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Zim’s new policy shift from Harare, Pyongyang to Seoul

ZIMBABWEAN has had a significant policy shift from Pyongyang to Seoul over the past two decades, moving away from the authoritarian and repressive North Korea to South Korea.




ZIMBABWEAN has had a significant policy shift from Pyongyang to Seoul over the past two decades, moving away from the authoritarian and repressive North Korea to South Korea.

North Korea, which has 26 million people and also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, was closer to Zimbabwe from the 1970s to about 10 years ago.

South Korea, with a population of 51.6 million and also referred to as the Republic of Korea, only established formal diplomatic relations with Zimbabwe in 1994.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa was in Seoul, South Korea, for the South Korea-African Summit, which opened on Tuesday and continued through Wednesday.

His remarks there indicated growing closer cooperation between Harare and Seoul than Pyongyang across the divided Peninsula, although the situation has some diplomatic complexities and nuances, just like how Zimbabwe relates to China and Japan in East Asia.

South Korea has joined many other countries and regional blocs which have bilateral relations and summits with the natural resource-rich Africa, including the United States, China, Britain, Germany, France, Japan, Russia, India and the European Union, among other players.

In instructive remarks, Mnangagwa said in Seoul:

“This morning (Tuesday), I addressed the South Korea-African Summit in Seoul. Zimbabwe is ready to partner with South Korea through open business and joint investments. Our focus on agriculture, mining, and innovation, combined with Korea’s climate-proofing strategies, sets the stage for a lasting partnership. “

The Korea-Africa Co-operation Framework will help us scale up skills and technology transfer, digitalisation, and the growth of knowledge-based economies, anchored by science and innovation. “With bold action, we can build a prosperous future together.”

This marked a significant diplomatic policy shift by Harare in relation to the Korean Peninsula states, although the situation requires a delicate balance between history and developmental progress for Zimbabwe.

Since the division of the Korean Peninsula following the Korean War in 1950 which ended with an armistice three years later amid a raging Cold War, inter-Korean relations have been mostly hostile.

This put Zimbabwe in the middle of hostile relations amid a delicate diplomatic balance, just like Harare’s relations with Beijing and Tokyo which are characterised and underlaid by subtle tensions.

The Korean war began on 25 June 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea President Emmerson Mnangagwa with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.

Mugabe visited in 1980 after he became Prime Minister before switching on to be President seven years later and ended after an armistice on 27 July 1953.

North Korea was supported by China and the Soviet Union, while South Korea was backed by the United Nations Command led by the United States.

However, the two Koreas are still technically at war, but both governments have long sought the goal of one day reunifying.

North Korea, like Zimbabwe, still revolves around the Sino-Ruso axis in international relations, while South Korea is firmly pro-West.

Although Zimbabwe belonged to the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War, it had close ties with North Korea until 10 years ago.

Those relations have remained strong, although in recent years they started diminishing with the decline of the late former president Robert Mugabe’s rule.

In 2016, a year before he was ousted in a military coup led by Mnangagwa, Mugabe indicated to Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe in Tokyo that relations between Harare and Pyongyang which subsisted since during the liberation struggle days had faded.

North Korea, which has been closing African embassies for financial reasons, has no diplomatic mission in Harare at the moment, but previously maintained close relations.

By contrast, South Korea has been opening embassies and deepening its relations with Africa.

The Korea-Africa Summit and Mnangagwa’s remarks highlight that. The Korea-Africa Summit opened yesterday in Ilsan where African leaders and heads of Africa-related international organisations are participating under the theme of “The Future We Make Together: Shared Growth, Sustainability, and Solidarity.”

Today, the 2024 Korea-Africa Business Summit will take place in Seoul where heads of state and government, as well as business executives will take part.

Harare was historically close to Pyongyang dating back to the days of the struggle to post-Independence years as North Korea also supported other liberation movements.

China and North Korea backed Zanu and Zanla during the war, while Russia supported Zapu and Zipra.

North Korea was one of the first countries After Independence, in October 1980, Mugabe visited Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

There he signed a military pact with North Korean leader Kim Il Sung whom he admired a lot. Following this agreement, 106 North Korean soldiers arrived in Zimbabwe to train a brigade, the Five Brigade, outside the regular army and the then ongoing training and integration of three former rival liberation struggle armies — Rhodesian, Zipra and Zanla forces — by the British Military Advisory Training Team (BMATT).

That was the ominous precursor to Gukurahundi. Mnangagwa, who spearheaded Gukurahundi, looked after the North Korean military advisers and trainers.

For instance on 12 September 1981, Mnangagwa paid a hotel bill of $12 943 for his Korean military instructors whose murderous expertise drilled and prepared the Gukurahundi brigade to commit massacres of 20 000 innocent citizens — genocide — in the south-western and Midlands regions.

When Joshua Nkomo asked Mugabe in 1981 why he was training a brigade outside formal military structures, the latter retorted that it was for dealing with “malcontents” in our midst.

BMATT was not involved in training the Five Brigade, but some individuals from that structure joined its drills. Mugabe’s Pyongyang trip had a profound effect on him and, in the words of one of his aides, he returned to Harare “a different man”, according to reports at the time.

What Mugabe admired the most was Kim Il Sung’s absolute power and the apparent adoration of North Korean people for the “eternal president”. From there, Mugabe cemented his idea of being president for life, which almost succeeded.

He also liked North Korea’s totalitarian Juche ideology, which stresses national self-reliance, Korean ethnic purity and loyalty.

