From the 86,000 seats in Lusail Stadium (one of nine stadiums under construction) to the newly constructed gleaming residential skyscrapers for the 32 teams in the central, prestigious West Bay, the Qatari government has spared no expense in the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup in Doha, Qatar. While this is a global showcase of the Persian Gulf’s grandeur and lavishness, the tremendous amounts of funding and human resources invested in this month-long competition have warranted international media and political attention as controversy arises from allegations of human rights violations of expatriate workers in construction sites. Allegations from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accuse the Qatari government and private construction companies of treating construction workers on FIFA sites as “slaves,” in ways including, but not limited to: coercing labourers to sign wage receival even though promised wages were not given, withholding identification papers, and failing to appropriately document employees, effectively forcing workers into becoming illegal aliens to retain their labour unofficially.
While systemic labor policy issues exist throughout the wider Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which is a group of oil-rich and rapidly modernising countries that include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, recent projects in Qatar and Kuwait specifically have created a dramatic spark for the need for expatriate laborers. While labor demographics in Qatar and Kuwait have shifted over the years, the presence of North Korean workers has withstood fluctuations since the 1980’s. State-sponsored hiring of North Korean workers in US-allied Kuwait and Qatar provides insight into the multifaceted bureaucratic and socioeconomic relationship between North Korea, the GCC, and the United States (the GCC’s strongest political and socioeconomic ally). US-Allied GCC relations play an integral, and grossly unconsidered, part in global discourse on North Korea, and looking specifically within the context of wage labor and diplomacy, the GCC may arguably be the best place to host future summits to facilitate Pyongyang-Washington dialogue.
The scramble for securing diplomacy between post-war North and South Korea escalated in the 1970’s, with the two countries fixated on opening embassies in as many countries as they could. North Korea began to build its diplomatic base as a globally recognized independent state, but avoided the Arabian Peninsula and focused on countries undergoing political turmoil like Egypt and Yemen, as South Korea opened strong relations with Saudi Arabia and other anti-communist GCC countries. In the 1990’s Pyongyang first opened relations with the GCC starting with Muscat in 1992, followed by Doha in 1993. Today, Pyongyang maintains relations with all Gulf states except Riyadh—Washington’s closest ally in the GCC—and maintains a GCC-wide embassy in Kuwait City. Before North Korea’s sixth nuclear test in 2017, the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development provided a series of large loans and donations to the country. Kuwait’s altruism toward North Korea, starting in 2005, is surprising noting North Korea’s vocalized support of Saddam Hussein in 2001.
However, after North Korea’s 2017 sixth nuclear test in 2017, Kuwait halted all donations and loans to North Korea and asked Ambassador So Chang Sik to leave Kuwait City immediately, leaving just the charge d’affaires. Kuwait blacklisted Air Koryo, North Korea’s national airline, from continuing their once-weekly Pyongyang-Islamabad-Kuwait City service, and, along with Qatar, declared its intention to end the renewal and sponsoring of new North Korean worker visas. The GCC’s and Kuwait’s sudden change in their policy toward North Korea appears on surface to be a response to missile testing and compliance with United Nations sanctions. With that being said, motivation for reducing ties with North Korea may have been solely inspired by the Trump administration. Contrary to what Washington would approve of in their aims to isolate North Korea, relations between the GCC and North Korea seemed to be growing exponentially. However, North Korea’s act of belligerence in their sixth missile test allowed the Trump Administration to mandate an end to these relationships on behalf of the GCC.
North Korea’s diplomatic relations with the Arab world do not end at the GCC, especially with anti-western states in turmoil such as Algeria, Iran, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Specifically looking at Tehran-Pyongyang relations, global discourse on nuclear proliferation overlooks the relationship between these two anti-West states. An ideal mutualistic relationship, North Korea benefits from having a donor willing to pay for nuclear technology and provide natural resources like enriched uranium, while Iran stands to benefit from having a nuclear weapon, key to maintaining Rouhani’s ground in the impending standoff between Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States in the Strait of Hormuz. The importance of Tehran-Pyongyang relations extends into the political atmosphere of the wider Middle East, as Iran-Saudi relations currently accelerate into a downward spiral. Iranian relations play an important role in GCC-US political discourse, and when adding the factor of North Korea, the value of input and dialogue from GCC and Arab nations on Iran and North Korea must not be underestimated.
