Moment of Truth for Kuwait

Confusion reigned at the end of last week over the issue of Kuwait’s hosting of North Korean laborers. On Thursday, the U.S. ally insisted that, contrary to a State Department report in June, it had not stopped issuing visas to North Korean laborers, thousands of whom are reportedly in Kuwait at present, and would continue to do so. “There are no plans to expel North Korean laborers,” the statement added, “and Kuwait has never done so.”

Early the very next day, though, Kuwait’s government seemed to refute itself, issuing a statement through the state-run KUNA news agency, quoting an anonymous official at the country’s Foreign Ministry as saying that Kuwait “categorically refutes the existence of [so many] North Korean workers” and that it “had stopped issuing visas.” The statement did not acknowledge or address the Kuwaiti government’s earlier contention to the contrary. The Friday about-face also included an affirmation of the government’s commitment to the implementation of U.N. sanctions against North Korea, and a commitment to halting direct flights to and from Pyongyang.

The issue of North Korean laborers in Gulf nations is important because, particularly with the new sanctions against the outlaw state now in place, one of the few sources of income North Korea has to support its weapons programs and provide the luxury goods favored by its leadership is the lion’s share of the wages earned overseas by its laborers, which the government takes for itself.

According to the earlier Kuwaiti statement, the country’s Public Authority of Manpower reported that more than 6,000 North Korean laborers currently toil in the country. According to the U.S. State Department, most of those laborers work at construction projects for 14-16 hours a day, on behalf of a North Korean company “operated by the Workers’ Party of Korea and the North Korean military.” The U.S. says that the Korean government retains 80 to 90 percent of the workers’ wages, “and monitors and confines the workers, who live in impoverished conditions and are in very poor health due to lack of adequate nutrition and health care.”

Not surprising for a totalitarian “self-reliant” Socialist state that relentlessly oppresses its people and threatens the lives of its neighbors and, with its advanced missile capabilities now recognized, other countries far from its shores.

The issue of North Korean labor will likely be a focus of meetings scheduled for September between Kuwait’s leader, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, and President Trump. Kuwait hosts more than 13,500 American troops and is the forward command of U.S. Army Central Command.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has repeatedly encouraged countries that host North Korean laborers, including the Gulf countries of Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which all, like Kuwait, are U.S. allies, to give up the practice, citing both humanitarian concerns and the economic benefits that flow to the North Korean regime.

But, of course, of all the Gulf nations, Kuwait should be the first in line to assist the United States in its effort to put pressure on North Korea and help thwart its belligerence.

That is because, on August 2, 1990, Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, invaded Kuwait and occupied the country for seven months. That occupation, of course, ended with a military intervention by a United Nations-authorized coalition of forces led by the United States, the first “Gulf War.”

Today, North Korea is the threat to others, and a nuclear one, to boot. While President Trump has echoed some of the belligerence that has routinely emerged from Pyongyang for years, the more likely path, and certainly the one that won’t be strewn with casualties, toward containing North Korea is the traditional carrot-and-stick approach, with diplomacy the carrot and economic sanctions the stick. But the stick must be a solid one.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said last Thursday that “the government of Kuwait will be taking further measures in response to the dangerous and provocative behavior of DPRK regime within the coming days, we are told,” she said, using the acronym for North Korea.

Kuwait’s apparent turnabout the next day was a hopeful sign that what Ms. Nauert was told might in fact reflect a newfound determination by the country to heed the exhortations of its superpower ally and past liberator, which it should.

Among defenders of Kuwait’s use of North Korean laborers, however, is Shafeeq Ghabra, a political science professor at Kuwait University. He maintains that the country’s alliance with the U.S. shouldn’t be seen as relinquishing its right to making its own foreign policy decisions.

“Being very close,” he said, “doesn’t mean we become identical.”

Identical, no.

Responsible, though, yes.