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A frontier story: how Chinese fish factories prosper thanks to North Korean forced labor


Highlights: The NGO The Outlaw Ocean Project has documented the widespread use of this labor despite UN sanctions. Displaced employees are subjected to working conditions that include confinement, extortion and sexual violence. In 2022, according to a Chinese government count accidentally published online, there were up to 80,000 North Korean workers in the city of Dandong alone. North Korea began sending workers to China in significant quantities in 2012; that year, more than 40,000 Koreans received special visas. The United Nations estimated in 2017 that the country earned between 1,200 and 2,300 million dollars annually through the program.

The NGO The Outlaw Ocean Project has documented the widespread use of this labor despite UN sanctions. Displaced employees are subjected to working conditions that include confinement, extortion and sexual violence

In February 2023, Donggang Jinhui Food, a seafood processing company in Dandong, China, was holding a party.

It had been a successful year: the company had opened a large new factory in its facilities in the city and had doubled the amount of squid it exported to the United States.

Videos of the event, posted on Douyin, the Chinese version of Tiktok, show singers, instrumentalists, dancers, fireworks and strobe lights.

A crucial aspect of the company's success had been its use of North Korean workers, sent by the state to work in Chinese factories, in captive conditions, to earn money for its government.

Videos posted by the company show machines labeled in Korean and workers also explaining in Korean how to clean and weigh the squid.

At the party, the company played pop songs well-known in Pyongyang, such as

The People Bring Glory to Our Party,

written by North Korea's poet laureate Yun Du-gun, and

We Will Go to Mount Paektu,

a reference to the birthplace of Kim Jong-Il, the country's mythologized leader who died in 2011. In the audience, dozens of workers swayed to the rhythm of the music, waving tiny North Korean flags.

One of the videos shown during the event included drone images of its 8.5-hectare walled compound, which has processing and cold storage facilities and a seven-story residence for workers.

It highlighted the company's growing clientele in the West and showed a wide range of Western certifications, from companies such as the Marine Stewardship Council and Sedex, which supposedly review workplaces for abuse.

A seafood trader who works with the company estimates that he currently employs between 50 and 70 North Korean workers;

The party performers wore the colors of North Korea and the country's flag flew behind them.

When the images were posted online, one commenter – apparently perplexed, because it is illegal for Chinese companies to use North Korean labor – asked: “Aren't you prohibited from recording this?”

The Jinhui facility, like many others, relies heavily on an extensive North Korean forced labor program.

This is run by a secret government agency called Room 39, which finances all types of illicit activities abroad, from money laundering to cyberattacks, according to the US State Department. North Korea began sending workers to China in significant quantities in 2012;

That year, more than 40,000 Koreans received special visas.

A portion of their salaries goes to the Government, which in this way finances the activities of Chamber 39 and provides a vital source of foreign currency for the regime.

The United Nations estimated in 2017 that the country earned between 1,200 and 2,300 million dollars annually through the program (between 1,009 and 2,125 million euros, approximately).

That year, after North Korea carried out nuclear weapons tests, the United Nations imposed several sanctions, and made it illegal for foreign companies to use North Korean workers, assuming that their labor is forced and their salaries finance the regime.

That same year, the United States passed the strict Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which imposes heavy fines on companies that import products linked to North Korean labor.

The law establishes a “rebuttable presumption” that qualifies work performed by North Koreans as forced labor unless proven otherwise.

However, China has continued to import North Korean workers en masse, providing cheap labor;

According to calculations by the US State Department, there are currently more than 100,000 working in the country.

They are usually employed in construction companies, textile factories and


companies .

And many also process fish and seafood.

In 2022, according to a Chinese government count accidentally published online, there were up to 80,000 North Korean workers in the city of Dandong alone, the nerve center of the fishing sector.

This year, I set out with a team of researchers to document the employment of North Koreans in this sector.

We reviewed leaked government documents, company promotional materials, satellite images, online forums and local news.