Additionally, North Korea has capitalized on the anti-American and anti-Saudi atmospheres in countries like Yemen and Libya, which remain as donor entities to provide hard currency in the hiring of North Korean workers and other military and economic exchanges, despite their reputation for sociopolitcal turbulence. Reports have estimated the presence of 300 North Korean workers in Libya, 200 in Algeria, and an unestimated, but significant amount in Yemen. These countries are part of the Arab League, a regional political and economic organization comprising 22 Arab countries in North Africa, East Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula, which all members of the GCC are a part of. While the GCC may have changed their political stance on North Korea since the sixth nuclear test, Arab League nations, many of which are very close political and economic allies of countries like Qatar and Kuwait, remain supporters of North Korea. Policy unification within the Arab League is imperative to effectively solving the issue of North Korea, as if left unchecked, it may produce yet another mechanism to divide the Arab world and deteriorate US relations.
September 2017 surveys indicate 7,600 North Korean workers present in GCC countries, 6,000 of which are located in Kuwait and Qatar alone, a product of World Cup construction and ambitious Kuwaiti development projects. After North Korea’s sixth missile test, despite promises to stop visa provision and renewal, up to 150 North Korean laborers still work in Qatar alone. These wage laborers, most of which are concentrated in construction and unskilled positions, have 90 percent of their wages sent directly back to the North Korean treasury for “loyalty payments.” These payments are typically processed in Room 39, a Pyongyang office allegedly used to directly fund the lavish lifestyles of party elites and North Korea’s nuclear program. Gulf countries’ continued acceptance of large amounts of North Korean wage workers indirectly funds Kim’s regime and clearly undermines international sanctions. In 2018’s Singapore summit, dialogue between Kim and Trump focused on North Korea’s Nuclear program, a key topic which may make or break summit outcomes. Yet, Kuwait and Qatar, US-Allied countries, indirectly fund Kim’s nuclear research, and while indirect, this acts to create the possibility of tension between the United States and Gulf allies.
However, the distinction between the realms of economy and military is clear in Gulf-North Korea relations. Despite this, North Korea’s economic and military interactions with non-GCC neighboring countries in the Arab League are much stronger and remain despite the sixth missile test. Algeria and Libya are just two of many Arab League states that hire workers and have breached sanctions with North Korea. This web of conflicting relations between the United States, the GCC, and the Arab League create a complicated situation as the Middle East lays out to be an important interface between Washington and Pyongyang, as well as intra-Arab political discourse.
Ultimately, while countries of the Persian Gulf, the Arab League, and the Middle East have much to benefit diplomatically, developmentally, and socioeconomically from the DPRK-North Korean labor, military equipment, and other forms of interaction come with serious risks. With the threat of the Trump Administration administering sanctions on firms and people that might aim to undermine international sanctions against North Korea, US Allied Arab countries have cooled their relations with Pyongyang. However, neighboring and friendly nations of both the GCC and the Arab League as well as in Western Asia, continue to interact with North Korea on a multitude of levels. With the upcoming summit proposed to be held in Hanoi, Vietnam, the Trump Administration and North Korea must instead consider hosting talks in either Doha or Kuwait City, the epicenter of the clash between North Korea and the United States in the Middle East. If this is done, North Korea benefits from the potential of restoring previous mutually beneficial economic and bureaucratic relationships, while the US benefits from having talks which include the discourse of its closest allies in West Asia.
Historically, the Persian Gulf has been the host of various peaceful, productive political summits, from Houthi rebel talks in Muscat to recent US-Taliban talks in Doha, and ideally, potential North Korea-US summits. Geographically, the Persian Gulf sits in the middle between North Korea and the United States, and contains much greater sociopoltical and economic relevance to Washington and Pyongyang than locations such as Singapore and Hanoi. The Middle East harbors diverse and intricate relations with North Korea, which if taken under greater consideration in talks based in the GCC, may result in greater understanding of how to tackle the Trump-Kim showdown.
Photo: “Aspire Tower“