Africa’s role in strengthening sanctions against North Korea


On 9 September, the verification system of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty’s Preparatory Commission detected an unusual seismic event originating from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), pointing to a nuclear detonation. Soon afterwards, North Korea’s official news agency confirmed the suspicions, announcing that the country had just conducted its fifth nuclear test.

According to preliminary assessments, this test was the most powerful ever to have been conducted by the DPRK – with an estimated yield of 10 to 30 kilotons or, in other words, the equivalent of 10 000 to 30 000 tons of TNT-type explosive. (For the sake of comparison, the nuclear weapon dropped on Hiroshima had a yield of approximately 15 kilotons.)

Although the Pyongyang regime took great pride in announcing the test, the device remains of a relatively low yield compared to those currently deployed by established nuclear-weapon states. For instance, the road-mobile version of the Topol-M, in service in the Russian strategic forces, is considered to carry a 550-kiloton warhead.

African states are relying less and less on the DPRK as an economic partner

In spite of this, the 9 September test is particularly worrying. It confirms President Kim Jong-un’s fixation on arming his country with the most devastating weapons. This, coupled with provocative rhetoric, is sending his people on a trajectory with incalculable consequences.

The previous nuclear tests conducted by North Korea – in October 2006, May 2009, February 2013 and January 2016 – had a limited effect on the African continent. Most countries refrained from explicitly condemning those grave threats to international peace and security. In this deafening silence, South Africa and Egypt proved the exception.

In 2006, South Africa strongly condemned the test conducted by North Korea, reiterating this position after each of the subsequent nuclear tests. Furthermore, the South African position has been strengthened by its expression of concerns over ballistic missile launches by North Korea. The Egyptian government has taken a similarly strong stance against the North Korean nuclear weapons programme by firmly condemning the nuclear test of 2006.

In recent years, North Korea’s influence in Africa has been waning. In this context, African states might feel more comfortable to react strongly to North Korea’s aggressive actions.

Overall, the economic relationship between African states and the DPRK is on a declining trend. In 2015, the total value of trade activities (import, export, re-export of all types of commodities) between African states and the DPRK amounted to only USD93 million, compared to USD124 million in 2014.

From 2011 to 2015, the total value of trade activities averaged at USD118 million per year, against USD337 million per year from 2007 to 2010. While the volume of trade activities saw a significant increase in the period immediately following the 2006 sanctions, this trend has passed. Generally, African states are relying less and less on the DPRK as an economic partner.

Source: ISS, using DESA/UNSD COMTRADE data

Several African states have formally distanced themselves from North Korea in recent years. Following a report from the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea, Botswana cut diplomatic ties with the DPRK in 2014, stating that it ‘does not wish to be associated with a Government which continues to display such total disregard for the human rights of its citizens.’

All African states, have a responsibility to ensure that sanctions on the DPRK are enforced

Earlier this year, Uganda officially disengaged from military and security cooperation with the DPRK, deciding not to renew several cooperation agreements. In July, Namibia announced that it was cutting ties with state-run companies from North Korea. There are indications that other African states are considering similar actions.

In March this year, the three African states currently sitting in the UN Security Council – Angola, Egypt and Senegal – voted in favour of resolution 2270 (2016), which imposes new and tougher sanctions on the DPRK in response to its fourth nuclear test.

Previously, African states sitting in the Security Council as non-permanent members similarly decided to support sanctions as a means of applying multilateral pressure against the destabilising behaviour of North Korea. Resolution 1718 (2006) was adopted with the support of the Republic of the Congo, Ghana and Tanzania; resolution 1874 (2009) with the support of Burkina Faso, Libya and Uganda; and resolutions 2087 and 2094 (2013) with the support of Morocco, Rwanda and Togo.

There is little doubt that Angola, Egypt and Senegal, as members of the UN Security Council, will soon have to decide on additional sanctions. Those in place prior to the 9 September nuclear test were already crippling the North Korean regime with heavy, multi-faceted measures aimed at constraining, and ultimately abolishing, its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes. There is room, however, to further strengthen these sanctions while still minimising the impact on ordinary North Koreans, who bear no responsibility for the situation.

The PSC is ideally positioned to assist African states in implementing sanctions regimes

All African states, not only those sitting in the Security Council, have a responsibility to ensure that sanctions on the DPRK are enforced. Implementing sanctions decided by the Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter is not only a legal obligation, but also a moral duty, given the consequences that could result from increased tensions in the Korean peninsula.

So far, a limited number of African states have reported to the UN Security Council’s 1718 Committee on the measures they have taken to implement the sanctions on North Korea.

Rather than signalling any complacency vis-à-vis the North Korean nuclear weapons programme, this reflects mainly a lack of resources and appropriate mechanisms to implement sanctions.

African UN member states having submitted a report to the 1718 Committee on the implementation of sanctions on North Korea

African UN member state

Reports pursuant to resolution 1718 (2006)

Reports pursuant to resolution 1874 (2009)

Reports pursuant to resolution 2094 (2013)

Reports pursuant to resolution 2270 (2016)


14 May 2007








25 July 2016

Burkina Faso

4 May 2010





29 June 2012



27 May 2016


24 December 2014





3 February 2011




South Africa

7 December 2006

3 December 2010


8 June 2016


13 August 2010



6 June 2016

Source: Adapted from

The African Union’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) is ideally positioned to assist African states in their efforts to implement sanctions regimes, and particularly with respect to the DPRK. The Egyptian Chair of the PSC recently convened a meeting dedicated to the re-activation of the PSC’s subsidiary bodies, giving hope that the long-awaited sanctions committee within the PSC may become operational.

A press release issued today emphasises the AU’s demand for ‘the strict respect of pertinent UN Security Council resolutions, and in line with AU’s decisions on nuclear weapons testing as a real threat to peace and security in the world.’ This shows that the continental body takes the matter seriously.

Including the matter of sanctions on the agenda of the Annual Consultations between the PSC and the UN Security Council could also bring mutual benefits. This mechanism, which aims to harmonise the work of the two bodies, would be an ideal platform to channel the views of African states on UN-based sanctions, thus securing their increased support.

Nicolas Kasprzyk, Consultant, Transnational Threats and International Crimes Division, ISS Pretoria

Picture: ©UN Photo/Evan Schneider

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