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North Korean forced labor and sexual abuse in Chinese factories exposed

  • Published on
    February 25, 2024
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  • Category:
    Forced Labor, Supply Chain
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*Trigger warning: sexual abuse*

The New Yorker recently conducted an investigation documenting North Korean workers held in Chinese compounds. These workers were watched by security agents 24/7 and forced to work grueling 16-hour shifts under threat of violence. The women interviewed said they also experienced sexual abuse and, in some cases, sex trafficking to maintain income quotas set by North Korea.

Run-aways killed without a trace

According to the U.S. State Department, there are currently over 100,000 North Koreans working in China under forced labor at construction companies, textile factories, software firms, and seafood processing plants. In Dandong, the town at the border between China and North Korea, there are numerous seafood processing plants ringed with barbed wire that look more like prison camps than factories. Workers in these factories told undercover investigators that they were kept there against their will and threatened with violent punishment if they tried to escape. One worker who had been working at a Chinese factory for more than four years said managers told the workers repeatedly that if they ran away, they would be killed “without a trace”.

Remco Breuker, a North Korea specialist from Leiden University in the Netherlands said:

“Hundreds of thousands of North Korean workers have for decades slaved away in China and elsewhere, enriching their leader and his party while facing unconscionable abuse.”

Many of these factories are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, a U.K. based organization that grants sustainability certifications. These factories export thousands of tons of fish to middle-man companies that supply major U.S. retailers, including Walmart, ShopRite and the online grocer Weee!. The investigation also found that several American seafood distributors were importing seafood from North Korea. One of those distributors, HF Foods, supplies more than fifteen thousand Asian restaurants in the U.S.

While most of the North Korean workers did initially sign up for these coveted placements in China, the promise of bringing home a good wage has turned into a nightmare of abuse and exploitation.

Sex trafficked to make “loyalty” payments

All the workers who risked their lives to talk to the investigators were women. They shared that at the factories, the money they made was given to their managers, not to the women themselves. The managers then take a cut for themselves and another for the North Korean government. In theory, the managers hold on to the rest until the workers’ terms in China ends. However, according to one interviewee, workers often see less than ten percent of their promised salary. Other “fees” were often deducted for things like electricity, housing, heat, water, and insurance, in addition to “loyalty” payments to the state, none of which are disclosed up-front. In addition, many workers said they were subjected to sexual abuse and exploitation by their managers.

One woman interviewed said:

“They would say I’m fuckable and then suddenly grab my body and grope my breasts and put their dirty mouth on mine and be disgusting,”

Other women described being verbally abused and kicked when they wouldn’t provide sexual favors. Three of the women said they were forced by their managers into prostitution. They explained that during the pandemic, the state still demanded foreign currency as a show of loyalty even though there was no work. To make these loyalty payments, managers forced female workers to sell their bodies under the auspices of meeting state-set quotas.

The basic stance is “see no evil”

It is illegal to import goods made with North Korean labor into the U.S. But preventing tainted seafood from entering the country all depends on accurate social audits, making the laws difficult to enforce. Currently, 80 percent of all seafood eaten in the U.S. is imported and accurately tracing the supply chain of this seafood is fraught with challenges. Republican congressman and China specialist Chris Smith noted that, right now, social audits actually “create a Potemkin village.”

Smith said:

“The consequence (of inaccurate social audits) is that millions of dollars, even federal dollars, are going to Chinese plants using North Korean workers, and that money then goes right into the hands of Kim Jong Un’s regime, which uses the money to arm our adversaries and repress its own people.”

That’s because reliable, credible assessments require unannounced independent audits that include interviews completed in the native language, which simply can’t happen in China. The investigation found that seafood from these tainted factories is distributed to importers and ends up at major restaurant chains in the U.S., such as McDonald’s, as well as with distributors like Sysco. As the largest food distributor in the world, Sysco supplies close to half a million restaurants. Not to mention, cafeterias on American military bases, public schools, and at the U.S. Congress. That means forced labor could be on the plate for U.S. soldiers, children, and legislators.

Freedom United’s recent poll of supporters found that the most important issue for them was putting people and planet before profits. That means stopping seafood tainted with forced labor and sex trafficking from making it onto our plates. If you haven’t already, sign our petition in support of strong, mandatory human rights due diligence legislation in the U.S., U.K., and E.U. As the largest markets, passage in these locations will help address human rights and environmental violations around the world. It will also send a clear signal to the private and public sectors that they will be held accountable for failing to prevent modern slavery and human rights abuses in their supply chains.


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James Christy
James Christy
1 month ago

Such an awful story. But it’s important reporting and I’m glad Freedom United is spreading the word. Difficult to know how to act for change besides pressure on the Chinese government (and staying local when buying fish!)

Haji Muhammad Saeed Arian Founder/Secretary Genera

Stop the Forced Labour and Respect the Fundamental Rights of Workers as in the ILO Convention 87 & 98 On behalf of the Pakistan Labour Federation (PLF) we are demanding to Respect the Human Rights and stop the Violations as well as Prevent Modern Slavery it is very painful for Trade Unions that “Hundreds of thousands of North Korean workers have for decades Slaved away in China and Elsewhere, Enriching their Leader and his party while Facing Unconscionable Abuse.”

Kristin Dawson
Kristin Dawson
1 month ago

One knows the character of other human beings and nations by the way they treat all living creatures including fellow human beings.

Michael Ballin
Michael Ballin
1 month ago

Let there be a renewed campaign against this exploitation and closer monitoring of seafood imports.

Michael Lampard
Michael Lampard
1 month ago

Yes, this is yet another example of the total lack of morality and integrity of our world leaders, and the filth these guys vomit out of their mouths and their sick brains each time they talk or decide. We need to see these big shots for the utter garbage that they are.

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