We watched hundreds of mobile phone videos posted on Douyin, Bilibili (a Chinese video-sharing site), and WeChat (a popular Chinese messaging platform).

In some, the presence of North Koreans was explicitly discussed;

In other cases, we asked experts to review the images for North Korean accents, language use, and other cultural markers.

Reporting in China is very difficult for Western reporters, but we send Chinese investigators to visit factories, talk to managers and film production lines.

I also secretly sent, through intermediaries, questions to 20 North Korean workers and four managers about their stay in the Chinese factories.

The workers, mostly women, recounted a broad pattern of captivity and violence in the factories.

They say that they lived held in compounds surrounded by barbed wire, under the surveillance of security agents.

Several also described being slapped and punched by managers for not working hard enough or following orders, and that they were subjected to severe punishment if they tried to escape.

“They often warned that if they caught anyone running away, they would kill them without a trace,” wrote one worker.

Another of her classmates narrated: “The worst and saddest moment was when they forced me to have sexual relations when they took us out drinking.”

Almost all of them declared having suffered sexual assault at the hands of their bosses.

In total, I identified at least 15 seafood processing centers that together have used more than a thousand North Korean workers since 2017. Much of the seafood processed in these factories later ends up in the United States.

China officially denies that these workers are in the country.

But his presence is an open secret.

“They are easy to distinguish,” wrote a Dandong resident in a comment on Bilibili.

“They all wear uniforms, have a leader and obey orders.”

Desk of one of the foremen at the Donggang Haimeng Foodstuff fish processing plant.The Outlaw Ocean Project (The Outlaw Ocean Project)

In late 2023, a researcher on my team found a North Korean manager at a Chinese facility called Donggang Haimeng Foodstuff sitting at a wooden desk with two small flags, one from China and one from North Korea.

The walls behind the desk were bare, except for two portraits of former North Korean leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.

The manager took the investigator to the employee cafeteria to eat a North Korean cold noodle dish called Naengmyeon, and then showed him around the processing plant.

There, several hundred North Korean women dressed head to toe in red uniforms, pink aprons, and white rain boots stood shoulder to shoulder around long metal tables under bright lights, hunched over plastic baskets of seafood in which They cut and sorted the products by hand.

The factory has exported thousands of tons of pollock to importers that supply large American retailers, such as Walmart and ShopRite.

(Neither Walmart nor ShopRite responded to requests for comment.)

China strives to hide the employment of North Korean workers at all costs.

In late November, after my team's researchers visited several fish processing centers in Dandong, local authorities distributed pamphlets with stern warnings.

One of them stated: “People who try to contact North Korean workers, or approach their workplaces, will be treated as if they were participating in espionage activities that endanger national security and will be severely punished.”

Those who collaborated with foreign media outlets, they also warned, would face charges under the Anti-Espionage Act.

The two banks of the Yalu

Dandong, a city of two million people, is located on the banks of the Yalu River, which runs along the border between China and North Korea.

The Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge connects Dandong with the North Korean city of Sinuiju.

A second bridge, bombed during the Korean War, only partially crosses the river and serves as a viewing point for Chinese residents to observe North Koreans living less than 600 meters away.

The Friendship Bridge is one of the Hermit Kingdom's few gateways to the rest of the world;

About 70% of all goods exchanged between the two countries travel through it.

Dandong department stores keep lists of products preferred by North Korean customers.

Souvenir shops sell North Korean ginseng, beer and 7.27 brand cigarettes (which refers to the date the armistice was signed in the Korean War).

The city is home to a war museum, officially called the War Memorial Hall to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea.

On boat tours, Chinese tourists buy bags of cookies to throw to children on the North Korean side of the river.

Kim Jong-un's government carefully selects workers to send to factories in Dandong and elsewhere in China.

The process is usually overseen by Ward 39 officials, who assess the political loyalty of applicants to reduce the risk of defections.

