Latifa Abdullah Al Saud is an M.A. candidate in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University and a graduate student in the Regional Studies East Asia Program at Harvard. She specializes in international relations, with a focus on the politics of East Asian-Middle East relations.
The DPRK’s (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) relationship with the Middle East—and specifically with the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council)—is a neglected subject within both the academic and policy worlds. North Korea’s relations with the United States, China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea have received ample international attention, with Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program trumping all other topics related to North Korea. This is, to some extent, appropriate: the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program remains a major threat to regional and international stability. Bilaterally, the US, under different administrations with different policies, has intermittently engaged in negotiations with the DPRK with no concrete results. And multilaterally, the United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) permanent members have collectively imposed sanctions on the DPRK in response to its nuclear weapons program.
While the effectiveness of these sanctions is the subject of another debate, there is no shortage of evidence that the DPRK under its current Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, has continuously pursued measures to evade and violate these sanctions in order to generate the hard currency that continues to fund the regime and its nuclear weapons program. It is important for the neighboring states in the region such as Japan and South Korea, along with their ally the United States, not to overlook the skirting of sanctions—indeed, to use this issue as a pressure point. This is where the North Korea-GCC (especially Qatar) relationship comes into play. One of the ways that North Korea maintains the lifeline that sustains its regime and nuclear program is through its labor export program. This program sends North Korean workers to countries that host “guest workers” such as Qatar, whose ties with the DPRK are the strongest of any GCC member. North Korean labor sent abroad is an issue not only because it raises human rights concerns but also because it is an easy way for the Kim regime to evade sanctions and engage in unconventional and covert tactics to continue acquiring hard currency. I hope to provide a brief overview of North Korea’s broader Middle East policy, before offering a set of policy proposals for any state interested in pressuring North Korea to curb its illegal behavior.
North Korea's Middle East Policy
Before delving into the analysis of the problem of North Korean labor in the GCC, it is important to fully understand North Korea’s approach to the region. On the surface, it may seem that the DPRK has little or no potential to play a role in the Middle East. Geographically, it is distant from the region. It has little in common with the Middle East in political, and economic aspects. Unlike its neighbor, South Korea, North Korea does not have the economic weight and capabilities that would allow it to take part in the Middle East and receive any benefits in return in the traditional way. Despite all this, North Korea has managed to involve itself in the region through arms sales and military assistance to Syria and Iran, vocal support of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, nuclear assistance to Syria, and support for various terrorist groups. Its connections to states in the region have been limited to a small group of countries over the course of several years.
North Korea has been ruled by three generations of the same dynasty, from Kim Il-sung, to Kim Jong-il, to the current leader, Kim Jong-un. Kim Il-sung, who is considered the architect of the entire country, played a key role in establishing North Korea’s domestic and foreign policy, including its Middle East policy. In that early period, the Cold War defined the nature and scope of North Korea’s relations with states in the Middle East. For instance, North Korea had strong relations with Egypt under Jamal Abd al-Nasser and established its first and largest embassy in the Middle East in Cairo. At the time, North and South Korea were engaging in a contest of legitimacy—jockeying for diplomatic and political recognition from other countries—and, as was the case with other states, Cold War ideology was the main factor driving North Korea’s policy with respect to the international community, including the Middle East. For his part, Kim Jong-il was focused above all on the domestic front and his “military first” policy. As opposed to his father, Kim Jong-il never once visited the Middle East or met with his counterparts from the region, from the time he assumed leadership of the DPRK until his death in 2011.
Understanding how North Korea approached the Middle East during the Cold War is important because the post-Cold War period has marked a transition to which the DPRK has had to adapt. Today, the international system and international relations between states are more complex than they were during the Cold War. Ideology plays a less influential role in shaping states’ interactions. In consequence, the leadership of North Korea under Kim Jong-un takes more factors into account. This also means that the DPRK has more creative means at its disposal to exploit loopholes in international law and to thwart other states to prevent it from receiving economic benefits. In the context of the Middle East, one can classify Kim Jong-un’s current engagement with the region as being driven not only by idealism—as was the case under his grandfather, Kim Il-sung—but by practical considerations. His options to engage with the Middle East are therefore not limited as they would have been in the past.
North Korea's Labor Policy
North Korea’s overseas labor policy is a tool to generate revenue and is also a human rights issue. Much attention has been given to the North Korean side of this policy, yet little attention has been given to the countries that enable it, such as Qatar. Kim Jong-un faces constant and mounting pressure from the international community to terminate his nuclear weapons program—most clearly in the form of sanctions. Yet, the more pressure his regime faces, the more it comes up with creative policies to keep generating revenue for its survival and, by extension, the survival of its nuclear weapons program. The DPRK’s interaction with the Middle East and specifically Qatar is critical to this subversive strategy.
It is important to first look at how the DPRK’s overseas labor policy fits into the North Korea-Qatar relationship and why that constitutes a problem. North Korea’s labor export program is one way to get hard currency and maintain a revenue stream for the regime. This program is a major source of revenue for Pyongyang because the sanctions limit any activity between North Korea and UN member states. While the UN sanctions forbid any activity between the DPRK and member states, the DPRK can send these workers to Qatar, which is itself a member state. This is because the sanctions regime does not operate on a system that is capable of monitoring countries that host North Korean labor such as Qatar. These workers are transferred by the regime to a host country and ordered to send back foreign currency. The Kim regime sends citizens to work abroad under heavy surveillance, confiscates their wages, and uses these funds to support the nuclear weapons program and a domestic economy that is heavily dependent on foreign currency.
It is estimated that 80 percent of North Korean labor is sent to Russia and China, with Qatar ranking third, according to a report by the US Mission to the United Nations. These migrant workers receive at most a tiny percentage of their pay (if they receive any), with the rest going to the North Korean state. By this means, the DPRK circumvents the sanctions imposed upon it by the UN Security Council in 2017, which are up for renewal in December 2019. According to a report by C4ADS, a nonprofit organization that works to provide data-driven analysis and reporting on global conflict and transnational security issues, “North Korean laborers generate as much as $1.2 to $2.3 billion USD per year for the Kim regime, which—if true—would be equivalent to as much as 93 percent of North Korea’s total exports in 2018.”
The Qatar-North Korea Link
On a broader level, the GCC and the DPRK share no strategic political interests, but they do have political similarities. Both have dynastic systems and a history of occupation by foreign powers (except for Saudi Arabia, which was never under colonial control). They also share similar concerns, particularly the potential for interference in their internal affairs by outside and regional players. However, the GCC and the DPRK have opposing views regarding international alliances. North Korea took great pains to cooperate economically with the GCC. From the 1960s to the 1980s, North Korea had no relations with any GCC state, but is nevertheless obtained limited economic benefits and cooperation by refraining from sharp criticism of their foreign policies and alliances—a policy that China currently pursues with respect to its relations with the Gulf and is in fact very appealing to the GCC.
With the exception of Saudi Arabia, North Korea has, in the past, succeeded in establishing official ties with all GCC members. Currently, it has relations with only Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman. Recently, the Trump administration pressured these states and others to take a tougher stance against North Korea because of its nuclear weapons program. Also, the UN sanctions imposed in 2017 require all UN member states not to cooperate with North Korea, especially financially. In response, Kuwait downgraded its diplomatic and economic ties with North Korea following its 2017 ICBM missile testing. Although Kuwait thus adhered to UN demands and issued a statement about compliance, the Arabic version of the statement noted that, despite the downgrading of relations with the DPRK, “North Korean workers are still welcome to Kuwait.” This is problematic because the network of North Korea’s labor export and overseas forced labor policy is allowed to continue operating in the shadows.
The issue of North Korean workers is the most controversial aspect of the DPRK’s relationship with Qatar and the GCC recently. According to media reports, the system entails human rights violations by both the host countries and North Korea. These include long hours, no pay, and squalid living conditions. Japan, South Korea, and the US have all attempted to induce Qatar and Kuwait to cooperate in implementing the relevant sanctions against the DPRK. Qatar in particular is important to highlight because, out of all the GCC states, it has the strongest relations with North Korea and is using North Korean laborers for construction projects in preparation for the 2022 World Cup just as Russia did.
The two countries’ relationship is mutually beneficial, and hence should come as no surprise. For example, the North Korean regime is currently under international sanctions because it continues to defy international calls for it to halt its nuclear and missile programs. Foreign currency obtained by the North Korean workforce, operating in Qatar on a large scale, is a crucial tool to support Pyongyang’s weak and isolated economy. From the perspective of Qatar’s interests, 3,000 migrant workers from North Korea (of which 150 workers still remain in the country despite claiming otherwise) have been working in the construction sites of the 2022 World Cup facilities in Doha—unhindered by the measures imposed by the international community on North Korea, something that Qatar fully appreciates. And while the North Korean state benefits financially, its workers in Qatar set up Lusail, a $45 billion planned future city that is set to be the site of the World Cup.
North Korea’s official relations with Qatar date back to 1992, but the countries have become closer since 2003. The foreign labor arrangement was an important element of this process. North Korean firms based and operating in Qatar (such as Sudo, Namgang, Genco, and Gunmyung Construction) hire North Korean workers and establish contracts with local construction companies. North Korea’s External Construction Bureau manages these companies. Some of the foreign laborers were originally active duty soldiers disguised as construction workers, whom Pyongyang sent to Qatar in order to earn money for the benefit of the North Korean army. Recruitment companies employ up to 3,000 North Korean workers for paving and building. The presence of North Korean labor in Qatar who were supposedly engaged in construction even before Qatar won the right to host the World Cup in 2022 shows how strong the North Korea-Qatar relationship is.
As for the North Korean workers themselves, their hope is to collect a lucrative return from their work abroad. However, according to several testimonies by experts, dissidents, and workers, they often receive less than 10 percent of their money when they go home. More often, they get nothing. “We are here to get the foreign currency for our country,” one worker at a construction site in Doha said. The foreign and guest worker sponsorship system in Doha, known as the kafala system, gives the employer complete control over employees’ finances and movements in and out of the country. Moreover, workers cannot change sponsors without the original sponsors’ consent. Instead of leaving Qatar as required by law, North Korean workers who find themselves without work become labor for employed North Korean labor. In one way or another, these workers who remain in Qatar turn to selling alcohol to raise funds for Pyongyang, as part of an illegal network that maintains the bloodline of the North Korean economy.
Putting a stop to this situation would be difficult for several reasons. First, it is relatively easy for North Korea, as well as UN member states like Qatar, to violate UN sanctions. This is because there is practically no way to monitor all aspects of whether a member state is actually in compliance with the sanctions imposed on the DPRK and, in the case of Qatar, if it has in fact stopped hosting and requesting North Korean labor. If the economic interests in the system persists at such low political cost, the system will likely continue. Additionally, in the face of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt’s blockade of Qatar, Kuwait is the only GCC state that still has relations with Qatar, and which operates flights from Kuwait City to Doha.
This means North Korean workers in Kuwait or Qatar can easily travel between the two states, as well as to and from Pyongyang. Qatar and Kuwait are the only GCC states that operate flights to and from North Korea. In the case of Kuwait, it also used to operate Air Koryo (North Korea’s only commercial airline) flights from Pyongyang to Kuwait. However, the North Korean airline is no longer allowed to operate on this route any longer. While it is also true that Kuwait Airways—which was the lone GCC airline carrier operating direct flights from Kuwait City to Pyongyang—recently suspended all flights to North Korea as a result of pressure from Japanese, South Korean, and US efforts, the state-owned Qatar Airways continues to operate flights from Doha to Pyongyang by connecting in Beijing. In addition, most of the flights (even Chinese airlines) that go from Beijing to Pyongyang are operated by Qatari airlines. Both North Korea and Qatar can benefit from the foreign labor while comfortably disregarding their obligations under international law and, in the case of Qatar, as a UN member state who is legally obligated to act in accordance with Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea. Qatar is also a visa-free country for the majority of nationalities, a fact that it promotes openly and prides itself in. According to the Visit Qatar website, which contains information about travel to Qatar for work, study, or tourism, a few nationalities can also get a visa upon arrival. While North Korea is not even listed on the website, this makes it even easier for North Korean labor to move in and out of the country either directly or through Kuwait, Oman, Russia, or China.
Qatar’s immigration policy has an additional liability. Qatar is known for hosting individuals who are on terrorist and sanctions lists and for giving them Qatari passports and citizenship. For example, Qatar is now home to Yousef al-Qardawi, a founding member of the Muslim Brotherhood who openly supports suicide bombings and is on both types of list. Al-Qardawi’s son recently married the current Qatari emir’s sister in law, cementing the relationship between the Qatari government and extremists like al-Qardawi and his followers. That the Al-Thani approved this marriage has significant symbolic connotations and marks a sharp departure from the structure of a typical GCC political system, and in turn, policymaking. Qatar also provides a safe haven for members of Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Houthis. These groups, because of their destabilizing activities in the region and beyond (whether through spreading their ideology or engaging in attacks) should not be allowed to freely operate within Qatari borders. Their presence there is one of the primary reasons that Saudi Arabia and the UAE cut ties with Doha. Qatar’s tendencies to contribute to destabilizing efforts should alert the international community to the potential unforeseen consequences of continuing to allow its mutually beneficial relationship with North Korea to flourish.
With respect to such consequences, Qatar’s relationship with Turkey may provide an instructive example. Qatar has a strong military cooperation-based relationship with Turkey. Qatar is home to many Turkish foreign laborers and active duty soldiers, who migrate to Qatar for work in construction, education, and businesses. Many become integrated into the Qatari military. Qatar is a small country with a small population, yet it is flooded with money, and therefore receiving soldiers from abroad and integrating them into the military has been the norm for the state. As such, the same situation in the long run could occur in the North Korea-Qatar relationship, in which North Korean laborers or active duty soldiers would become part of Qatar’s military. This all brings one back to the outcome of such realities; all income collected from labor networks in Qatar goes directly to support Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile program.
The aim of the policy proposal is to provide an avenue for efforts to combat the use of North Korea’s labor network in Qatar. It is a two-folded proposal that takes account of both the sanctions regime and the labor export network. It calls for the use of sanctions against both Qatar and North Korea, coupled with a mechanism for monitoring North Korean labor and the countries that host them, which can be coordinated with South Korea and implemented by the United Nations. Former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has called for tougher sanctions against North Korea in light of Pyongyang’s expansion of its missile capabilities. The Singapore and Hanoi Summits at which President Trump met with Kim Jong-un revealed that the White House and the Pentagon remain stuck in a cycle of working to review options for dealing with this state. At the same time, the international community—and especially neighboring states like South Korea and Japan—are increasingly determined to deal appropriately with North Korea.
At this moment of opportunity, the international community should be reminded of the problematic lack of symmetry between its policies towards North Korea, on the one hand, and Iran, on the other. While the difference between dealing with both (and whether or not the international system should deal with them separately or not) is not the subject of this article, the Iran factor is nevertheless important especially in the context of Qatar. It must be remembered that Qatar is the only GCC state with strong ties to Iran. The two countries have strong trade ties and an overall economic relationship. Iran’s trade with Qatar amounted to $250 million in 2018, and it has been increasing its exports to Qatar since Saudi Arabia and the UAE blockaded Qatar. In addition, Qatar handed large sums of money to Iran and Iranian-backed groups in a deal to release royal hostages who were in captive in Iraq—a story that has been ignored by US media. Doha thus helps both Pyongyang and Tehran to achieve their goals and continue a policy of resistance to international norms and law. Meanwhile, Qatar’s open support of the Muslim Brotherhood and Jabhat al-Nusra, a terrorist group in Syria, has contributed to the escalation of crises and the deterioration of relations with the Gulf states.
Understanding the threat that the North Korea-Qatar relationship poses to the international community is the first step to formulating a policy capable of containing it. South Korea, Japan, and the US all have a major stake in ensuring that the overall nuclear talks address the North Korea-Qatar relationship and the related issue of labor networks. South Korean and Japanese officials do address both issues in almost all of their meetings with Qatari officials. But despite Qatari officials’ assurances that the problems are being addressed, there has been no evidence of progress on either front to date. Pressuring both North Korea and Qatar would mean placing the issue of human rights front and center. Qatar, Kuwait, and indeed the entire GCC are notorious for their human rights abuses with respect to foreign labor. The issue is therefore international in nature. As such, it demands the establishment of an international body or entity that proactively monitors the networks of foreign workers and reports any violations committed by either the host or sending country.
Kim Jong-un’s real priority in the nuclear talks is neither peace on the Korean peninsula nor a declaration to end the Korean War. Rather, it is economic development. The DPRK’s labor network export program is one the critical means by which he generates revenue for his regime’s durability and survival while evading the sanctions. Both the UN International Labor Organization (ILO) and the UN Human Rights Council (OHCHR) should therefore establish an agency or body based on the model of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which would administer, oversee, manage, coordinate, and implement a visa system for North Korean foreign workers in Qatar and other GCC countries. The IAEA has expanded authority entailing inspections and oversight of states that are attempting to develop nuclear programs. A human rights monitoring agency with a focus on foreign workers should have similar powers. Critics of such an agency will no doubt argue that it infringes on Qatari and North Korean sovereignty. But the occasion for this infringement is the fact that both states have engaged in extensive illegal activities. Especially with respect to the UN, Qatar is in clear violation of the Security Council sanctions related to engaging with North Korea. As a trial phase, this new agency could begin as a temporary body, which would monitory only that foreign labor utilized for the construction projects related to the World Cup in Qatar only. It can later be expanded—or not, as a reward for Qatari compliance—as circumstances dictate, perhaps to include more countries.
North Korea need for economic development and fast cash works hand in hand with Qatar’s desire to have cheap labor. While this relationship has hitherto been overlooked, it has the potential, in the long run, to threaten regional and international norms and stability. Addressing this circumstance begins with acknowledging it, particularly in UN discussions regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and how best to pursue deterrence. South Korea, in particular, should conscript the international community into the effort to curb the behavior of both North Korea and Qatar sooner rather than later—before that behavior produces a more nuclear North Korea and a less stable Middle East.