UN report alleges Nigeria planned to purchase arms from North Korea, violating sanctions

By Harry Clynch
Posted on Wednesday, 28 September 2022 16:25

Soldiers stand guard on a armoured tank outside an IDP camp in Nigeria's Maiduguri on 8 June 2017. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

A forthcoming UN report alleges that Nigeria planned to purchase $3.5m worth of arms from Haegeumgang Trading Corporation, a “weapons trading entity” associated with the Korean People’s Army and North Korean government. This would be a major violation of sanctions imposed by the UN, European Union, and US, all of which prohibit the purchase of arms from North Korea.

It is not yet clear whether the deal would have gone ahead before the UN panel exposed the potential purchase. Modupe Ativie, a specialist in regulatory compliance and sanctions based in Port Harcourt, believes “it is very unlikely that Nigerian government leaders would outrightly breach US, UK, and EU sanctions”.

“My first though[t] is that this could be [the actions of] another military or militia group in the country, such as the Boko Haram group in Northern Nigeria, or other smaller ones in the Niger Delta region,” she says. “The consequences of going through with a transaction like this would be so grievous that I doubt that Nigeria would want to trade with a globally sanctioned country like North Korea.”

Diplomatic ties

However, other experts point out that Nigeria has long had diplomatic relations with North Korea. Edward Howell, a lecturer in politics at the University of Oxford who specialises in North Korean diplomacy, says this alleged arms deal could “reflect the broader ties between the two states”.

“Since they established diplomatic ties in 1976, the two states have signed various memoranda of understanding, and agreed to foster cooperation in public health in 2020, amidst the onset of coronavirus,” he says.

Furthermore, Howell notes that Nigeria has contravened North Korea-related sanctions before. “In breach of UN sanctions, Nigeria has hosted North Korean labourers, despite sanctions calling for their return by December 2019. It thus seems no surprise that these two states would try and cooperate militarily, too.”

Indeed, there is a broader history of North Korean military involvement in Africa. Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea have all previously traded weapons with the sanctioned state. The lingering influence of North Korea in Africa is partly a legacy of the Cold War, with some states having political sympathies for the allegedly “self-reliant” or “anti-colonial” country.

[…] there is no automatic UN action or penalty for violation of sanctions

In the case of Nigeria, however, any potential deal with North Korea is likely to be motivated simply by cost: the rogue state is able to provide cheap weapons, even if they are not of the highest quality. North Korea is also unlikely to impose any conditions for how the weapons are to be used, as can be the case with other suppliers.

What consequences would Nigeria face if the country were to violate these sanctions? Alastair Morgan, a former British ambassador to Pyongyang and member of the UN Panel of Experts on North Korea sanctions, says “there is no automatic UN action or penalty for violation of sanctions”.

“Any action or penalty would be taken or put in place by UN member states acting separately or collectively, such as the Security Council. In theory, the Security Council or the 1718 Committee of the Security Council [the Sanctions Committee on North Korea] could designate Nigerian persons for violation of the sanctions,” Morgan says, while adding that “in practice, this is unlikely”.

Consequences

Perhaps the most likely risk for Nigeria in engaging with the North Korean government is reputational. Foreign governments and corporations may be deterred from investing in Nigeria if they believe there is a chance their business could be indirectly associated with North Korean human rights abuses, or if their activity in Nigeria could breach sanctions and therefore incur penalties.

Particularly in an era where environmental, social and government (ESG) concerns are nearer the top of investors’ concerns, many banks and financial institutions are acting with even greater caution than is strictly necessary when dealing with UN sanctions and wider reputational risk.

In order to deter Nigeria, and other African countries, from engaging with North Korea, Morgan argues that it is important “to demonstrate that it is not possible to violate North Korea’s sanctions with impunity”. He also notes that “there is a role for UN member states with a diplomatic presence in Africa to engage with African countries on the necessity and importance of observing UN sanctions and the potential consequences of not doing so.”

More broadly, Morgan further suggests that this case demonstrates “there is a role for capacity building” when it comes to the UN’s presence in Nigeria and in countries across Africa.

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