North Korean overseas laborers are returning home amid tightened international sanctions against the renegade regime.
Of an estimated 6,000 North Koreans working in Kuwait, only about 2,000 are left. And of 2,000 North Koreans on construction sites in neighboring Qatar, three-quarters have gone.
They have been replaced with workers from Nepal and Egypt.
Kuwait and Qatar stopped renewing visas for North Korean workers in May. A source in the Middle East said, "By November you'll hardly see any North Koreans in the Gulf."
This will deal a severe blow to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who steals most of the quasi-indentured workers’ wages.
North Korea has been sending workers to construction sites in Gulf countries since the mid-1990s to earn hard currency for its nuclear and missile programs and to line the pockets of its dictators.
Up to 10,000 North Koreans working in the Middle East used to send US$100 million back home.
The regime also stands to lose side benefits like revenues from bootleg liquor. North Koreans in the mostly dry Middle East made and sold moonshine that generated tens of millions of dollars in profits each year. They sold it for $30 a bottle.
Alcohol is banned completely in Kuwait, so around 3 million foreign laborers there have to turn to the black market. The North Koreans there have apparently now handed their equipment over to Indians.
One Indian there said, "North Korean workers are angry about being sent home. Many of them had to pay bribes to get to work abroad, so a lot of them complain that they have to return without making any money."
One local source said, "By the end of this year, most North Koreans will be gone and only some managers who need to collect money from builders will remain."
The source said the North could still send workers to Russia and China, but even they are not allowed under UN Security Council sanctions to hire any more.
North Korean workers shop in a mall in Doha, Qatar.