It was a friendly invitation from one paranoid dictatorship to another. In the lead-up to the World Cup in South Africa this month, Robert Mugabe’s government invited the North Korean soccer team to come to Zimbabwe to acclimatize and train before their big games. The North Koreans accepted the gracious offer in April, until they found out where exactly they would be training.
Zimbabwe proposed putting up the North Korean team in the western provinces of Matabeleland. But it was there, in 1982, that the North Korean military trained the Zimbabwean army’s Fifth Brigade, which slaughtered up to 20,000 members of a linguistic minority opposed to Mugabe, who celebrated his 30th year of rule this year. The locals were not enthused at the news of the North Koreans’ return. The soccer team—which this year is making its first qualifying appearance in the World Cup since 1966—was scheduled to arrive on May 25; the day before, the visit was called off due to protests from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the party that entered a power-sharing agreement with Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party following the tainted 2008 elections.
Mugabe’s fascination with North Korea dates back to the seven-year civil war that preceded Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain in 1980. His nationalist opponent, Joshua Nkomo, was funded by the South African ANC—and by extension Moscow, which prompted Mugabe to seek support elsewhere: namely, China and North Korea. Back then, Mugabe’s international image was much different than the pariah he is today: Prince Charles attended the country’s independence day ceremonies, where Bob Marley performed a song written for the occasion; Mugabe was given an honorary knighthood by the Queen in 1994 (it was revoked in 2008).
But after visiting North Korea in the early ’80s, “he came back almost a different man,” a former Mugabe aide told South African journalist R.W. Johnson, and smitten with the writings of the late Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s constitutionally declared “Eternal President.” Mugabe has often credited North Korea as a model for Zimbabwe. North Korean architects designed the Stalinist-inspired Heroes Acre revolution memorial in Harare.
Receiving North Korea’s newest ambassador in 2007, Mugabe called the country a “guiding light and friend” since Zimbabwe’s inception, and that “everything in Zimbabwe is associated with the exploits of Kim Il Sung.”
Relations between North Korea and Zimbabwe made headlines again in May, when Mugabe was ridiculed for what was called a “Noah’s Ark” project. His government offered to sell pairs of endangered wildlife to North Korean zoos: zebras, monkeys, hyenas, giraffes, antelopes and even two baby elephants—which conservationists said would be unlikely to survive the trip abroad. The head of Zimbabwe’s wildlife department claimed the deal was “purely a business arrangement” for the cash-strapped nation. According to the Washington Post, North Korea was paying $900 per giraffe and $600 per zebra; white pelicans were a mere $10 each.
Meanwhile, MDC Leader Morgan Tsvangirai was schmoozing in South Korea last month, soliciting investment.