by Giorgio Cafiero
Until 25 years ago, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) had no diplomatic ties with the Arabian Peninsula’s pro-Western and staunchly anti-Communist monarchies. Throughout the Cold War, Pyongyang’s relations with Arab governments were ideological and mainly limited to providing military support to those which leaned toward the Kremlin such as Egypt, Libya, South Yemen, and Syria. During Oman’s Dhofar Rebellion (1965-1976), the DPRK armed and trained the Marxist insurgents who waged deadly acts of sabotage in the Sultanate. Following the Soviet Union’s implosion, however, North Korea pragmatically sought new ties across the world and reached out to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members. Between 1992 and 2007, the DPRK established official diplomatic relations with all GCC states except Saudi Arabia.
Today, Pyongyang’s one embassy in the GCC is in Kuwait, which largely due to the DPRK’s support for Saddam Hussein did not form diplomatic ties with North Korea until 2001. Despite being a close ally of the DPRK’s three main adversaries – the US, the Republic of Korea (ROK), and Japan, Kuwait’s relationship with North Korea fits into the Arab Gulf state’s foreign policy strategy of maintaining diplomatic relations with almost all member-states of the United Nations, including those that receive frequent condemnation from the intergovernmental organization. Out of Pyongyang’s embassy in Kuwait City, North Korea’s ambassador to Kuwait, So Chang Sik, also represents his country to Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE; Oman-DPRK relations go through Muscat and Pyongyang’s embassies in China and Egypt.
Kuwait City and Pyongyang’s mutually beneficial economic relationship is uncomplicated. The DPRK has several thousand nationals working as foreign laborers on construction projects in the oil-rich sheikdom. These workers are all men and include both North Korean civilians and military personnel (the latter disguised as civilians with long hair) whom Kuwaiti firms have hired largely due to their reputation for being some of the hardest working laborers in the Gulf, willing to work for lower wages than workers from other Asian countries. They mainly work as cement pourers and provide their services after the sun sets to avoid the Gulf’s scorching heat and to decrease their visibility and interaction with South Koreans. As international sanctions on Pyongyang continue to severely damage North Korea’s economic health, the DPRK’s laborers in Kuwait provide the Hermit Kingdom with a lifeline by bringing in hard currency; North Korean officials confiscate up to 50 percent of payments as a loyalty fee to generate badly needed revenue.
The situation with North Korean workers in Kuwait, however, has been no bed of roses. Last year, hundreds of laborers from the DPRK held a strike to protest non-payment of salaries and received orders to return to Pyongyang. Additionally, authorities in Kuwait, where alcohol is outlawed, have arrested North Korean workers who illegally distilled and distributed sadeeqi. The local press covers the cases of North Koreans who die after crossing streets and getting hit by cars (the Kuwaiti media reports them as Koreans, as opposed to North Koreans).
In exchange for these laborers, Kuwait invested in North Korea’s infrastructure between 2005 and 2015. The Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development (KPAED)—the country’s agency for international development—financed three water treatment plants’ rehabilitation in the DPRK’s capital, in addition to the Onha Canal and Botong River, and the growth of sewage pumping stations in Pyongyang. North Korea’s Ministry of Land and Environment Protection also signed a contract with KFAED for the construction of a two-lane highway in the DPRK.
Kuwaiti-North Korean relations have limits due to Kuwait’s important global alliances. Understanding that the remittances from Kuwait generate revenue for the DPRK, South Korea has put pressure on Kuwait City to stop issuing visas to North Korean workers. The US has also taken issue with North Korea’s relationship with Kuwait. The Obama administration put pressure on Kuwait to stop flights between Kuwait City and Pyongyang, which Air Koryo (North Korea’s state-owned airline) had been operating since 2011. In October, while meeting with Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Sabah al-Khalif al-Sabah in the US-Kuwait Strategic Dialogue, former US Secretary of State John Kerry thanked the Kuwaiti leadership for its “efforts to help counter the proliferation” of the “illegal and illegitimate” regime in Pyongyang.
Previously, North Korean laborers used to fly to Kuwait on Air Koryo with one stop in Beijing for fuel and back to the DPRK non-stop from Kuwait. With Kuwait having shut down, at least temporarily, the operation of direct flights, North Korea’s workers now have a longer journey to Kuwait with transfers in China, Thailand, and/or Pakistan. Yet such curbing of flights is unlikely to only harm the North Korean government.
“Even if the workers receive only 10 percent of their wages, however, the assignment yields considerably more than virtually any official job inside North Korea,” according to John Feffer. “Despite the long hours, and rather difficult and dangerous work, the overseas assignments [in the GCC] are much sought after among North Korean workers.” Given the severity of the cash-strapped DPRK’s economic problems and the ability of North Korean workers to easily accrue hard currency in the Gulf states, Pyongyang will likely pursue all efforts to maintain Kuwait as an economic partner amid UN efforts to isolate the Hermit Kingdom.
The Future of Kuwait-DPRK Relations
Two weeks after Donald Trump began his presidency, Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned North Korea from Seoul that the DPRK’s use of its nuclear weapons would receive an “effective and overwhelming” US military response. Mattis reconfirmed that Washington intends to deploy a US missile defense system to the ROK before the end of this year. Mattis’ trip to South Korea followed a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the North Korean threat, in which lawmakers on both sides of the aisle identified the DPRK as “one of the most urgent security challenges facing the United States” and vowed to strengthen cooperation with Seoul and Tokyo to counter Pyongyang, which senators warned may soon become the third country capable of launching ICBM attacks on US soil.
Ultimately, for the past 16 years Kuwait has managed to grow its official relations with both the DPRK and the ROK, as well as remain a major trade partner of Japan and a key US ally. Trump’s circle may well maintain the Obama administration’s view of Kuwait as an important lever to pull as it contemplates its options for addressing North Korea. Depending on how the Trump administration addresses the Korean Peninsula, Kuwait may come under more pressure to distance itself from the regime in Pyongyang. Given Kuwait’s deep alliance with Saudi Arabia and the DPRK-Iran partnership, some pressure may also come from the Kingdom, which is under attack from North Korean-provided SCUD missiles that forces allied to the Houthi rebel movement have fired into southern Saudi Arabia (Pyongyang did not recently put these into any Yemeni faction’s arsenal; in 2002, the former Yemeni regime purchased roughly 20 of these missiles from the DPRK).
Nonetheless, sources in Kuwait believe that the government is unlikely to shut down the DPRK’s embassy. The Kuwaitis simply see the Hermit Kingdom as a valuable source of foreign labor. North Korea’s leaders will certainly continue viewing Kuwait as an important economic partner in the oil-rich Gulf and a hub for DPRK-GCC diplomacy. The Kuwaitis, even if under pressure from North Korea’s adversaries, will probably see it in their national interest to maintain mutually beneficial albeit quiet ties with the world’s most isolated country.
Photo of North Korean restaurant in Dubai by Giorgio Cafiero