Longtime U.S. ally Kuwait has no plans to stop granting visas to North Korean laborers whose earnings eventually wind up in the hands of Kim Jong-un, keeping in place a critical source of revenue for a regime that was recently hit with punishing U.N. sanctions.
Kuwait currently hosts about 6,000 North Korean laborers, the country’s Public Authority of Manpower said in a statement to the Associated Press on Thursday. Officials with knowledge of the situation had previously told the AP that about 2,500 North Koreans were working in Kuwait.
Acknowledging the higher figure, the Public Authority of Manpower said it would continue to allow the North Koreans to work at the country’s construction sites.
“There are no plans to expel North Korean laborers and Kuwait has never done so,” the statement said.
Kuwait is one of at least a dozen countries that employ North Korean laborers in construction, textile and energy industries. The U.N. estimates that about 50,000 North Koreans are working abroad, often in conditions that human rights observers compare to slave labor.
While the majority of overseas North Koreans work in Russia and China, expatriate workers in Kuwait and other Persian Gulf countries are a particularly lucrative source of income for the Kim regime. Most North Korean workers in the Gulf earn around $1,000 a month, and the government confiscates about half that amount when remittances are sent back home, reports the AP.
Marzuki Darusman, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, said Wednesday that $2 billion in worldwide remittances end up in Kim’s coffers each year. Those earnings have eased the pain of previous economic sanctions and provided needed hard currency to the isolated regime.
Overseas remittances have become even more critical for North Korea following U.N. sanctions imposed Saturday as punishment for the country’s continued ballistic missile testing. The new measures prohibit the export of North Korean coal, iron, lead and seafood — commodities that account for about a third of the country’s exports — and are expected to cost the regime about $1 billion in annual revenue.
The U.N. draft sanctions also prevent member countries from increasing the total number of work authorizations granted to North Korean laborers. In a compromise between China and the U.S., countries that import North Korean workers will be permitted to maintain their current levels.
The continued use of North Korean labor could become an awkward subject during meetings scheduled for September between Kuwait’s leader, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, and U.S. President Donald Trump. Kuwait hosts more than 13,500 American troops and is the forward command of U.S. Army Central Command. It is also home to North Korea’s only embassy in the Persian Gulf.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has repeatedly encouraged countries that host North Korean laborers to give up the practice, citing both humanitarian concerns and the economic benefits that flow to the Kim regime.
“What we tell people is to stop supporting the regime and let people return home,” Tillerson said during a visit to the Philippines on Monday. “This is a human rights concern because of the unfair treatment, trafficking conditions and misuse of wages.”
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