The Namibian army has been exposed for violating United Nations sanctions against North Korea since 2006, severely denting Namibia’s international reputation as an exemplary African government.
President Hage Geingob, in his recent State of the Nation address to parliament, defended Namibia’s ties with North Korea, claiming their soldiers fought alongside Swapo during the liberation struggle years.
Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, Geingob’s deputy and minister of international co-operation, found herself in a diplomatic minefield after she confirmed a wide-ranging military co-operation programme with North Korea — but she repeatedly claimed this co-operation had been a thing of the past since 2005.
This turned out to be somewhat short of the full truth, as the United Nations’ Panel of Experts on North Korea noted in their February 22 report on international compliance with sanctions against Pyongyang.
Just how far this fell short of full disclosure soon became apparent, an independent investigation shows.
On the Sunday night of October 13 2012, a convoy of about 20 privately-owned trucks, their bulky loads covered with tarpaulins, left the Walvis Bay harbour under the cover of darkness and the thick fog rolling in from the Atlantic. Their destination, witnesses said, was an old copper mine at Oamites, about 40km south of Windhoek.
The client’s insistence on using heavy tarpaulins to cover the loads struck the truck drivers as a little odd, because they thought they were moving mining equipment.
The rusty state of several dozen high-pressure steel tanks suggested these had been at sea for several months, the sources said.
A large number of wooden crates were marked “Contract STNK-0103050”, with the Namibian Defence Force’s signatory red triangle, said one of the truckers.
The sea rusted tanks were taken to the new military complex at Groot Aub.
The client was August 26 (Pty) Ltd, the Namibian Defence Force’s commercial arm. It was formed in August 1998 under Namibian founding president Sam Nujoma’s prompting to take advantage of business opportunities that arose as result of Namibia’s military backing of Democratic Republic of Congo president Laurent-Desiréé Kabila.
August 26, named after the day South African forces attacked Swapo guerrillas at Omugulugwombashe in 1966, was initially used to hold the right to a diamond concession given by Kabila to Nujoma as payment for backing his tottering regime with 6?000 troops, helicopters, weapons, armoured personnel carriers and other supplies. By 2014, August 26 had grown to eight subsidiary companies and in 18 years it has not submitted annual financial reports to Parliament or been audited.
At Oamites, the truck drivers were met by a contingent of North Korean engineers and technicians who supervised the off-loading inside a large compound surrounded by a 4m wall with tight security at the entrance. The military complex was built by North Korea’s Mansudae Overseas Projects, as with all other military and monument construction projects for the ministries of defence and of veterans’ affairs.
A heavy-duty crane was hired to do the job. The load consisted of several large high-pressure chemical cracking towers, industrial mixers and dozens of crates.
“I first thought the stuff had come from Thailand; the paperwork was in some weird handwriting, like Chinese but different,” said the manager of a company involved. He had no reason to not believe the load was anything else but mining equipment. Like nearly everyone who agreed to be interviewed, he spoke on condition of anonymity.
The ministries of international co-operation and of defence have stonewalled queries about when the military complex at Oamites was built.
Nandi-Ndaitwah recently told The Namibian that the ministry of defence had several military co-operation agreements with North Korea. These included the construction of a munitions factory at Oamites, the Suiderhof military headquarters in Windhoek and a military school and museum in Okahandja, 72km north of Windhoek. The museum has remained closed to the public since it was completed in 2006.
Nandi-Ndaitwah said these contracts were implemented from 2002 to 2005, before UN Security Council Resolution 1718 was passed, and Namibia was therefore not in violation of any UN Security Council resolutions. Resolution 1718 bans transfer and trade of military technology with North Korea.
Prior to this the defence minister, Penda ya Ndakola, told Die Republikein that he knew nothing about a munitions plant or North Korea being involved with the new military headquarters. The newspaper’s questions were prompted when a February 22 report by the United Nations Panel of Experts on North Korea’s nuclear weapon development programme was leaked to it.
UN panel not aware of new military plant
The panel was set up in 2009 to enforce compliance with the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 1874, which banned, among others, any technology transfer or training that could be used for military purposes between North Korea and UN member countries.
The panel noted that Namibia had formally admitted in correspondence with them to the North Korean joint ventures, but claimed these had come to an end in 2005.
Satellite imagery used by the panel shows that the construction projects, including an unexplained new structure at the main military base outside Windhoek, were still ongoing. The experts noted that at “the time of writing, Namibia had not replied regarding the purpose of the facility under construction”.
The panel, however, appeared to not have been aware of the military complex at the old Oamites mine as their report made no reference to it or to North Korean presence there.
Historical satellite imagery of the Oamites plant, obtained via Google Earth, showed construction starting in early 2010, six months after Resolution 1874 was passed. Sources at the settlement confirmed that the complex and the accommodation facilities for military staff were built by the North Korean team.
Several international weapons experts, including those previously employed by the UN 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 Oamites in October 2012 was probably part of a production line for propellants. About 24 computer-controlled lathes, seen by a witness in the main central facility, indicated that this facility was a major munitions plant.
Weapons expert Rod Barton, in his analysis for the UN experts, said the layout of the buildings and security around the central plant 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 not a major chemical production plant and almost certainly not a chemical weapons 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.
Namibian government seems unconcerned
Inscriptions engraved on some of the tanks are in Chinese, one of which translated to “Do not vent contents”, suggesting that at least some of the plant may have originated in China, rather than North Korea.
What also remained unstated in the UN panel’s report is that the Windhoek military headquarters and Okahandja military school are financed by soft loans from China — a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
China’s Poly Technologies have become Namibia’s main suppliers of military equipment since the early 2000s, supplying the air force with Chengdu F-7 and Hongdu KW-8 fighter-trainers and a large number of armoured personnel carriers
Because of the sensitivity of the matter, the UN experts contacted were not willing to comment on the record, save to say that the challenge lay in proving that Mansudae Overseas Projects was a front for North Korean companies specified under the five different sets of sanctions imposed since 2006.
Mansudae is North Korea’s official art studio responsible for building monuments. It has been used in Namibia for military construction work since sanctions were imposed in 2006.
The Namibian government seems unconcerned; co-operation with North Korea was based on Pyongyang’s support for the liberation struggle. But historians are puzzled by this claim. North Korea was not among the 30 countries where Swapo had representation, said André du Pisani, professor emeritus at the University of Namibia.
Instead, this relationship appeared to be based on the personal relationship between Nujoma 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. Jong Il, the father of current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, 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 $300-million Chinese grant) to personally selecting the site for the Independence Memorial in Windhoek, well-placed sources said.
All the UN experts consulted were in agreement on one aspect: Namibia was clearly in violation of the UN Security Council Resolution sanctions, and especially of those passed since June 2009. Manufacturing munitions with North Korean training “falls under same rubric” as sanctions banning the transfer of any military technology, one highly-placed UN source said.
Namibia now also faced questions about how Mansudae Overseas was being paid by the Namibian government, given that North Korea has been banned from participating in the international financial system under Resolution 1874 of 2009.
Annexes to the panel’s report show that two key officials, who the UN identified as employed by the North Korean military’s arms programme, had 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 Namibia government.
This article was supported by the African Network of Centers for Investigating Reporting (ANCIR) and the Connecting Continents grant.