The strange role North Korea is playing in the Gulf crisis

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un looks on during the test-fire of inter-continental ballistic missile Hwasong-14.
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un looks on during the test-fire of inter-continental ballistic missile Hwasong-14.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - In the ongoing diplomatic crisis in the Persian Gulf between Qatar and a rival Saudi-led bloc, an unusual role is being played by a country thousands of miles away: North Korea.

In recent days, both sides of the dispute have been accused of having an illicit economic relationship with the isolated nation - a touchy subject in Washington, given Pyongyang's advancing nuclear weapons program and antagonism toward the United States.

Last week, reports detailing an alleged arms deal worth US$100 million (S$136 million) between North Korea and a company in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) resurfaced online.

Then on Tuesday (July 25), UAE rival Qatar was accused of having a "dangerous" relationship with North Korea in an op-ed published in the Hill newspaper.

There's at least some truth to both allegations.

Details of the sale of North Korean weapons to an Emirati company were revealed in a 2015 leak of UAE government emails first reported by the New York Times; the emails showed that Yousef al-Otaiba, Emirati ambassador to Washington, was summoned to a meeting with the State Department because of the deal.

It's true, too, that Qatar is believed to be one of a number of nations that use North Korean migrant workers: There are an estimated 3,000 in the country, many working to build facilities for the 2022 World Cup.

But both reports also fit into an ongoing propaganda war in the Gulf.

The UAE link to North Korea resurfaced thanks to the Washington-based Gulf Affairs Institute - a think tank ran by Saudi dissident Ali al-Ahmed - and it was promoted by a number of Qatar-leaning publications.

Meanwhile, the Hill op-ed was written by Salman Al-Ansari of the Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee, a Saudi lobbying group.

With the Trump administration seemingly split on how to deal with the crisis, extensive efforts are being made to influence the opinion of American lawmakers and the general public.

"I think that a key objective of the media campaign, for all parties, is to win over hearts and minds in the Beltway echo chamber, which is why we are seeing the proliferation of stories guaranteed to resonate strongest among decision-makers," said Kristian Ulrichsen, a Gulf expert at the US-based Baker Institute for Public Policy, pointing to a recent documentary about alleged Qatari links to Al-Qaeda.

Right now, North Korea is an especially emotive issue. Earlier this week, The Washington Post reported that US officials now expect Pyongyang to be able to build a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile as early as next year - a possibility that some consider a direct threat to the mainland United States.

And the link between the conflict in the Gulf and North Korean weapons isn't totally arbitrary, expert say. "These articles need to be placed within the context of the information war, but at the same time, this point regarding DPRK is extremely serious," said Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser with Washington-based Gulf State Analytics.

The Trump administration has pushed countries to restrict their economic relationship with North Korea in line with sanctions.

While particular attention has been paid to China, North Korea's most significant trading partner, lower-profile relationships have also been targeted.

In a recent announcement of sanctions on Sudan, the State Department explicitly mentioned North Korea and suggested that the African nation was not fully committed to implementing United Nations sanctions on the country - an apparent reference to the a defense trade agreements made between Khartoum and Pyongyang.

Andrea Berger, a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, says that it is possible that the UAE or Qatar could face a similar response if the issue catches steam.

"The US could fire warning shots by sanctioning additional individuals or companies in the region acting in breach of US or UN sanctions on North Korea," Berger said via email.

"Behind the scenes, Washington may also threaten more substantial and visible penalties if those warnings are not swiftly heeded."

If the United States wants to be consistent in doing so, however, it may have to look outside of the lens of the Qatar.

The strongest economic relationship for North Korea among the Arab Gulf states is most likely Kuwait, a country that has tried to stay out of the dispute and is an important US ally in the region.

While Washington has long looked the other way, two interlocking crises half the world away may force the Trump administration to reconsider.