Workers sent by North Korea’s regime to earn foreign currency at construction sites in Kuwait are engaging in illegal activities such as bootlegging and stealing building materials to meet their income requirements, according to sources. Around 3,200 workers from North Korea are currently stationed in Kuwait, a small Arab nation on the Persian Gulf, and while many traveled to the country expecting to earn good money performing moderate labor at construction sites, the tough desert climate and long hours often leave them exhausted and longing for home.
To ease their loneliness and ensure that they earn enough money for the regime, local sources told RFA’s Korean Service that North Koreans are distilling liquor in the kitchens of their apartments—a practice that is illegal in the Islamic nation—to drink with their coworkers and sell. The liquor, called “sadiqi” in Arabic, or “my friend,” is distilled from rice and has a taste similar to the Korean liquor known as soju. At around 40 percent alcohol by volume, the drink is typically mixed with water or non-alcoholic beer.
It costs around U.S. $20 to produce a case, or 12 1.5-liter (half-gallon) bottles, of sadiqi, but distillers can sell the same amount to regional smugglers for around U.S. $50, making the illicit booze a profitable side business. Individual bottles can sell for 8-10 Kuwaiti dinar (U.S. $27-33) apiece.
North Korean officials running construction operations in Kuwait also profit from the black market business by taking bribes from workers to look the other way. One source, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity, said that smugglers who are caught by police while distributing sadiqi often offer up information on the source of the liquor in a bid to reduce their punishment.
“When they get arrested, they drag North Korean workers along with them … because they are told that if they tip off the police they will be released,” the source said.
“So they call their friends and … ask them to bring over a bottle. Then the police follow the Korean workers on their way [to pick up the alcohol]. They throw a cordon around the building that the liquor is brought out of and seize the producers.”
On Dec. 8, three North Korean workers were arrested on charges of bootlegging and distributing illegal liquor in Kuwait’s Mubarak Al-Kabeer region, just two months after 22 North Korean workers were arrested on the same charges in the town of Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh—an enclave for foreign laborers. Since 2015, police in Kuwait have arrested North Korean workers in nine separate cases involving the production and sale of sadiqi. Many of the North Koreans have been deported.
Following the arrest of the 22 bootleggers in October 2015, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un informed construction company officials and workers in Kuwait and other countries to cease the production and sale of illegal liquor, adding that he would take “stern action” against those caught by local authorities. However, the workers are under significant pressure in their work to earn money for the regime, suggesting the bootlegging will continue.
RFA’s source said North Korean construction companies only tell their workers not to make sidiqi when too many people get caught, but few heed the order. Even those who are caught and deported return to the country and take up bootlegging again, he added.
“North Korean workers in jail [for making alcohol] stay there until they get airplane tickets [to return home], which are provided by North Korea.
“When they are deported back to North Korea they live there with their families for about a year and then return [to Kuwait]. They don’t get punished when they are in North Korea—after all, they were arrested for earning foreign currency.”
Another source in Kuwait, who also declined to be named, told RFA that officials and other higher-level employees at North Korean construction companies in the country routinely profit by protecting bootleggers. The source said he had once seen a worker bribe a security guard with U.S. $5,000 for the right to produce sadiqi.
Around half of the profits bootleggers generate each month are regularly offered to construction company presidents, party secretaries, and security guards, he said, adding that after three years, officials in each of the three positions can earn as much as U.S. $1 million, U.S. $500,000 and U.S. $300,000 in bribes, respectively.
But despite the costs in bribes, six months of producing sadiqi can earn distillers “tens of thousands of dollars,” according to the source, so workers are willing to pay officials handsomely, even if they have to borrow money to do so.
Sources told RFA that in addition to producing illegal alcohol, many North Koreans violate a law in Kuwait that prevents foreign laborers from engaging in activities outside of their regular work to earn income, and in some cases steal building materials from construction sites to sell them for a profit.
In July 2015, nine North Korean workers were sentenced to five years in prison each for pilfering power lines from a building site.
According to the sources, many workers have expressed frustration over their exploitation at the hands of officials and say they feel forced to engage in illegal activities to meet requirements earning foreign currency for North Korea’s regime.
Reported by Albert Hong for RFA’s Korean Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.