How a trip to North Korea devastated Zimbabwe

By: 
Rob Attwell

In 1980, Robert Mugabe visited Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. The trip had a profound effect on him and, in the words of one of his aides, he returned to Harare "a different man".

What Mugabe admired most was Kim Il Sung’s absolute power and the apparent adoration of North Korean people for the "eternal president".

Mugabe has often spoken of his admiration for North Korea’s Juche ideology, which stresses national self-reliance and Korean ethnic purity. He has compelled government ministers to read collections of Kim’s speeches. In addition, as noted by historian Benjamin R Young, Mugabe’s birthday celebrations are strikingly similar to Kim’s. They are characterised by marching, giant paintings of the president and dancing children.

Zimbabwe is in a crisis. Decades of economic mismanagement and systematic corruption by a self-aggrandising political elite, combined with economic sanctions, have resulted in financial collapse. Inspired by pastor Evan Mawarire and the "ThisFlag" hashtag, protesters are demanding change.

Is there a connection between the Zimbabwean crisis and Mugabe’s admiration of North Korea’s Kim dynasty? I believe there is.

It is interesting to note similarities between Harare and Pyongyang. Both are isolated internationally by sanctions, have insecure food supplies, hate the West with a passion. Both are tacitly supported by their larger neighbours, China and SA, because of a mixture of historical affinity and concerns over the destabilising effects of regime collapse, such as the potential for an influx of refugees. Most critically, both are ruled by political elites concerned first and foremost with regime survival and access to wealth and power. For both, the wellbeing of the populace is of secondary importance.

Ties between Pyongyang and the current Zimbabwean elite date back to the Cold War. Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia and, like apartheid SA, was ruled by a white minority government. There were two factions fighting to overthrow Ian Smith’s racist regime: Zapu and Zanu. The former was supported by the Soviet Union and led by Joshua Nkomo, who would become Mugabe’s main political rival after liberation. The latter was supported by China and North Korea.

Ideological differences regarding the issue of personality cults were central to Soviet and Chinese and North Korean support for rival liberation movements. In 1956, Nikita Khrushchev criticised Josef Stalin’s cult of personality and the atrocities he committed. For Beijing and Pyongyang, this was a troubling development as Mao Zedong and Kim Il Sung legitimised their rule via propaganda inspired by personality cults. They worried that their rivals would use Khrushchev’s criticism of Stalin to lobby for domestic reform and thereby undermine their rule. In addition, Kim supported African liberation movements in the hope of winning votes at the UN to delegitimise South Korea and remove US troops from the Korean Peninsula.

After liberation, power was split between Mugabe and Nkomo, but Mugabe desired absolute power like his North Korean friends.

North Koreans trained the infamous 5th Brigade, the military unit responsible for the Matabeleland massacre that helped Mugabe consolidate his power and drive Nkomo into exile.

The Harare-Pyongyang special relationship continued after the end of the Cold War, albeit not to the same degree. Their shared pariah status ties them together. Some of their intermitted contacts are concerning. In 2013, Harare sold yellowcake uranium to Pyongyang in support of North Korea’s nuclear programme. Mugabe offered to stock a Pyongyang zoo with exotic animals including two elephants. The deal was ultimately cancelled.

In Harare and Pyongyang, the desire for absolute rule and centralised control by a megalomaniacal political elite has caused isolation and financial ruin. — Business Day

Attwell is a Chevening scholar studying East Asian international relations at the University of Edinburgh

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