Kuwait's Korean conundrum

Kuwait's Korean conundrum
5 min read
18 Aug, 2017
Comment: Kuwait finds itself in a difficult position, hoping to preserve its close alliance with Washington while still maintaining diplomatic and economic relations with North Korea, writes Giorgio Cafiero.
Labour remains the most important element of Kuwait-DPRK relations [AFP]
As Washington seeks to further isolate the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) from the global economy as tension dangerously increases in Northeast Asia, the Trump administration is attempting to convince countries worldwide – chiefly China, to reduce or sever their trade with the Hermit Kingdom.

The smaller Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, which established diplomatic relations with Pyongyang between 1992 and 2007, are compelled to reassess their ties with North Korea as the White House steps up its threatening rhetoric and military posturing against the DPRK.

On 10 August, Kuwait's state-owned news agency reported that the foreign ministry had announced its commitment to implementing measures against the DPRK: Stopping issuing entrance visas and commercial licenses to North Koreans; downgrading Kuwait's diplomatic relationship with Pyongyang; ending direct flights between the two countries; banning North Korean imports and blocking loans from the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development (KPAED).

The following day, however, Kuwait's information ministry refuted this report, saying that the foreign ministry took no such actions against the DPRK and that Kuwait has not stopped issuing work visas to its citizens, nor does it intend to do so.

This denial contradicted a two-month-old State Department human trafficking report that praised Kuwait for its steps to limit North Korean laborers' presence in the Gulf country.

Kuwait will likely have to make difficult decisions about the extent to which it is committed to maintaining the DPRK's only embassy in the GCC

The confusion highlights the difficult geopolitical terrain Kuwait faces in navigating in the Arabian Peninsula amid the Qatar crisis, but also globally, as the Washington-Pyongyang standoff leaves the world extremely nervous about a worst-case-scenario.

As the host of roughly 13,500 US troops, mainly at Camp Arifjan, and the forward command of US Army Central, as well as the host of Pyongyang's only embassy in the GCC, Kuwait is in a difficult position to preserve its close alliance with Washington while still maintaining diplomatic and economic relations with the DPRK.

Kuwait-DPRK relations


For decades Kuwait's key interests on the Korean Peninsula have had to do with its close commercial, energy, and investment ties with the Republic of Korea, yet the Gulf country has also developed a low-profile albeit intricate relationship with the DPRK.

Kuwait has also developed a low-profile albeit intricate relationship with the DPRK

Although initially plagued by Pyongyang's support for Iraq in the Gulf War (1990-1991), Kuwaiti-North Korean relations became official in 2001 after Oman and Qatar established their ties with the DPRK in 1992 and 1993, respectively. Kuwaiti investment has helped North Korea in an era of isolation and international economic sanctions.

From 2005 to 2015, KPAED financed the repair of three North Korean water treatment plants, and the Onha Canal and Botong River rehabilitation. The Kuwaiti agency also signed a contract with Pyongyang for the construction of a highway.

Labour remains the most important element of Kuwait-DPRK relations, with roughly 2,500 of the 6,000 North Korean labourers in the GCC working in Kuwait. These numbers do vary according to source, but North Korean laborers in the GCC - regardless of their actual number - only make up a fraction of North Korea's overseas labour force, which the UN estimated in 2015 earned the Pyongyang regime an annual $1.2 - 2.3 billion. It is notable that countries so dependent on America's security umbrella maintain such relations with the DPRK.

Trump Factor

The United States' efforts to cut off Pyongyang's international economic lifelines, including revenues generated from North Korean workers hired for construction projects in Kuwait and other GCC states, preceded Trump's presidency.

In October, then-secretary of state John Kerry, travelled to Kuwait and praised the country's leadership for curbing flights from Kuwait City to Pyongyang, thanking Kuwait for "efforts to help counter the proliferation" of North Korea's "illegal and illegitimate" regime. Last year, the State Department stated that reducing the North Korean state-owned airline's landing privileges at airports around the world was a lever for enforcing United Nations Security Council resolutions against the country.

The current White House may step up US pressure on Kuwait and other Council members to end their economic ties with the DPRK

The US government also maintains that Pyongyang's collection of up to 50 percent of the wages earned by its labourers in the GCC and elsewhere as "loyalty fees" might "enable" the country's nuclear weapons programme.

Next month, the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, is scheduled to visit Trump in Washington. Although the meeting will probably concentrate on the Kuwaiti monarch's efforts to resolve the Qatar rift, and on Iran's foreign policy in the Middle East, Kuwaiti-North Korean relations may well be a topic of discussion.

The current White House may step up US pressure on Kuwait and other Council members to end their economic ties with the DPRK that have enabled Pyongyang to inject more hard currency into the isolated country's economy while evading international sanctions.

Although Kuwait is a staunch ally of the US, it may react negatively to pressure from Washington to cut off ties with the DPRK, as suggested by the information ministry's denial of Kuwait's foreign ministry vowing to do so.

Ultimately, the Trump administration may have to accept that the Korean crisis is a global security issue where the United States and the smaller GCC states are simply not on the same page.

As tension escalates in Northeast Asia, however, Kuwait will likely have to make difficult decisions about the extent to which it is committed to maintaining the DPRK's only embassy in the GCC and importing North Korean labour that Washington alleges is exacerbating the global security threat posed by Pyongyang.



Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.