Why Is North Korea Arming the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (TFC) – Since gaining independence from Belgium, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been chronically unstable and has been rocked by numerous coups and civil wars. DRC has always been a strategic country and as a result foreign powers have backed various actors throughout the years. However, according to a recent report, North Korea has joined the fray and provided the DRC government with arms and training for their troops. This, however, is illegal as the UN Security Council has placed an arms embargo that bans the export and import of weapons and military services to and from North Korea. This seemingly random and rather unusual scenario deserves an explanation.

DRC has been a strategic country since colonial times and has been valued by foreign powers for its abundant natural resources. DRC is abundant in resources like timber, diamonds, and tin. In recent years, DRC has also gained attention for its coltan resources. Coltan is a metal that is valued for its ability to old an electrical charge. As a result, this metal is used in almost all consumer electronics like smartphones, laptops, and videogame systems. This has made coltan a strategic resource in today’s economy. This resource is scarce and as a result, demand for this metal has caused its price to spike.

North Korea is a country that needs to obtain coltan. North Korea has greatly expanded its military and is trying to develop modern-day weapons like ballistic missiles. However, since North Korea is a rogue state, it has been sanctioned by many world powers and the UN. These sanctions have placed an arms embargo on North Korea that prevent it from both importing and exporting weapons, items that can be used for military purposes, and military services. As a result, these sanctions effectively prevent North Korea from obtaining coltan. This constrains North Korea’s ability to continue developing its military.

I believe that this has influenced North Korea’s decision to foster closer ties with the DRC. The DRC is currently in the midst of a political crisis. Joseph Kabila, the president of DRC, is currently facing domestic opposition to his seemingly indefinite tenure as president and is being heavily criticized by much of the world for his authoritarian tendencies and human rights violations. At the same time, there are a variety of rogue armed groups that are committing horrific atrocities in the country. This situation has left the DRC desperately in need of weaponry and military training.

This situation has provided North Korea with an opportunity. If it were to provide DRC with weapons and training, then it could foster closer ties with the country. Given North Korea’s need for coltan, it would seem that this attempt to form closer ties with DRC is intended to gain access to Congo’s natural resources. As a result, North Korea almost certainly wants DRC to provide it with coltan and other resources in return for the military aid that it provided.

Of greater concern, however, is the fact that the DRC is also abundant in uranium. This uranium is of high quality and can be converted into weapon-grade nuclear material with relative ease. As a result, Congolese uranium has been sought after by nuclear powers and rogue states alike, and Iran and Iraq are both suspected of previously attempting to smuggle this resource. Since North Korea’s nuclear ambitions will almost certainly outstrip its own domestic uranium production, it is probably looking abroad to fulfill its demand for nuclear material. As a result, it is likely that North Korea also has its eyes on Congo’s uranium resources.

Image Source: (stephan), Flickr, Creative Commons North Korea — Pyongyang, Arirang (Mass Games)

Image Source: (stephan), Flickr, Creative Commons
North Korea — Pyongyang, Arirang (Mass Games)

Since DRC receives some support from Western powers, I do not believe that the Congolese government would voluntarily furnish nuclear material to North Korea. However, it is well known that DRC has struggled to secure its nuclear material and that uranium smuggling is a serious problem in the country. Since North Korea has sent military trainers to Congo, it is entirely possible that they could obtain nuclear material on the black market and ship it back to their country of origin.

This possibility is disturbing because it would allow North Korea to gain the resources that it needs to expand its nuclear program. North Korea already has a nuclear weapon and is on its way to developing the technology needed to deliver it by ballistic missile. If Kim Jung Un successfully obtains this technology, then it would pose a major threat to global peace and security. However, this problem becomes even worse if North Korea is able to obtain greater quantities of nuclear material and manufacture additional weapons. As a result, it is vital that the international community takes action to prevent North Korea from accessing foreign uranium sources. This will entail extensive efforts to help DRC secure its uranium mines and stockpiles.

Preventing North Korea from accessing DRC’s natural resources is vital to hindering their nuclear program. Efforts to help Congo secure its resources, however, will also have other benefits. It is believed that terrorist organizations are seeking Congo’s uranium so that they can build a weapon of mass destruction. As a result, helping DRC to secure its natural resources will pay dividends in terms of nonproliferation and global security. The international community needs to pay greater attention to this issue and take tangible action to prevent these resources from falling into the wrong hands.