Thousands of North Korean labourers in US-allied Gulf nations earning hard cash for Pyongyang
From state-run restaurants to construction sites, workers in Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates face conditions akin to forced labour
As international concern over North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme mounts, America’s most valued Arab allies are hosting thousands of its labourers, whose wages help Pyongyang evade sanctions and build the missiles that now threaten 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 have even helped expand a UAE military base that hosts US forces fighting Islamic State, said two officials familiar with Pyongyang’s tactics.
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 chief executive 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.”
Long-standing international concern over North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme has intensified since it conducted two nuclear tests last year and then launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile on July 4.
Facing US and international sanctions, North Korea has relied on its overseas labourers to bring in 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 Eastern countries like North Korean workers because “they don’t run away”.
About 6,000 North Koreans work across the Gulf, two officials familiar with Pyongyang’s tactics said, including 2,500 in Kuwait, up to 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 about US$1,000 a month. The North Korean government keeps about half of their salary and another US$300 goes to construction company managers, the officials said. That leaves workers with just US$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 would 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.
Major 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 said.
America and others have been pushing its Gulf partners to limit their exposure to North Korea. A bill passed on Tuesday by the House of Representatives includes limits on the use of overseas North Korean labour.
In Oman, the sultanate expelled 300 North Koreans working in the country in December, according to South Korea. Another 80 are believed to remain. In Qatar, the UN said one construction company dismissed 90 North Korean workers in 2015 over abuse and labour law violations that included an incident that killed one labourer.
North Korea’s sole embassy for the region is in Kuwait City, where authorities in 2016 stopped direct flights by the country’s state-run Air Koryo and ceased issuing new worker visas. Embassy officials there and authorities in Kuwait and Qatar did not respond to requests for comment.
Oman’s Embassy in Washington said “it’s the first time we hear of” North Korean workers being expelled from the sultanate, without answering any questions.
Today, Gulf nations keep their ties with North Korea largely quiet while supplying oil and natural gas to Pyongyang’s closest adversaries South Korea and Japan. Given that, as well as their close defence ties to the US, Gulf nations would likely side against North Korea if given a firm enough push, Cafiero said.
“The Arab Gulf states would have a lot to lose if there was a conflict,” he said.