Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

They are, perhaps, the most bizarre income pipelines for North Korea’s rogue regime: giant statues and memorials scattered across Africa. And they may indicate violations of UN sanctions.

Both UN and US investigators say these and other constructions are a key funding driver of Kim Jong-un’s illicit missile and nuclear programme. Some are massive: the African Renaissance Monument in Dakar stands 40m high.

The one I’m standing under, just outside picturesque Windhoek, Namibia, is impressive in its own way. Granite steps slope upwards toward a triumphant bronze statue of an unknown soldier. In one hand he brandishes a Kalashnikov; in the other, what looks like a Soviet-era stick grenade. It is known as Heroes’ Acre, and the echoes of Pyongyang’s monuments are hard to miss.

In Namibia, they went all in. There’s a statue of founding father Sam Nujoma grasping the country’s constitution at the entrance to the gold-tinted National Museum. Then there’s the recently constructed presidential palace, with its giant brass marshal eagle.

The construction firm behind these monuments is Mansudae, a North Korean state company placed under sanctions in 2016. Mansudae has also worked with the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation, which the US describes as North Korea’s chief arms dealer and has been under sanctions since 2009.

The Namibian government admits it had contracts, but insists it did nothing wrong. "All of these were agreed before the sanctions by the UN". Namibia’s deputy prime minister Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah told CNN. "But when the sanctions were imposed we had to comply and then we had to cease all the contracts, we had to terminate the contracts we had with North Korea."

Hugh Griffiths, co-ordinator of the UN panel of experts on North Korea, the body charged with monitoring sanctions enforcement, says Mansudae’s income in Africa runs into tens of millions of dollars. "We are looking at at least 14 African (UN) member states where Mansudae alone was running quite large construction operations, building everything from ammunition factories, to presidential palaces, to apartment blocks."

Nandi-Ndaitwah says all the North Koreans have left, but wouldn’t say when. She also insists Namibia has offered regular reports to the UN panel. Griffiths disputes this, saying the panel hasn’t received responses from Namibia to specific queries for more than a year.

Just outside Windhoek sits a sprawling warehouse complex guarded by closed-circuit TV and high fencing. Garish golden lions stand at its gates, next to walls adorned with wildlife murals. The title deeds show that Mansudae bought the property in 2004 and still owns it. If they had left, they left in a hurry and very recently — a clear violation of UN sanctions.

The manager of a nearby tyre business told us he saw trucks leaving and entering the compound as recently as September. What’s more, a neighbour to the other side of the compound told us she would often see government vehicles, with their distinctive licence plates, going in and out.

"The panel has visited Namibia before and as they say, ‘once fooled, twice shy’," Griffiths told us. "We are not going back for some tourist visit. We need to see the evidence."

McKenzie is an international correspondent at CNN

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