Sabah Al Ahmad is a nearly one-hour drive southeast from Kuwait’s capital, Kuwait city, along a stretch of four-lane road bordered by huge banks of windblown desert sand and dotted with the occasional group of camels quenching their thirst at local water pumps. The rapidly growing new urban center is in the middle of a boom with numerous public and residential buildings being constructed, largely by crews of workers from Egypt, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Ethiopia.
At a local construction site, a worker in his mid-30s with tanned and peeling skin from the hot sun uses a handsaw to cut a brick. When greeted in Korean, the worker responds and confirms that he is North Korean, but when several other nearby workers stop their labor to stare at him, he lowers his voice. Contrary to expectations of workers from North Korea, where many people struggle to provide enough food for themselves and their families, this young man appears healthy, nourished and muscular.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, he tells RFA’s Korean service that he gets plenty to eat by purchasing food at the local market in Sabah Al Ahmad, and even buys cabbage to make kimchi at the workers’ dorm. “They have eggs, fish and everything you could want here,” he said.A construction site that employs North Korean workers in Sabah Al Ahmad, Kuwait is partly obscured by a sandstorm. Photo: RFA
Around 3,200 workers from North Korea are currently stationed in Kuwait, a small Arab nation on the Persian Gulf, where they labor to earn foreign currency for the Kim Jong Un regime back home.
According to a local source that has regularly worked alongside North Koreans in Kuwait, most of the workers are from North Korea’s capital Pyongyang and have been sent to the country on official employment visas. Kuwaiti construction firms contracted by the government to build infrastructure for new cities in Kuwait routinely sign agreements with foreign companies that supply them with labor from other countries.
When a company in North Korea is contracted to supply manpower for the construction sites, it accepts local applicants who are then subjected to a thorough screening by authorities before they are dispatched to Kuwait, the source said.
North Korean companies that supply laborers for the sites in Kuwait include Nam-gang Construction, Sudo Construction and Chol-hyon Construction, though they operate abroad under names such as Pyongyang Construction 1, 2 and 3, he explained.
The source said North Korean workers labor from 6:00 a.m. to as late at 8:00 p.m. each day, and are required to be in their dormitories after working hours, except in special circumstances.
Workers typically earn 250-300 Kuwaiti dinars (U.S. $830-1,000) per month, he said, but 40 percent of their salary goes to the North Korean regime, 20 percent to defray their company’s operational costs, and 10 percent to room and board.
After deducting for insurance and other charges, the workers end up with only 50-60 Kuwaiti dinars (U.S. $165-200), most of which they hand over to their site managers for safekeeping.
The small amount of pay the workers pocket each month means they must bribe their managers for permission to labor outside of their designated worksites if they hope to earn more money, the source said.
“Technically, 15 people are supposed to work at a site, but seven or eight can more than handle the work, so the remaining workers go outside to make money,” he said.
“They go to villas in Kuwait, work there and divide the earnings among themselves. They earn a lot of money through that loophole.”
Most North Koreans work for around three years in Kuwait after obtaining an employment visa, return to North Korea for six months to a year while they renew their visas, and then go back to work in Kuwait again, according to the source.
Workers who labor for two three-year stints in Kuwait can “live quite comfortably in North Korea for about 10 years [after returning home],” he said, adding that they usually remit their accumulated wages to their families from abroad through a trusted traveling official once or twice each year.
According to the source, North Korean workers are forbidden from accessing information from the outside world while in Kuwait, lest they encounter material critical of the regime. While most own local cell phones, they are not even permitted to use them to contact family members or friends in their hometowns. Similarly, they are refused access to the Internet.
The workers live together in dormitories and are only given the first Friday of each month off, which they mostly spend watching television and playing soccer or volleyball, he said. Each North Korean company enlists an official known as a “secretary,” who conducts mandatory ideological sessions for workers on Saturdays, and a security guard who monitors their work habits and behavior.
Security guards regularly demand bribes from North Korean workers who bend the rules to earn sufficient cash for the regime abroad, according to a second source, who also declined to be named.
The source said guards expect U.S. $100 to refrain from reporting workers who show up late to work or the dormitories and U.S. $500 for those who get into trouble with the local police trying to earn additional currency. The price for breaking rules such as watching movies produced in archrival South Korea is U.S. $300.
The source said that while North Koreans typically prefer working in Kuwait to other foreign countries because of the high wages, they are growing increasingly frustrated with the bribes they must pay to North Korean officials and, by extension, the demands of the regime.
As the international community targets North Korea’s elite with economic sanctions in response to the country’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests, laborers abroad are being pressured to produce more cash for the regime, he said, even if it means working outside the law to do so.
Reported by Albert Hong for RFA’s Korean Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.