Several days ago, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe rolled out the red carpet for Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, reportedly in celebration of a secret deal for Zimbabwe to receive Iranian oil in exchange for access to the large amounts of uranium ore thought to be under its soil.
During the visit, Mr. Ahmadinejad trumpeted solidarity with the troubled nation, slammed Western nations' "satanic pressures on the people of Zimbabwe," and predicted "humiliation and defeat for our enemies."
But that was last week.
For many Zimbabweans, however, news of the arrangement is unacceptable. After all, it was North Korea's military that trained Mugabe's notorious Fifth Brigade, which killed an estimated 20,000 people in the 1980s.
“Our position is that North Korea is not welcome in Zimbabwe," says Methuseli Moyo, spokesman for the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) party, which has threatened widespread protests timed to the team's arrival. "We are wondering why the people in the Government of National Unity are being [so] insensitive as to bring the same people who caused bloodshed and deaths to our region. They are just looking at the monetary values of this visit, but the fact of the matter is that it will reopen old wounds. There is nothing special about the North Koreans except that they are warmongers and nuclear power specialists.
“If they come here, thousands of ZAPU supporters will express themselves in any way they deem fit, even through violence," says Mr. Moyo. "For now, we will not disclose what course of action we will take, but they are not welcome.”
'Purely a sports issue?'
The North Koreans will stay two weeks until June 6, when they will move to their main World Cup base in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Mr. Muzembi, who estimates that the team’s visit and the presence of World Cup-bound tourists could bring in $100 million, defended the North Korean team's stay.
“Sport is different from politics," says Muzembi. "It is unfortunate that people mix these things. I wouldn't want to make this a political issue. It’s purely a sports issue.”
MDC slams visit
Morgan Tsvangirai, prime minister in a fragile power-sharing government with Mugabe and once a top rival of Mugabe, has not spoken publicly about the North Korean decision, but a source in his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said the party was unhappy.
"As a party we condemn the scandalous invitation of North Korea," an MDC spokesman said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to security concerns. "The team’s presence here instead of South Africa will definitely send the wrong message about the kind of company we keep at a time when the people of Africa and the whole world think we are beginning to move in the right direction. The visit puts a huge dent on the image of the country and could scare away any potential investors.”
The soccer team’s arrival follows a high-powered visit by North Korea's political leadership, including the country's No. 2 leader, Kim Yong-nam, to Harare last May. That followed the discovery of uranium in northern Zimbabwe, but Mugabe said it would only ever be used to boost energy supplies.
Political analyst Takura Zhangazha, a former director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, said the invitation was a snub not only to the victims of the massacres but also the MDC.
“Their [North Korea's] presence in Zimbabwe is a confirmation of solidarity between the so-called rogue states with [Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party]," says Mr. Zhangazha. "There is high suspicion that deals between Zimbabwe and the country were done in the past and this is just a way to give flesh to it.”
“Mugabe is swimming against the tide of opinion in Africa against North Korea. The two countries have always enjoyed a close friendship, regardless of what the West thinks," says Mr. Akopari. “They know how this looks outside Zimbabwe and inside, but do they care? I don’t think so.”
--- A correspondent who could not be named due to security concerns contributed from Harare, Zimbabwe.