Now at peace with Ethiopia, it may even be in a position to throw off the unflattering moniker
ERITREA has had some unhappy claims to fame over the years. Its war of liberation from neighbouring Ethiopia, which began in the 1960s and only ended in 1991, was one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts. Then, as a newly independent country, it fought a war with Ethiopia between 1998 and 2000, one of the bloodiest in the continent’s history, which only formally ended on July 8th of this year. Eritrea was Africa’s largest single source of refugees to Europe from 2014 to 2016. Over the past decade so many people have left that Eritrea has been called the world’s fastest-emptying nation. It has been likened to Cuba and the former East Germany. But in recent years no title has proven more durable (or more controversial) than that of “Africa’s North Korea”.
There are plenty of good reasons why Eritrea is not North Korea. It is less repressive and does not have nuclear weapons. Though it has picked fights with its neighbours it poses an existential threat to none. Both Eritrea and North Korea have been sanctioned by the UN but Eritrea is subject only to an arms embargo, which might be lifted soon. Both regimes are isolationist but Eritrea’s somewhat less so: in recent years it has engaged with the European Union, allowed some UN agencies to establish offices inside the country, and cultivated strong ties with Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates. Ordinary Eritreans enjoy much more exposure to the outside world than their North Korean counterparts: satellite television is ubiquitous and the internet, though extraordinarily slow, is apparently uncensored. Eritrean nationals who have lived abroad for many years can come and go as they please, provided they toe the party line and pay a “diaspora tax”. By contrast, North Koreans who manage to get out can never return.
But there are inescapable similarities. Both are one-party states whose rulers lock up (or kill) their critics while preaching the virtues of “self-reliance”. Both are closed economies with almost no private sector, though Eritrea’s ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) no longer identifies itself as communist. Eritrea’s long cold war with Ethiopia had effects similar to those of the intractable rift on the Korean peninsula. Families were divided and trade was abruptly stopped, as a once-invisible border was replaced by an iron curtain. Eritrea, like North Korea, became a military state. Conscription into the army is compulsory and since 2002 national service—of both the military and civilian kind—has been indefinite, a system which the UN says amounts to forced labour or even slavery. Only women who marry and have children (plus the most sick, disabled or well-connected) can hope to be discharged. Fearing that citizens will flee rather than submit to this fate, the Eritrean government locks them in. Leaving requires an exit permit, which conscripts are almost never granted. The alternative is escape, which brings with it the risk of being shot or having to pay an extortionate bribe.
This is more or less the North Korean model. But Eritrea might now move in a different direction. The government always said its repressive policies were a temporary response to the threat from Ethiopia. Peace between the two countries ought to change all that. And indeed there are signs the government plans to unwind national service, reducing it to only 18 months while discharging the oldest recruits (some of whom are now in their 50s and 60s). Officials suggest the private sector may play a larger role in the economy in the future. Ordinary Eritreans, meanwhile, hope politics might loosen up a bit. Were such things to come to pass—other things being equal in Pyongyang—their country might yet shed its most unflattering of nicknames.