As pressure on North Korea grows over its nuclear weapons program, America's most valued Arab allies host thousands of its laborers whose wages help Pyongyang evade sanctions and build the missiles now threatening the U.S. 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 labor while being spied on by planted intelligence officers, eating little food and suffering physical abuse, authorities say. Hundreds more North Korean workers may be coming to the UAE, home to a crucial military base, while laborers remain in the other countries.
North Korean laborers even have worked on an expansion of a military base in the UAE home to U.S. forces fighting the Islamic State group, two officials familiar with Pyongyang's tactics told The Associated Press. A UAE company also was accused by the U.S. of trying to buy nearly $100 million of North Korean arms, while the nation previously purchased ballistic missiles from the North.
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 under leader Kim Jong Un, whose country conducted two nuclear tests last year and launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile July 4.
Facing U.S. and international sanctions, North Korea has relied on its overseas laborers as a way to get cash. Figures vary on how much North Korea earns annually from its workers. A 2015 U.N. report suggested that the more than 50,000 North Koreans working overseas earned Pyongyang between $1.2 billion and $2.3 billion a year. Other estimates put earnings in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The major markets for North Korean workers are China and Russia, but the Gulf also hosts thousands.
"The reason why some Middle East countries like to hire North Korean workers is because first of all, their turnover rate is really low, meaning North Korean workers don't run away and they are there for at least three years," said Go Myong-Hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. "At the same time, they're cheap."
They also face threats, abuse and constant surveillance, according to the U.N., Go and other experts. Workers are "forced to work sometimes up to 20 hours per day, without only one or two rest days per month," the U.N. has said.
Across the Gulf, some 6,000 North Koreans work, two officials familiar with Pyongyang's tactics told the AP. Kuwait is home to some 2,500, while the UAE accounts for as many as 1,500 North Koreans and 2,000 work in 2022 FIFA World Cup host Qatar, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss confidential intelligence reports.
For those working in the Gulf, most earn around $1,000 a month, with about half being kept by the North Korean government and another $300 going toward construction company managers, the officials said. That leaves workers receiving $200 for working straight through an entire month, they said.
Even $200 a month can go a long way in North Korea, where the per-capita income is estimated at just $1,700 a year.
Cafiero said some work for firms run by the North Korean military, working only at night to avoid contact with the outside world, especially South Koreans, out of fear workers may be tempted to defect. Such defections do happen, like in the case of Lim Il, a North Korean who worked in Kuwait City for five months before defecting to South Korea in 1997.
Lim said he was angry to learn Indonesian and Bangladeshi workers earned $450 to $750 per month in Kuwait; he was promised $120 a month that he never received. That was after he bribed North Korean officials with liquor and cigarettes to get a highly sought-after overseas job.
"Under North Koreans' point of view, I was among a small group of selected people. But under a point of view here, I was a slave," Lim told the AP last year.
In the UAE, known for the glittering skyscrapers and chic nightlife of Dubai, eight North Korean workers typically live together in only a 21-square-meter (69-square-foot) space and eat little food, the two officials said. Despite strict restrictions, one North Korean was so hungry in recent years he slipped away from his minders to a Dubai grocery where he was arrested for shoplifting, the officials said. Another North Korea worker fell from a construction site in 2016 and died, they 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. But the restaurants, like others around the world, sit largely empty. South Koreans had been among their biggest customers, but after a North Korean nuclear test in January 2016 and further missile launches, Seoul told its citizens not to patronize them .
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. From that base, drones and fighter jets fly missions over Iraq and Syria targeting the Islamic State group.
Maj. Josh T. Jacques, a spokesman for the U.S. 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 U.S. military installation."
"We are not aware of any North Korean laborers at Al-Dhafra Air Base and we would certainly be concerned if there were," he told the AP.
Go, the researcher, said North Koreans working as laborers haven't been known to engage in espionage.
"They try to keep a low profile most of the time," he said. "They are there for business, to make money. They aren't there to create mayhem and that for sure is going to interrupt their money-making opportunities."
South Korean officials said they believe some 60,000 North Korean laborers work around the world, but declined to specifically discuss workers in the Persian Gulf.
While hosting North Korean workers, Emirati officials now rely on Seoul to build the $20 billion Barakah nuclear power plant. The first of its four reactors, being built in the UAE's western deserts near its border with Saudi Arabia, is scheduled to come online in 2018.
Meanwhile, 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 labor.
In Oman, the sultanate expelled 300 North Koreans working in the country in December, according to South Korea. Some 80 are believed to remain. In Qatar, the U.N. said one construction company there dismissed 90 North Korean workers in May 2015 over abuse and labor law violations that included an incident that killed one laborer.
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. That drew praise from then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who thanked Kuwait's ruler for take steps to stop "an illegal and illegitimate regime in North Korea."
North Korean Embassy officials in Kuwait City did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Authorities in Kuwait did not respond to requests for comment. Oman's Embassy in Washington simply said "it's the first time we hear of" the North Korean workers being expelled from the sultanate, without answering any questions.
In a statement to the AP on Friday, Qatar acknowledged "a few companies" had contracted North Korean workers, but that it stopped issuing visas to them in 2015. Qatar said "less than 1,000 remain" in the country and their visas will not be renewed.
"Qatar is in compliance with all U.N. sanctions against North Korea," the statement said. "There have never been workers from North Korea working on any World Cup construction sites."
North Korea has complicated history with the Persian Gulf dating back to its training of communist fighters in Oman's Dhofar rebellion that began in the 1960s. UAE forces intercepted a cache of banned rocket-propelled grenades and other arms from North Korea heading for Iran in 2009.
By the late 1980s, North Korea had begun selling locally made Scud ballistic missiles from Soviet designs. Iran and Yemen were among its clients, as was the emirate of Dubai in the UAE, according to a 1991 CIA analysis . In 1999, the Emirati military also purchased some 30 Scud missiles from Pyongyang, according to a 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks.
U.S. officials also warned the UAE about efforts by a Dubai-based company to buy almost $100 million in machine guns, rifles and rockets from North Korea, according to a copy of an undated U.S. diplomatic message to the UAE obtained by the AP. In a response to questions from the U.N., Emirati officials said in January 2016 the sale never went through.
Today, Gulf nations keep their ties with North Korea largely quiet while supplying oil and natural gas crucial to the economies of Pyongyang adversaries South Korea and Japan. Given that, as well as their close defense ties to the U.S., Gulf nations likely would side against North Korea if given a firm enough push, Cafiero said.
"The United States has already put pressure on the (Gulf) countries to distance themselves from the North Koreans. I would imagine the Trump administration is going to continue such efforts," he said. "The Arab Gulf states would have a lot to lose if there was a conflict."
Associated Press writer Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, contributed to this report.
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