U.S. President Donald Trump has hinted that the United States may cut ties with any country which trades with North Korea in the wake of last weeks Hydrogen Bomb test by Pyongyang.
However, any such move would likely strain relations between the U.S. and some of its strongest allies in the Middle East who’ve spent years sending billions of dollars to Pyongyang in exchange for North Korean weapons and labor.
In the wake of Sunday’s successful test, many U.S. allies in the region released statements condemning Kim Jong Un’s latest test - the sixth in total.
The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs branded the test, “a real threat to global security and stability”. Egypt and Iran also stepped in to express their displeasure at Pyongyang following the stunt.
Many media outlets attempt to paint North Korea as an isolated rogue state with few friends to call on except neighboring China. However, the reality is that Kim Jong Un has many allies and trade partners in the Middle East, including several countries also staunchly aligned with the United States.
While some countries in the region stayed silent in the wake of the test, others who condemned the act had previously sent billions of dollars to the North Korean government and effectively allowed Pyongyang to finance and develop its weapons program despite international sanctions.
Last month, reports emerged showing that UN member states had intercepted two North Korean shipments destined for Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Centre. The center is better known as the guardian of Syria’s darkest state secrets and allegedly controls the country’s chemical weapons program.
A UN report in August read: “The [security council] panel is investigating reported prohibited chemical, ballistic missile, and conventional arms cooperation between Syria and the DPRK [North Korea]. Two member states interdicted shipments destined for Syria.”
The two countries have enjoyed strong relations for decades, trading weapons and even military manpower when Syrian regime helicopter pilots defected in 2013. Some reports suggest that North Korea is among the largest benefactors from the 7-year-old conflict.
Bashar al Assad’s ally, Iran has also spent huge financial sums buying weapons from North Korea as far back as the 1980s. Western analysts believe that both countries have also cooperated with regards to military information sharing.
However, these are not the only countries in the region that have been sending cash to help out North Korea in recent times.
Key US allies including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait have all financially supported North Korea - and the state coffers used to fund nuclear tests - in recent months.
In 2015, the UAE spent $100 million on weapons which would later be used to bomb Yemen, according to a leaked US State Department memo, seen by the Gulf Affairs Institute. The memo showed that U.S. officials even warned that North Korea would use the cash to further its nuclear arms program. However the deal, which included a shipment of rockets, machine guns and rifles was finalized, and sent to troops in Yemen within weeks, according to the leak.
President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s Egypt is also infamous for ties with the regime in Pyongyang. Last month, the United States froze a $300million aid package destined for Egypt. The official reason given was Cairo’s unwillingness to implement democracy and end human rights abuses. However, many analysts believe that the move was a signal to the Egyptian regime that The White House will no longer tolerate the country’s close ties with Pyongyang.
The two countries have enjoyed long-standing economic, diplomatic and military partnership dating back to the 1970s and Egypt is now one of North Korea’s leading trade partners in the region. North Korea sent assistance, including manpower, during the country’s war effort against Israel in 1973. Pyongyang continued to assist Egypt militarily under the reign of former presidents Hosni Mubarak, who purchased Scud-C missiles from North Korea.
Economic and military ties remain strong between both countries thanks to weapons deals and the use of the Suez canal to transport military shipments between North Korea and other trading partners in the region. Egyptian-owned Orascom was also commissioned to build North Korea’s state-owned 3G cell phone network and Cairo has provided North Korea with much needed hard currency in exchange for training Egyptian scientists in weapons technology.
Kuwait and Qatar have also acted as key sources of currency for the North Korean regime’s weapons fund. Both countries have issued thousands of visas to construction workers from the country. Reports claim that around 50% of worker salaries goes directly into the hands of the North Korean government as part of a “loyalty fee” for the regime and an easy supply of hard cash with which to fund their ballistic missile program.
Earlier this year, the U.S. State Department reported that over 4,000 North Korean laborers were sent to the Gulf for forced labor on construction projects, sourced by a North Korean company operated by the Workers’ Party of Korea and the North Korean military. In recent weeks, both countries have insisted that they are no longer issuing work visas to North Koreans in line with UN sanctions.
While Saudi Arabia does not hold formal diplomatic relations with North Korea, the country’s traded $25.3million worth of goods in 2015, according to figures from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Observatory of Economic Complexity (MIT OEC). The statistics also showed that Turkish trade with Pyongyang was valued at $13.6million during the same time period.
North Korea is the 119th largest export economy in the world. In 2015, North Korea exported $2.83 billion and imported $3.47billion, resulting in a negative trade balance of $640million. Figures for later years are unavailable.
The United States is now calling for fresh sanctions against Pyongyang. The latest resolution would ban all oil and natural gas exports to the country and freeze all foreign financial assets of the government and its leader, Kim Jong Un. It would also ban North Korea from exporting textiles and ban all countries from hiring North Korean workers.
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