Pyongyang’s latest provocative military measures, meant to demonstrate its military might and the global reach of its nuclear capability, rattled Washington, Seoul and Tokyo. Not only that, but the escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula could also have profound implications for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), where UN sources suggest up to 6,000 North Korean laborers work, mainly in Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
With the apparent goal of forcing North Korea to the negotiating table over its controversial nuclear program — but without repeating three decades of failed US diplomatic policy — the administration of President Donald Trump has prepared a draft UN Security Council resolution that envisages a ban on the hiring and payment of North Korean laborers. The draft resolution has already been distributed to the full Security Council and may be put to a vote early this week.
While North Korea’s only embassy in the GCC is in Kuwait City, from where its diplomats cover the Gulf, its laborers are believed to play an instrumental role in providing the regime with the necessary hard currency to fund its nuclear and ballistic missiles programs.
Aside from three North Korean government-run restaurants in the UAE, two in Dubai and the other in Abu Dhabi, it is not known how many official North Korean businesses operate throughout the GCC. But given the thousands of North Korean workers operating in the Gulf, and their substantial contribution to the regime’s battered economy, the Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono asked Qatar on Saturday to stop accepting North Korean laborers.
“Several of the Gulf states may find that their use of substantial numbers of North Korean laborers comes under greater US scrutiny than in the past,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, an expert on the GCC at Rice University’s Baker Institute. “The rapid rise of North Korea as an issue of priority for the Trump administration means that officials in Gulf capitals will be anxious to avoid being seen as a part of the problem. Officials in GCC states will take very seriously Trump’s instinctive call to reassess trade relations with countries that do business with North Korea.”
Responding to apparent US diplomatic pressure, Kuwait has already taken steps toward expelling North Korean laborers, said Giorgio Cafiero, the chief executive and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a geopolitical risk consultancy in Washington. It is not known, however, whether the US request was made before the recent US-Kuwait Strategic Dialogue in Washington.
Cafiero, however, cautioned that most of the estimated $1.2 - $2.3 billion a year that North Korean laborers generate for the regime comes from workers in China, the Czech Republic, Mongolia and Russia. “The percentage of this money which North Korean laborers in the Arabian Peninsula generate must be relatively small,” he concluded.
Expelling thousands of North Korean laborers from the Arabian peninsula would not only deprive Kim Jong Un of some of the cash he uses to build nuclear weapons, it would also send an unequivocal message to Iran.
Since its inception in 1948, North Korea has established a predicable track record of using brinkmanship as part of a strategy to coerce its neighbors and the international community into providing aid and economic concessions to support the regime. Over the ensuing decades, North Korea has established a pattern that focuses on ratcheting up regional tensions through brinkmanship in order to extort the necessary financial concessions from its neighbors and the international community for regime survival.
Since the end of the Second World War, the United States has been the guarantor of the international system, which has translated into a largely peaceful global environment — and with it, unprecedented economic growth and prosperity, including in the Gulf. With the inevitable rise of China, coupled with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demonstrated commitment to roll back global US leadership wherever possible, not to mention Iran’s quest for regional domination, the global order as we know it is facing unprecedented challenges.
In this context, the GCC is not only a US strategic partner but as a bloc has significant potential when it comes to strengthening both economic and security cooperation. Together, the six nations can also contribute to enhancing Washington’s global security obligations by expelling all North Korean laborers and severing diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.
Not only will Washington’s impending showdown with Pyongyang over its destructive policies be closely watched by Tehran, but should the US fail to resolve North Korea’s strategic threat once for all — either through a diplomatic process or military means — Iran could easily adopt the North Korean model as a template once its obligations under the 2015 nuclear deal expire.
A GCC-wide expulsion of North Korean laborers would be welcomed by Washington as the bloc is a key US strategic partner at a time of global instability and political uncertainty.
With partnership comes responsibility, and such an expulsion would be a direct signal to Iran, a message that would not be lost on Tehran. The failure to resolve the North Korean crisis, in one way or another, could have catastrophic consequences for the Gulf as it would only be a matter of time before the North Korean-Iranian strategic alliance became an even bigger threat to the region.
• Sigurd Neubauer is a Middle East analyst based in Washington.