Gulf hosts thou­sands of N Korea work­ers

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

DUBAI: As pres­sure over North Korea’s nu­clear weapons pro­gram grows, Amer­ica’s most val­ued Arab al­lies host thou­sands of its la­bor­ers, whose wages help Py­ongyang evade sanc­tions and build the mis­siles now threat­en­ing 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 la­bor while be­ing spied on by planted in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers, eat­ing lit­tle food and suf­fer­ing phys­i­cal abuse, au­thor­i­ties say.

North Korean la­bor­ers even have helped ex­pand a UAE mil­i­tary base that hosts US forces fight­ing the Is­lamic State group, two of­fi­cials fa­mil­iar with Py­ongyang’s tac­tics told AP. 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 since it con­ducted two nu­clear tests last year and launched its first in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile July 4. Fac­ing US and in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions, North Korea has re­lied on its

over­seas la­bor­ers to get cash. China and Rus­sia are its big­gest mar­kets, but the Gulf hosts thou­sands. Go My­ongHyun, a re­search fel­low at the Asan In­sti­tute for Pol­icy Stud­ies, said some Mid­dle East coun­tries like North Korean work­ers be­cause “they don’t run away”.

Across the Gulf, some 6,000 North Kore­ans work, two of­fi­cials fa­mil­iar with Py­ongyang’s tac­tics told the AP, in­clud­ing 2,500 in Kuwait, as many as 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 around $1,000 a month, but the North Korean govern­ment keeps about half and an­other $300 goes to­ward con­struc­tion com­pany man­agers, the of­fi­cials said. That leaves work­ers with just $200.

In the UAE, eight North Korean work­ers typ­i­cally live to­gether in a 21-sq-m 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 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. Maj 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 la­bor­ers at Al-Dhafra Air Base and we would cer­tainly be con­cerned if there were,” he told the AP.

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 UN said one con­struc­tion com­pany dis­missed 90 North Korean work­ers in 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. Em­bassy of­fi­cials there and 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” North Korean work­ers be­ing ex­pelled from the sul­tanate, with­out an­swer­ing any ques­tions. — AP

— AP

DUBAI: In this July 25, 2017 photo, a cus­tomer leaves the Py­ongyang Okryu-Gwan North Korean Restau­rant.

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