More than 100 North Korean military advisers have arrived here to train a brigade of about 5,000 Zimbabwean troops in a program that could touch off political repercussions in the United States and South Africa.
Salisbury airport personnel witnessed 102 North Korean troops disembark in the predawn hours Saturday. The government has made no announcement and declined comment on the troops' arrival.
Western diplomats, so far adopting a low-key approach, said the North Koreans will train the brigade to use military equipment that the Pyongyang government is giving to Zimbabwe.
The materiel, which has not yet arrived, is said to include tanks, armored vehicles and light weapons. It is believed that the training program, to be carried out at Inyanga about 100 miles southeast of Salisbury near the border with Mozambique, will last about six months.
Diplomats dismissed as speculation reports that the Koreans troops will be involved in combating South African-backed rebels in neighboring Mozambique or would act as a political security force. They said they had been informed that the program will be limited to training with the North Korean-provided weapons.
Another diplomat said, "The critical matters are the numbers, the length of their stay and the purpose for being here." So far, he added, the situation "is not all that grave."
The United States, among Zimbabwe's major aid donors, may not regard the North Korean presence, which is believed to be Pyongyang's largest overseas military training program, with such equanimity. To the United States, North Korea is a hard-line Communist enemy it once fought in a war.
Zimbabwe Prime Minister Robert Mugabe sees North Korea as a nonaligned country that was one of his key suppliers of armaments during the seven-year guerrilla war for black majority rule.
Mugabe has never hidden his high regard for North Korea. He made his first official visit as prime minister to Pyongyang last October, where he signed treaties of friendship and cooperation. After his visit the media here lavished praise on North Korea and its publications began to appear in government offices.
Mugabe has criticized the presence of American troops in South Korea, and his government barred a South Korean exhibit at the country's major trade fair last year while giving prominence to the North Korean exhibit.
For Mugabe, an analyst said, North Korea is just as nonaligned as Yugoslavia, a communist country with which the United States enjoys good relations. Pyongyang has criticized the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, but it also maintains some diplomatic distance from neighboring China.
Such distinctions are certainly lost on neighboring South Africa, which fears being surrounded by communist nations and is likely to regard the North Korean move as a step in that direction. The presence of the communist troops could lead to economic retaliation by South Africa, which controls most of Zimbabwe's trade.
Mugabe is likely to feel that bringing in North Korean advisers balances out the military training program being carried out here by Britain, whose advisers are helping integrate Zimbabwe's three wartime forces into a national Army.
Sources said the British have been kept informed for months about Zimbabwe's plans. At first the British were apprehensive about the impending arrival of advisers used to a different system and tradition. But Sir Edwin Brammall, British Army chief of staff, said during a visit to Zimbabwe last month that if other countries become involved in the training it will not have any effect on the British program.
North Korea trained troops in U.S.-supported Zaire in the 1970s. The program was abandoned when Katangese rebels invaded the area, and the half-trained troops are reputed to be among the worst in the country.
The Mediterranean island of Malta currently has six Pyongyang military advisers.
In Washington, a State Department official said North Korea has been active in recent years in providing military equipment and training, including "a substantial military presence until recently in Libya." Current clients include Madagascar and Iran, where sales of relatively unsophisticated equipment are not believed to have been accompanied by military advisers, he said.
["The list of countries that at one time or another had some North Korean military advisers would extend to at least a dozen," he said, adding that Pyongyang seems to be motivated by a desire to bolster its nonaligned status and to earn much-needed hard currency.]