Yes, you read that headline right. There are several North Korean made and designed monuments across southern Africa in Botswana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe (among others). How exactly these monuments got there is a fascinating story and the subject of Tycho van der Hoog Master’s and upcoming PhD research at the African Studies Centre Leiden (an inter-faculty institute of Leiden University).
After spending two years learning history from books and lectures as an undergraduate, Tycho wanted to do something different. The professor who eventually became his supervisor suggested that Tycho travel to Zambia for three months to conduct archival research. It was his first time in Africa and his first time doing fieldwork. He returned to the Netherlands with an interest in both. He went back into the field for his Master’s degree, this time to Namibia. In the capital city of Windhoek, Tycho saw a strange sight: an independence museum that looked straight out of Pyongyang. Locals confirmed that it was built by North Korea and that it wasn’t the only one of its kind.
After the Korean War, North and South Korea ventured into the world in search of allies. While South Korea aligned itself with Japan, Europe, and North America, North Korea supported African independence movements on a massive scale. The National Archives contain photographs of Namibian nationalist leaders visiting Pyongyang several times in the 1980s before Namibian independence. The photos show that the independence leaders were treated to banquets, speeches, and tours through the developing North Korean state.
These visits solidified the close relationships between the first generation of African presidents and the Kim dynasty that were built on shared personal experiences. Kim Il-sung, Sam Nujoma, and Robert Mugabe were all forced into exile when their respective country’s struggle for independence began. They then became the leaders of their country’s armed independence movement and eventually the first president. Already in power for 20 years by the time of the visits from the Namibian and Zimbabwean leaders, Kim Il-sung must have been seen as a bit of an inspiration. He kept his state and regime afloat despite harsh international pressure—and did so with a very particular visual style. “From that perspective, it’s not a big surprise that Robert Mugabe said, ‘I want a National Heroes’ Acre that looks exactly the same as the one that I saw in Pyongyang in the 1980s,’” says Tycho. These monuments of Namibian and Zimbabwean independence portray a very specific version of history, and the use of the North Korean visual style legitimizes the new regimes.
For North Korea, these monuments were an investment in the future. Once the southern African independence movements succeeded and formed governments, North Korea would have new allies for political favours. “It’s important to realize that during the Cold War North Korea was a very different state than it is today,” explains Tycho. “In the 1990s, the socialist state system collapsed and there was a harsh famine. Then when North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, widespread international sanctions followed. But before these events, North Korea was a functional state with a different appeal in international relations.” Interesting though, several African countries maintained their warm ties to North Korea, despite heavy international criticism. The Independence Memorial Museum in Namibia, (which incidentally inspired Tycho’s Master’s project) opened its doors in 2014, signifying the ongoing relations between African countries and North Korea.
Tycho’s Master’s thesis focused only on Namibia and Zimbabwe, but for his PhD dissertation he wants to broaden the geographical perspective and deepen the historical dimension. He’s now specializing in Korean history and learning Korean. During his research, he will be travelling to South Korea to perfect his language skills and contact North Korean defectors who were working as diplomats in Africa during independence. And while North Korea remains a sensitive topic in southern Africa, he would like to interview former African freedom fighters, some of whom were trained in armed combat by the North Koreans. “There’s this big idea that North Korea has always been a very isolated state, but if you look at this example it wasn’t always the case,” says Tycho.