As pressure over North Korea's nuclear weapons program grows, America's most valued Arab allies host thousands of its labourers, whose wages help Pyongyang evade sanctions and build the missiles now threatening the US and its Asian partners, officials and analysts say.
As pressure over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program grows, America’s most valued Arab allies host thousands of its labourers, whose wages help Pyongyang evade sanctions and build the missiles now threatening the US and its Asian partners, officials and analysts say. From state-run restaurants to construction sites, North Korean workers in Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates face conditions akin to forced labour while being spied on by planted intelligence officers, eating little food and suffering physical abuse, authorities say.
North Korean labourers even have helped expand a UAE military base that hosts US forces fighting the Islamic State group, two officials familiar with Pyongyang’s tactics told The Associated Press. Emirati officials, who are now relying on South Korean expertise to build the first nuclear power plant on the Arabian Peninsula, did not respond to requests for comment.
“To put it fairly simply an isolated country like North Korea is always seeking hard currency,” said Giorgio Cafiero, the CEO of the Washington-based political risk consultancy Gulf State Analytics. “The Gulf is a place that the North Koreans see as a very reliable place to make the money.” Longstanding international concerns over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program have intensified since it conducted two nuclear tests last year and launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile July 4.
Facing US and international sanctions, North Korea has relied on its overseas labourers to get cash. China and Russia are its biggest markets, but the Gulf hosts thousands. Go Myong-Hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said some Middle East countries like North Korean workers because “they don’t run away.”
Across the Gulf, some 6,000 North Koreans work, two officials familiar with Pyongyang’s tactics told the AP, including 2,500 in Kuwait, as many as 1,500 in the UAE and 2,000 in Qatar. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential intelligence reports. Most North Koreans working in the Gulf earn around USD 1,000 a month, but the North Korean government keeps about half and another US 300 goes toward construction company managers, the officials said. That leaves workers with just USD 200.
In the UAE, eight North Korean workers typically live together in a 21-square-metre space and eat little food, the two officials said. North Korea also operates three Korean restaurants in the UAE two in Dubai and one in Abu Dhabi out of an estimated 130 it runs around the world, the officials said. The two officials said another 1,000 North Korean workers will arrive in the UAE in the coming months.
Typically, those in construction work as subcontractors, with those commissioning the projects sometimes unaware they have North Koreans working on site, the officials said. They suggest that may have been the case when North Korean workers took part in a recent expansion of the UAE’s Al-Dhafra Air Base, a major Emirati military installation outside Abu Dhabi and home to some of the 5,000 American troops stationed in the country.
Maj Josh T Jacques, a spokesman for the US military’s Central Command, which oversees the Middle East, said its policies do “not allow for the admittance or contracting of North Korean nationals and other countries of interest at any US military installation.” “We are not aware of any North Korean labourers at Al- Dhafra Air Base and we would certainly be concerned if there were,” he told the AP.
America and others have been pushing its Gulf partners to limit their exposure to North Korea. A bill passed Tuesday by the House of Representatives includes limits on the use of overseas North Korean labour.