Kuwait says North Korean workers welcome then refutes itself

FILE- In this Tuesday, July 25, 2017 photo, Korean waitresses play music at the Pyongyang Okryu-Gwan North Korean Restaurant in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Stalwart U.S. ally Kuwait tells The Associated Press it will keep issuing visas to North Korean laborers whose wages help Pyongyang evade international sanctions. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili, File)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Stalwart U.S. ally Kuwait will continue to grant visas to North Korean laborers whose wages allegedly aid Pyongyang in evading international sanctions, its government told The Associated Press before its ruler travels to Washington to meet President Donald Trump.

In a statement responding to an AP story , Kuwait also said it never stopped issuing work visas for North Koreans, refuting a major State Department human trafficking report released in June that applauded the Mideast nation for taking steps to limit their presence.

Kuwait's response Thursday — and a later statement early Friday refuting itself after the U.S. expressed concern — shows the challenge America faces in trying to convince Gulf nations to cut back on using thousands of North Korean workers on major construction projects and to close government-run restaurants in the region.

Experts and analysts say the money earned from those enterprises helps Pyongyang buy luxury goods and build the missiles it now uses to threaten the U.S. territory of Guam, as well as other parts of the U.S. and America's Asian allies.

Kuwait currently hosts 6,064 North Korean laborers, the country's Public Authority of Manpower said in a statement sent to the AP by the Information Ministry .

That's more than double the estimate offered by two officials with knowledge of Pyongyang's operations in the Gulf who spoke to the AP. Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence reports, they earlier said some 2,500 North Koreans worked in Kuwait.

Kuwait also dismissed the notion it cut off the laborers from coming to its construction sites.

"There are no plans to expel North Korean laborers and Kuwait has never done so," the statement said.

However, in June, the State Department said that Kuwait had stopped issuing new worker visas to North Korean laborers. Former Secretary of State John Kerry also had applauded Kuwait in 2016 for stopping direct flights by North Korea's state-run Air Koryo as a means to stop "an illegal and illegitimate regime in North Korea."

The State Department's June report alleged that since 2008, North Korean sent over 4,000 laborers to Kuwait "for forced labor on construction projects, sourced by a North Korean company operated by the Workers' Party of Korea and the North Korean military."

"According to these reports, employees work 14 to 16 hours a day while the company 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," the State Department said.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauer said Thursday that North Korean workers in Kuwait "would obviously be a concern to us."

"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 an acronym for North Korea.

Early on Friday, Kuwait's state-run KUNA news agency issued a statement quoting an anonymous official at the country's Foreign Ministry saying that it "categorically refutes the existence of such alleged numbers" of North Korean workers and that it had stopped issuing visas. The statement did not acknowledge that Kuwait's own government offered the figures to the AP.

"The state of Kuwait is committed to the U.N. Security Council resolution on the economic embargo on North Korea," the report said.

Most North Korean workers in the Gulf earn around $1,000 a month, with about half being kept by the North Korean government and another $300 going toward construction company managers, the officials said. That leaves workers receiving $200 for working straight through an entire month, they said. Even $200 a month can go a long way in North Korea, where the per-capita income is estimated at just $1,700 a year.

Outside of Kuwait, Pyongyang sends workers to the Gulf countries of Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, all U.S. allies. The workers face conditions akin to forced labor while being spied on by planted intelligence officers, eating little food and suffering physical abuse, analysts and officials say.

Gulf nations keep their ties with North Korea largely quiet while supplying oil and natural gas crucial to the economies of Pyongyang adversaries South Korea and Japan.

For Kuwait, the ongoing North Korea crisis puts the tiny, oil-rich nation in a tough position diplomatically. Kuwaitis even today will embrace Americans they meet in the street over the U.S.-led 1991 war that ended Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's occupation of the country.

The country hosts some 13,500 American troops, many at Camp Arifjan south of Kuwait City, which also is home to the forward command of U.S. Army Central. Guam, which Pyongyang now threatens to target , hosts 7,000 American troops — showing the strategic importance of Kuwait to the U.S.

But Kuwait also hosts North Korea's only embassy in the Gulf, through which Pyongyang conducts all its diplomatic affairs.

Kuwait's 88-year-old ruler, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, is scheduled to travel to Washington in September to meet Trump. The visit by Sheikh Sabah comes as he's been trying to mediate a dispute between Qatar and Arab nations, though North Korea potentially could come up at the meeting as well.

However, Kuwait's long embrace of America shouldn't be seen as it giving up making its own foreign policy decisions, said Shafeeq Ghabra, a political science professor at Kuwait University. Hosting North Korean laborers is part of that, he said.

"Being very close doesn't mean we become identical," Ghabra sad.

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Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap. His work can be found at http://apne.ws/2galNpz.

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