On June 8, 2016, Radio Free Asia reported that dozens of North Korean guest workers in Kuwait’s construction industry went on strike after their salaries were not paid. Following a lengthy standoff with their government minders, insubordinate North Korean guest workers were ordered to leave Kuwait and return to Pyongyang.
The June 8 strike highlighted the growing prevalence of labor unrest amongst North Korean guest workers in the Middle East. In early April, 100 North Korean guest workers in Kuwait protested against remittance demands by the North Korean government. Earlier this year, two North Korean prisoners fled from state surveillance in Qatar, after a Qatari construction company fired 20 of their colleagues.
Despite rising labor unrest and scathing criticism from human rights organizations, North Korea is likely to continue to export guest workers to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Remittances from the GCC bloc help the DPRK alleviate the economic damage wrought by UN sanctions.
Kuwait has played a particularly important role in assisting the North Korean economy. Over the past decade, Kuwait has imported large numbers of skilled tradespeople and unskilled laborers from North Korea in exchange for vital investments in the DPRK’s capital-starved economy. North Korea’s exports of construction workers and impoverished military personnel to Kuwait has increased markedly under Kim Jong-un, despite UN efforts to isolate Pyongyang.
Why Kuwait is a Vital Economic Partner for North Korea
Even though Kuwait had more cordial relations with the Soviet Union than other GCC countries during the Cold War and was the second largest destination for Korean guest workers in the Middle East after Saudi Arabia during the 1970s oil boom, Kuwait only established diplomatic relations with North Korea in 2001. North Korea’s military assistance to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the 1990s and lack of diplomatic relations with Kuwait’s closest ally, Saudi Arabia, help explain the DPRK’s belated outreach to Kuwait.
Even though Oman and Qatar had already forged diplomatic ties with North Korea during the early 1990s, Kuwait swiftly became North Korea’s leading GCC partner. Kuwait hosts North Korea’s only embassy in the GCC bloc. The DPRK’s representative to Kuwait, So Chang-sik, also acts as North Korea’s ambassador to Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Since 2011, North Korea’s state airline, Air Koryo, has made regular flights to Kuwait. Kuwait’s accessibility for North Korean planes has made it the principal origin point for North Korean guest workers entering the Middle East.
In addition to accepting North Korean guest workers, Kuwait has made numerous investments in the North Korean economy. In 2013, Ambassador So praised Kuwait for its efforts to encourage tourism to North Korea and for providing financial assistance for Pyongyang’s 2005 refurbishment of its water treatment facilities. In exchange for these investments, North Korea has sent thousands of engineers and technicians to Kuwait to assist in construction projects.
North Korean workers have also participated in the construction of Kuwaiti cultural establishments. The Times of Kuwait reported in 2013 that North Korean artists assisted in the construction of the Kuwait House for National Works Museum. This museum documented the atrocities perpetrated by Iraq during its 1990-1991 occupation of Kuwait, and the subsequent Gulf War.
These cultural and investment linkages have caused North Korea to view its relationship with Kuwait as its most important partnership in the Gulf. Should Kuwait scale back its acceptance of North Korean guest workers following recent episodes of labor unrest, other Gulf countries are unlikely to compensate for lost revenue.
South Korean news agency Yonhap reported on July 8 that Qatar was issuing fewer visas for North Korean migrant workers, as Doha wishes to comply with UN sanctions against Pyongyang. Oman has refrained from direct diplomatic engagement with the DPRK, preferring to negotiate with North Korea under Egypt’s umbrella.
The UAE has hired between 1,300-1,500 North Korean guest workers. However, the UAE’s fierce opposition to North Korean military cooperation with Iran and the fallout from the 2013 arrest of North Korean guest workers for attempting to murder Emirati citizens could prevent Abu Dhabi from expanding its links to Pyongyang.
Bahrain is also unlikely to radically deviate from Saudi Arabia’s non-existent relationship with the DPRK. Therefore, North Korea has a considerable vested interest in maintaining an economic partnership with Kuwait. To prevent future unrest, the DPRK authorities will likely vet the guest workers they export to Kuwait more closely in the years to come.
North Korean Guest Workers in Kuwait under Kim Jong-un
Since 2012, North Korea has significantly increased its exports of guest workers to foreign countries to gain access to hard currency. The DPRK has used remittance revenues to purchase luxury goods for Pyongyang’s elites that ensure their loyalty to Kim Jong-un. The number of North Korean guest workers rose from 65,000 at the time of Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011 to 100,000 by early 2015. Fifteen thousand North Korean guest workers reside in the Middle East, with the majority working in Kuwait and Qatar.
While the construction industry has been the main source of employment for North Koreans in Kuwait, the makeup of the North Korean guest workers entering Kuwait has changed over time. During the mid-1990s, North Korean guest workers arriving in Kuwait consisted principally of tradespeople seeking a respite from food shortages and poverty at home.
While many North Koreans travelling to Kuwait were optimistic that going abroad would bolster their standard of living, the realities of life were starkly different from their expectations. According to the accounts of numerous North Korean defectors who lived in Kuwait, North Korean migrant workers are only paid $120 a month compared to the minimum of $450 paid to South Asian guest workers residing in Kuwait. The vast majority of their income was diverted to the North Korean government.
On orders from Pyongyang, guest workers are forced to work in sweltering temperatures on building sites. The U.K. Telegraph reported in February 2015 that after work, North Korean guest workers in Kuwait were “trapped in wired fences” to ensure that they did not interact with other Koreans.
As the North Korean government has made cuts to welfare provisions to its military personnel to fund Pyongyang’s missile development programs, Kim Jong-un has authorized exports of military personnel as guest workers to Kuwait. According to Radio Free Asia, the number of civilian guest workers in Kuwait dropped from 4,000 in 2014 to 3,200 in 2015. The North Korean government compensated for this shortfall by exporting North Korean engineers working in the military. North Korean military personnel now reportedly make up 30 percent of the DPRK’s guest workers in Kuwait and are forced to wear long hair to disguise their identity.
The relationship between North Korean military personnel and civilian guest workers is tense. Civilian workers typically avoid contact with North Korean active duty soldiers. Despite these tensions, exporting North Korean military personnel to Kuwait is an effective way to deter defections. Professional soldiers in North Korea are trained to be absolutely loyal to the state, and are more compliant to remittance requests by government minders.
Recent increases in labor unrest in Kuwait could be harbinger for a repeat of the 1990s and early 2000s wave of defections of North Korean guest workers. Workers who defected during this period did not give their pledged remittances to the North Korean government. As defections are on the rise amongst North Korean migrant workers once again, Pyongyang will likely continue to increase its exports of military personnel to Kuwait.
North Korea’s economic partnership with Kuwait and exports of guest workers to work on construction projects in Kuwait City provide vital remittance revenues for Pyongyang’s struggling economy. The DPRK’s dependency on Kuwaiti capital will cause the North Korean government to become even more repressive towards its migrant worker population in Kuwait. If Kuwait does not follow Qatar’s example and dismiss North Korean migrant workers en masse, the North Korean government’s remittance demands from guest workers in Kuwait will continue to grow, with detrimental consequences for human rights.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who writes regularly for the Washington Post and Huffington Post. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani