What next for Kuwaiti-North Korean relations?

Giorgio Cafiero

Published: Updated:

Amid the United States and North Korea’s intensifying standoff, Washington is pressuring its Middle Eastern allies to help Washington further isolate Pyongyang. Along with Egypt, Kuwait is doing so. Despite Kuwait’s close alignment with the United States and North Korea’s support for Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War of 1990/91, Kuwait and Pyongyang established diplomatic relations in 2001.

There have been thousands of North Korean laborers in Kuwait for years with the regime in Pyongyang seeing the Arabian Gulf country and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries as destinations for obtaining hard currency quite easily by confiscating up to half of their workers’ earnings.

Kuwait's government, however, has recently signaled its support for the United States in response to North Korea's nuclear tests and testing ballistic missiles over Japan, which the GCC’s top Northeast Asian trade partners – China, Japan, and South Korea – have also denounced very strongly. Earlier this month, authorities in Kuwait told So Chang Sik, Pyongyang’s ambassador to Kuwait, that he must leave the country within one month.

Officials in Kuwait also ended loans to the Hermit Kingdom, banned North Korean imports, cut off loans to the Asian country, and committed to no longer issuing works visas to North Korean laborers. The Kuwaiti authorities also decided to downgrade Pyongyang's diplomatic representation to the chargé d'affaires level by expelling not only the ambassador but also fourth other North Korean diplomats.

An unfortunate dimension to the downgrading of Kuwaiti-North Korean relations would be Kuwait losing its ability to serve as a “neutral state” in potential off-the-record talks between Washington and Pyongyang

Giorgio Cafiero

The only embassy

Unquestionably, these recent developments undermine Pyongyang’s diplomatic relationship with the rest of the GCC as Kuwait has been the only member of the Council to host a North Korean embassy. It is also the only one from where the Northeast Asian country’s ambassador has also represented the Kingdom to Doha, Manama, and Abu Dhabi (Muscat is the only Arabian Gulf capital that maintains diplomatic relations with Pyongyang which are conducted via China and Egypt instead of through Kuwait).

To be sure, Kuwait still maintains official – albeit downgraded – relations with Pyongyang. Whether its actions, that will cost North Korea economically and diplomatically, burned a bridge with the North Korean regime is not clear. Kuwait has not, at least not yet, fully severed relations with Pyongyang, which would represent a further display of support for the Trump administration and might be the Arabian Gulf state’s next step.

Under such terms it is not clear if Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE would follow suit to showcase how they take seriously the grave concerns that Western governments, plus Japan and South Korea, harbor with regard to North Korea.

It appears that other GCC states are showing their support for the Trump administration vis-à-vis North Korea. The UAE called on Pyongyang to stop its “provocations” in August and this month the Emirati leadership condemned North Korea’s second missile launch over Japan.

On September 19, Qatar’s Government Communications Office stated that the country has been complying fully with UN sanctions against North Korea and that officials in Doha have completely stopped issuing issues to North Korean citizens while denying that any laborers from North Korea have “never” worked on any construction projects in preparation for the 2022 World Cup.

North Koreans in Qatar

In this statement, Doha acknowledged that roughly 1,000 North Korean workers remain in Qatar, yet the number “will decline rapidly as their employment contracts expire” and that “visas to North Korean nationals will not be renewed.”

Should Washington step up pressure on countries to take action against Pyongyang, the leadership in North Korea may be forced to accept that the price for having nuclear weapons and conducting missile tests will include the loss of diplomatic and economic relations with GCC members.

Yet throughout the Qatar crisis, as well as during other times of conflict and dispute between different countries, Kuwait has proven to be an invaluable mediator for Middle Eastern states as well as Washington.

Thus, perhaps an unfortunate dimension to the downgrading of Kuwaiti-North Korean relations would be Kuwait losing its ability to serve as a “neutral state” in potential off-the-record talks between officials in Washington and their counterparts in Pyongyang.

After all, the Iranian nuclear deal, which six global powers and Iran signed in 2015, was a product of talks in Oman. Kuwait maintaining ties with North Korea could leave options open for the Arabian Gulf emirate to help the Trump administration and the North Korean regime enter talks given that no military action can constitute a reasonable approach to dealing with Pyongyang.
Giorgio Cafiero (@GiorgioCafiero) is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.

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