A Brief Glimpse of Africa’s Kim Jong-un
Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki is routinely called Africa’s Kim Jong-un by the Western media. The comparison is pretty simple: Eritrea is Africa’s version of North Korea and Isaias [Eritreans are addressed by their first name] is its secretive, all-empowered leader.
However, the comparison is just as crude as it is simplistic. While there are a few striking similarities between the two states and their heads of, it would be reckless to ignore their much greater differences.
Both have absolute power in their consolidated regimes – that much is certain. But, while Kim Jong-un has a flair for staged photo shoots and public appearances, catching a glimpse of Isaias Afwerki outside of his official duties is more of a challenge.
The world’s most secretive states
Of all the similarities touted by the Western media, it’s the shared secrecy of North Korea and Eritrea that binds them together. These aren’t just dictatorships; they’re closed-curtain regimes without enough cracks for US or EU diplomats to peek through.
Perhaps it’s only natural to fear what you don’t know. However, this is where the important differences between North Korea, Eritrea and their leaders begin.
We know North Korea is trying to build a stockpile of nuclear weapons – one of the few things they make no secret about. What we don’t know is whether they really have the technological capabilities to pull it off yet. Or, more concerning, what the regime intends to do with it if they succeed.
In the case of Eritrea, there’s no nuclear stockpile or risk of the country sparking World War III. Instead, it’s the exodus of Eritreans who flee the country each month to cross the Sahara Desert or Mediterranean Ocean with little more than a few possessions and their lives in tow.
We know as many as 5,000 Eritreans are fleeing the country each month; what we don’t know is how bad living conditions really are for them.
Two ‘despots’, two regimes of terror
The surge in Eritrean refugees coincides with the country’s relaxing border controls. It’s not quite understood why, but it’s easier than ever for Eritreans to exit the country and thousands appear to be taking full advantage.
In North Korea, things are very different. ‘Defectors’ risk not only their own lives but three generations of their entire family for attempting to flee the country. Any kind of betrayal to the North Korean regime or its leader is punishable by death and even high-ranking officials in the country regularly pay the price.
While the living conditions for people in these two militaristic dictatorships may be equally harsh, Eritrea doesn’t seem as determined to hold on to its own. Which hints towards the most striking difference between Kim Jong-un and Isaias Afwerki.
You don’t have to go far to see either of them referred to as ‘despots’. Billed as fanatical tyrants with uncompromising grips on power – North Korea is the lowest of the low in Western media and Eritrea is apparently just as bad.
Accounts from Eritrean refugees and North Korean defectors certainly paint a similar picture – especially those who have served in their respective nation’s military. But there are notable differences between the two regimes and their despot leaders.
Two different legacies
Kim Jong-un is painted as a god-like figure in North Korea. Statues of the enigmatic figure line the country with pictures of his face hanging on the wall of almost every building. He is everywhere and all-powerful.
Yeonmi Park, a North Korean defector, who fled the country when she was 15, told the world how she feared even thinking bad thoughts about Kim Jong-il (Kim Jong-un’s father), who was in power at the time:
“I had to be careful of my thoughts because I believed Kim Jong-il could read my mind. Every couple of days someone would disappear. A classmate’s mother was punished in a public execution that I was made to attend. I had no choice – there were spies in the neighbourhood.”
Meanwhile, Isaias Afwerki’s public figure is completely different. Isaias didn’t descend from the heavens or a divine bloodline; instead he was born in a working-class suburb of Asmara and fought incredibly hard to secure and maintain his place in power.
His public appearances are much less frequent and less contrived than his North Korean counterpart. He doesn’t have the same divine persona to maintain, no need to pretend he’s all-knowing or all-seeing. If Eritreans don’t like their living conditions, they can leave – without the same kind of resistance they would have faced in previous years.
Two different problems
The different nature of Eritrea and North Korea’s regimes present equally different problems for the world. The risk of a nuclear arms race in East Asia is becoming increasingly likely as North Korea edges towards building its own stockpile of long-range ballistic missiles.
The constant threat of renewed conflict between North and South Korea – as war that is technically still ongoing – is unmistakably a global issue that reaches far beyond the Korean peninsula.
Meanwhile, Eritrea’s threat to the wider world is growing, too. It may not come with the risk of nuclear warfare but the flow of refugees leaving the country opens a new pathway for terrorists to enter Europe and other Western targets. This threat becomes more real every year, too, as Islamic extremism grows across Africa and ISIS threatens to claim Africa as its next home.
Two different solutions
The reason it’s dangerous to carelessly compare countries like Eritrea and North Korea is because they pose very different threats to the world. It will also take very different solutions to solve their problems – and banding the two countries together is as counterproductive as it is lazy.
For North Korea, the notion of reunification with the South is a complex but ever-present solution to the regime’s struggles. As things stand, it’s difficult to see how unification would practically work but it also looks like the inevitable outcome – as long as conflict doesn’t break out first.
For Eritrea, there’s no lifeline in reunification. The country has to make it on its own and the international community has less bargaining power. The only realistic way to stem the flow of refugees leaving the African nation is to improve the living conditions there. But calling Afwerki Africa’s Kim Yong-un and further isolating his regime isn’t exactly going to improve its relations with the international community.
The habit of labelling dictators as despots is far more irresponsible journalism. It creates further divide between the international community and some of the most important regimes that question it. For years the US media tarnished Fidel Castro with the same brush – and the whole world paid attention.
It took his impending death for relations between Cuba and the US to improve. The international community can’t afford to wait until death comes knocking for Eritrea and North Korea’s leaders before they find a solution the problems they pose.