Mugabe compelled government ministers to read collections of Kim’s speeches to brainwash them.

In addition, as noted by historian Benjamin R Young, Mugabe’s birthday celebrations were strikingly similar to Kim’s.

They were characterised by marching, giant paintings of the president and dancing children.

Like his North Korean hero Kim, Mugabe even established the 21st February Movement in 1986 modelled along the lines of what he saw in Pyongyang.

Even the idea of establishing the Heroes’ Acre in Zimbabwe came from North Korea in the aftermath of Mugabe’s visit. Zimbabwe under Mugabe had ideological similarities with North Korea, particularly how the social order should be organised and authoritarian models coupled with personality cult politics.

In 2009, Mugabe received a delegation from North Korea, nailing his political association colours to the mast.

He looked very comfortable in the company of the group from the far-flung outpost of tyranny.

Their shared pariah status at the time tied them together. Zimbabwe was under Western sanctions like North Korea.

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

In the run-up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, Zimbabwe invited the North Korean national team to train on its soil, sparking furious reactions.

Opposition Zapu spokesman Methuseli Moyo said:

“Our position is that North Korea is not welcome in Zimbabwe. We are wondering why people in the Government of National Unity are being (so) insensitive as to bring the same people who caused bloodshed and deaths to our region. They are just looking at the monetary values of this visit, but the fact of the matter is that it will reopen old wounds. There is nothing special about the North Koreans except that they are warmongers and nuclear power specialists.”

Due to potential protests in Matabeleland, Mugabe’s government cancelled the move.

Also in 2010, in a cruel twist of irony, North Koreans were invited by Mugabe to carve a statue of Nkomo — the very person they had tried to kill during Gukurahundi in 1983.

Nkomo was forced to London via Botswana as a result.

To add salt to injury, the statue, constructed by North Korean sculptors from the Mansudae Art Studio, oddly had some North Korean features, with the body resembling that of Kim Il Sung, Mugabe’s hero.

Due to an angry public backlash, Mugabe’s government removed the statue, only to re-erect it at the airport in Bulawayo. In 2013, reports said Harare had sold yellowcake uranium to Pyongyang in support of North Korea’s nuclear programme.

He offered to stock a Pyongyang zoo with exotic animals, including two elephants. “North Korea has always been an ally of this country since the liberation struggle days against white minority rule,” Mugabe reportedly said after the agreement.

“They have trained our soldiers, and now the Press acts as if it’s a discovery that this deal exists. Chinorwadza ipapo chii? Inga nyika dzose dzinotengeresana zvombowani? (What is paining about the issue? Is it not a fact that all nations buy weapons from one another?)”

The deal was however ultimately cancelled after its exposure.

Mugabe’s bloody alliance with North Koreans sheds further light on his inner political beliefs and his violent and murderous rule in which Mnangagwa was the loyal enforcer.

When Kim Jong Il died on 17 December 2011, Mugabe and his Zanu PF allies expressed deep and heartfelt condolences to his family and North Koreans. Didymus Mutasa, the then secretary of administration for Mugabe’s Zanu party, told Zimbabwe state radio that Kim Jong Il “was our great friend and we are not ashamed of being associated with him.”

However, Zapu was outraged by Zanu PF’s “insensitive” statements and rejected any idea of showing sympathy with the North Korean dictator.

“We will not shed any crocodile tears for the trainer of Gukurahundi, the only problem about his death is that it was before he could account for his actions, we are not apologetic about that,” Moyo said.

Kim Jong Il had led North Korea since the death of his father Kim Il Sung in 1994. When he died in 2011, he was succeeded by the current leader, his son Kim Jong Un.

Kim Jong Il was declared Eternal General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

Mugabe also lauded North Korea’s Juche ideology, with state media singing praises for the North Korean leadership and its totalitarian ideological activities.

However, since 1994 South Korea has been slowly, but surely building its relations with Zimbabwe.

And now it seems Seoul has overtaken Pyongyang in its relations with Harare. Writing in the state-controlled daily Herald recently, South Korean ambassador to Harare Park Jae Kyung said:

“This article provides an explanation for North Korea-Zimbabwe bilateral relations from the late 1970s to the early 1980s, in the context of Cold War in the Third World.

“Supporting the military resistance of African nations, North Korea sought to gain its dominance over South Korea in the diplomatic war between the two Koreas.

“North Korea contributed to the liberation of Zimbabwe and helped Robert Mugabe establish his political foundations in the country. However, North Korea’s political gain from Zimbabwe was less than it expected and hence did not make any significant changes in its competition with South Korea.

“In 1994, Zimbabwe and South Korea established formal relations. A year later, South Korea opened an embassy in Harare. It had taken 14 years for Zimbabwe to establish diplomatic relations with South Korea since its attainment of independence in 1980.

“Unlike many countries in the region and beyond, who established relations soon after Zimbabwe’s independence, it took much longer time for South Korea.

“The reason is related to the situation on the Korean Peninsula, which has been divided between the North and South.

“Zimbabwean Liberation war fighters maintained good relations with North Korea, even before its independence. The late former president, Robert Mugabe had closer ties with Kim Il-sung’s North Korea when he visited Pyongyang in the 1980s.

However, since the mid-1990s, South Korea has been a credible and constructive partner of Zimbabwe.

“For the past three decades, Zimbabwe and South Korea have been maintaining a cordial relationship.”

The diplomatic international relations and foreign policy shift from Pyongyang to Seoul for Harare left behind a trail of cooperation and genocide; the good, the bad and the ugly.

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