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Uganda and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un health fears: focus on future relationship

By David Whitehouse
Posted on Thursday, 23 April 2020 15:44

Kim Jong Un's sister Kim Yo Jong, who may be in line to replace her ailing brother, shakes hands with South Korean presidential national security director Chung Eui-Yong, June 12, 2019. Korean Central News Agency KCNA via Reuters.

Reports that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is in critical condition after undergoing heart surgery create uncertainty for Uganda, historically North Korean’s main African ally.

Even if Kim Jong Un recovers, it’s unclear who is running the show in North Korea while he remains publicly invisible – or what a succession plan would look like if he dies.

Uganda’s relationship with North Korea has deep roots. In the early 1970s, North Korea extended military training and supplies to Idi Amin and opened an embassy in Kampala in 1972. The relationship survived Amin’s downfall. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who came to power in 1986, was a student at the University of Dar es Salaam in 1969 when he first met a North Korean representative.

North Korea expanded its military and police training in Uganda under Museveni’s rule. In June 2013, North Korean vice minister Ri Song Chol was even pictured with a tear gas gun sold to Uganda while on an official visit.

“North Korea and Uganda have a relatively long relationship and that relationship has survived government changes on both sides,” says Shea Cotton, research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California.

READ MORE: African Angles – North Korea’s Cold War hang-up

Even if Kim Jong Un does not return to public view in the coming weeks, “there’s a lot both states have put into the relationship which I think is likely to keep it going.” The Wall Street Journal reported in December 2018 that Uganda has maintained military links with North Korea, despite international sanctions against Pyongyang.

But Kim Jong Un, thought to be aged 36, is far too young to be attracting health-scare stories.

  • If he survives, “perhaps Uganda’s government begins looking elsewhere for friends thinking that a future with North Korea is too unpredictable,” says Cotton.

Charm offensive

The succession process in the event of Kim Jong Un’s death is highly opaque. Douglas Kim, an analyst in South Korea, identifies six possibilities from within the ruling family and military leaders.

  • Kim Jong-Un’s younger sister, Kim Yo-Jong, and Kim Pyong-Il, son of Kim Il-Sung who ruled until 1994, are the most likely candidates, he argues.

South Korea has targeted North Korea’s allies with summit diplomacy, offers of security cooperation, and economic incentives to encourage them to distance themselves from North Korea.

  • According to a study in The Nonproliferation Review in 2019, South Korean efforts, so far,  to unpick the relationship between North Korea and Uganda have been “a qualified success story.”
  • In May 2016, South Korea’s Park Geun-hye and Museveni signed a memorandum on bilateral cooperation
  • Park visited Uganda in June 2016, the first South Korean president to do so since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1963.
  • That month saw the first intelligence-exchange conference between Uganda and South Korea in Seoul.
  • The security cooperation extended by South Korea, as well as China, “offered Kampala alternatives to its historic pattern of cooperation with North Korea,” writes Sayaka Shingu, the Japanese author of the study.

Cotton notes that South Korea has been trying to weaken North Korea’s relationship with Uganda “with some degree of success.

  • “If Kim Jong Un did die I could picture South Korea seeing that as an opportunity to turn up the charm offensive and peel Uganda off from North Korea,” he says.

Bottom line: Prolonged uncertainty over Kim Jong Un’s health would give Uganda the chance to rethink its choice of Korean ally.

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