North Korean monuments under the African sun

Interview | Tycho van der Hoog on the shady world behind the façade of remarkable structures

The Heroes’ Acre in Windhoek, Namibia: the statue of the unknown soldier strongly resembles Namibia’s first president Sam Nujoma

A surreal discovery: North Korea built monuments all over Southern Africa. When Tycho van der Hoog (25), researcher at the African Studies Centre Leiden, encountered a Stalinist-looking building in the center of Namibia’s capital city Windhoek, he could not believe his eyes. What is the story behind these structures? And what can these monuments tell us about North Korean ties to the African continent?

“I was in Namibia to conduct fieldwork for my research on the history of beer brewing in southern Africa. On my first day in the country, I strolled through the capital city Windhoek. To my surprise, I bumped into a colossal, coffee-pot shaped building with a metres high, bronze North Korea-style statue of former Namibian president Sam Nujoma.”

tycho
Tycho van der Hoog

From locals, Van der Hoog learnt that North Koreans constructed this building. “The combination of a sunny, African country and North Korean totalitarian architecture felt like a brain error. From that moment on, I was completely under the spell of that strange structure.”

Van der Hoog decided to dedicate his Master thesis to the existence of Northern Korean monuments in Southern Africa. “I started digging and quickly stumbled upon fascinating discoveries: who would expect to find Kim Il Sung’s speeches translated into African languages in Namibian archives?” 

AK-47

“Many of the monuments I visited, are not frequently visited by tourists or locals. Take the “National Heroes Acre” in Zimbabwe for example – located ten kilometres from the capital city Harare, built to commemorate Zimbabwean guerrillas who fought in the liberation war. A gigantic cemetery, with a grandstand with a capacity of 5000 people and shaped like two AK-47’s – the prime weapon used in the liberation war.

Overview of the National Heroes' Acre in Harare, Zimbabwe. Seen from the top, the monument resembles two AK-47's. The famous gun is also portrayed on the national coat of arms
The National Heroes Acre in Zimbabwe. Seen from above, the site resembles two AK-47 rifles.

Liberation movements

“These monuments however, do serve a purpose. If you want to grasp the story behind these structures, you need to understand the history of independence struggles in southern Africa. Most of these monuments are built to commemorate independence struggles and portray scenes of glorious battle fields against former colonisers and oppressors. In doing so, the monuments legitimize the power of the current political leaders of these countries.”

“From the 1960s onwards, many independence movements in Africa were supported by North Korea through political assistance, weapons supply and training. The leadership of many African liberation movements were invited to North Korea for magnificent tours through Pyongyang and were received as statesmen in waiting. From the moment countries such as Namibia, Angola, Mozambique and Zambia became independent from its colonisers, these independence movements were transformed into political parties. Many of these parties continue to rule today.”

“To put it quite bluntly, many African leaders could not care less about UN sanctions”

“North Korea too is ruled by a former liberation movement. Kim Il Sung, the alleged founder of the DPRK, fought against the Japanese as a guerrilla. To strengthen the personality cult of Kim Il Sung, the North Koreans became experts in designing propaganda art that depicts the independence struggle against Japanese colonial rule.”

“By asking the help of the North Koreans in constructing nationalist monuments, palaces, cemeteries and museums, African countries use North Korean imagery to say: ‘we are the ones who freed this country, therefore we have the right to govern it.’”

More obscure are North Korea’s motives for building monuments in Africa. Van der Hoog: “I suspect the prime reason to be money. If we want to understand why North Korea, despite all the sanctions, is able to survive in a hostile international environment, we cannot ignore the role of African countries. To put it quite bluntly, many African leaders could not care less about UN sanctions.”

Het standbeeld van de Onbekende Soldaat in de Heroes' Acre in Windhoek. Het standbeeld vertoont grote gelijkenissen met de eerste president van Namibië, Sam Nujoma.
The Heroes’ Acre in Windhoek, Namibia.

Tip of the iceberg

“The National Independence Museum in Windhoek was built in 2014, in the midst of UN sanctions against North Korea. It sure seems as if North Korea is in cahoots with Southern African countries to evade sanctions. Are the United Nations being tricked? To obtain a comprehensive image of the scale of North Korea’s ties to Africa, much more research is needed. But that is easier said than done.”

Van der Hoog was denied access to certain archives. “If you ask too many questions, the government gets nervous. Not so strange, considering that research by the United Nations has revealed that the same company that constructs the North Korean monuments in Namibia, “Mansudae Overseas Projects”, serves as front company for North Korea’s biggest weapons trade company, KOMID. The monuments are just the tip of the iceberg of North Korean activities in Africa.”

“I do not reveal any of my informants’ identities in my thesis. It could harm them gravely”

Here, Van der Hoog enters a shadowy world, not free from dangers for the scholar. In 2016, two Japanese journalists in Namibia were arrested, questioned for hours and their gear confiscated. The journalists revealed a story on a North Korean ammunition factory. They were deported the same day.

Those who enter the world of sanction evasion and international arms trade needs to be careful. “An experience like this could also happen to me. It is clear that the monuments are a façade for shady business. This is why I do not reveal any of my informants’ identities in my thesis. It could harm them gravely.”

Elements of the Heroes' Acre in Zimbabwe, including the statues of the Unknown Soldiers and the basilisk
The National Heroes’ Acre in Zimbabwe constructed by Mansudae Overseas Projects.

“For my prospected PhD research, I am in the process of finding funding to dive deeper into the world of the North Korean monuments. Which deals go on behind the façade of North Korean art in Africa? And how can we be serious about sanctioning North Korea for their nuclear programme, while turning a blind eye to the – often illicit – trade with African countries? Many questions remain unanswered.”

Tycho van der Hoog’s thesis “North Korean monuments in southern Africa: Legitimizing party rule through the National Heroes’ Acres in Zimbabwe and Namibia”

An updated version of this thesis will be published as a book by the African Studies Centre Leiden in 2019.

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