite eight rounds of increasingly tough U.N. resolutions, North Korea “is flouting sanctions through trade in prohibited goods, with evasion techniques that are increasing in scale, scope and sophistication,” according to a U.N. report.
The biggest question is always whether China — North Korea’s primary economic lifeline — will comply with sanctions. But North Korea is nothing if not creative, and the regime is constantly seeking alternative destinations for its exports, which include military supplies and training, seafood, and counterfeit goods. Sanctions enforcement is the proverbial chain that is only as strong as its weakest link. While China is by far the biggest factor, North Korea’s relations with other countries can also make a material difference.
Unfortunately, African countries are playing a significant role in North Korea’s ability to find scarce hard currency to fund its weapons programs. A recent U.N. monitoring report cites ongoing investigations of seven African countries, as well as Syria, on suspicion of arms embargo violations. Evidently, North Korea’s dual strategy of providing material benefits (like cheap weapons) and building political alliances has been paying dividends. Between 2007 and 2015, trade between North Korea and African nations averaged $216.5 million a year and, at that time, involved some 30 African countries.
North Korea is able to maintain these relationships with African governments thanks, in part, to decades of bilateral cooperation. Though Namibia has pledged to cut commercial ties, the practical reality is less clear. Just earlier this year, high-level officials extolled North Korea’s “unparalleled” help in developing infrastructure, and spoke of “warm diplomatic relations.” Similarly, Uganda’s president has at various times praised North Korean friendship over the years (and did again last month) and, despite taking recent steps to sever military ties, is currently under investigation by the U.N.
The Trump administration seems to take seriously the possibility that, even under a desirable scenario in which China and others step up the pressure, North Korea could increase its engagement with African countries to access cash and build political support. In a rare diplomatic foray, President Donald Trump hosted a lunch with various African leaders in New York in September and called on them to “stand together and be accountable” in implementing sanctions.
However, convincing African and other countries to truly isolate North Korea would require diplomatic prowess that the United States currently lacks. Not only has the Trump administration paid scant attention to Africa, but its proposed budget sought to slash diplomacy, assistance, and commercial tools (and was wisely rejected by Congress as what Sen. Lindsey Graham termeda “retreat from the world”). Meanwhile, many U.S. embassies, particularly in Africa, are idling as they await the appointment of leadership positions and clarity on Washington’s policy priorities.
All of this may lead countries in Africa and elsewhere to conclude that the United States cannot be depended upon. This, in turn, could mean less willingness to cut ties with North Korea, less vigorous enforcement of sanctions (and other U.S. national security goals), and less sharing of intelligence. North Korea was already successfully employing a diplomatic long game and selling cheap weapons during times of much greater U.S. engagement with Africa — just imagine how much easier it will be for the regime if this administration continues to ignore the region.
What would be a better strategy? To begin with, the United States needs to maintain strong and consistent relationships with African governments. This doesn’t mean throwing money at the continent. Rather, this is about increasing trade and investment, deepening military cooperation, and expanding cultural ties. It means the roll-up-your-sleeves kind of relationship building that is rooted in mutual respect and time-tested collaboration. This is not new territory: The United States has strong links across Africa, as well as a history of bipartisan support for partnering with African governments. But any relationship takes work, and will fade if neglected.
Sadly, the task of rallying the global community to enforce sanctions may simply be beyond the Trump administration’s capability. Transactional and erratic diplomacy is no substitute for the real thing, and a nation that does not see the United States as sharing its interests or being a reliable partner will be less inclined to cast aside historical relationships with North Korea, or forgo its cheap military weapons. By misunderstanding the importance of deep bilateral relationships, Trump is unwittingly limiting his options and making a military outcome against North Korea all the more likely.