Candidates are even examined based on their height: the country suffers from chronic malnutrition and the State prefers candidates who are taller than 1.65 meters, to avoid the official shame of being represented abroad by people of short stature.

(The North Korean government did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)

Once selected, applicants receive pre-training, which can last up to a year and often includes government-run classes ranging from Chinese customs and etiquette to “enemy operations” and the activities of foreign intelligence services.

North Korea's Fisheries Department is coordinating with China's Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security to send workers to Chinese seafood companies.

(These agencies also did not respond to requests for comment.)

Logistics are often handled by private Chinese “shipping” companies, and placements are sometimes negotiated online.

In a video posted on Douyin last September, for example, a user announced the availability of 2,500 North Koreans who “wanted to find some manual work.”

The author of one comment asked if they could be sent to fishing factories across the border in Dandong, and the author agreed.

Another post not long ago announced the availability of 5,000 North Korean workers and received 21 responses.

“Is there a boss who knows how to speak Mandarin?” asked an interested party, to which the author of the


responded: “There is a team leader, managers and a translator.”

Jobs in China are highly coveted in North Korea because they are often accompanied by contracts promising a monthly salary of $270, compared to $3 a month for a similar job in North Korea.

Selected workers sign two or three-year contracts.

But when they arrive in China, managers often confiscate their passports.

If workers try to escape or complain to people outside the factories, their families may suffer retaliation.

In factories, North Korean workers wear uniforms of a different color than Chinese workers.

“Without this,” a plant manager who worked at Donggang Jinhui Food for several years wrote to me, “we cannot know if one disappears.”

Image of Dandong Taifen, a seafood processing plant in northeast China called g, which supplies tens of thousands of tons of seafood to grocery stores in the United States and other countries.

The researcher found 150 North Koreans working there.The Outlaw Ocean Project

The work itself is incessant.

Shifts in seafood factories are between 14 and 16 hours.

Employees have up to one day off per month and few, if any, vacation or sick days.

Women sleep in bunk beds in closed dormitories, sometimes 30 per room.

They are prohibited from tuning into local television or radio and leaving the factory premises unaccompanied.

Mail is examined by North Korean security agents who also “monitor daily life and file official reports,” a plant manager who spent several years at the Dalian Haiqing facility wrote to me.

In reality, workers often receive less than 10% of the salary promised to them in their contracts.

One of them, to which we had access, stipulated that $40 would be deducted each month to pay for food;

in addition to money to pay for electricity, the use of bedrooms, heating, water, insurance and payments for “loyalty” to the Government.

What remains is usually less than $30 a month.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has not responded to our questions for this article.

However, in the past, the Government has refuted criticism of its relationship with North Korea.

The Chinese ambassador wrote in a letter to the United Nations last year that China has complied with the sanctions, despite having suffered “great losses” as a result.

He also insisted that “thorough investigations” have been carried out into allegations of non-compliance.

A Foreign Ministry spokesperson further stated that China and North Korea have always been “close friends,” adding: “The United States should reflect on its mistakes, shoulder its responsibilities, stop imposing sanctions and [applying] military deterrence, and take practical steps to resume true dialogue.”

Our investigation found that one of the world's largest whitefish processors, Dalian Haiqing Food, uses North Korean labor.

We found between 50 and 70 North Korean workers in their facilities.

One of them, who has been working in Haiqing for several years, related: “The worst was when they forced the virgin workers into prostitution, claiming that they had to meet the quotas established by the State to earn foreign currency.”

The plant is a major supplier to European food companies, including Congalsa, a Spanish seafood company that has imported 15 shipments of Alaska pollock fillets from Dalian Haiqing in 2021 and 2022, according to trade data.

Dalian Haiqing is also a supplier to the main Spanish supermarkets, including Mercadona.

A Mercadona spokesperson explained that the amount of fish that Congalsa provided on those dates was very small, and that neither his company nor the supplier were aware of the information that this investigation by The Outlaw Ocean Project has brought to light;

In any case, they assure that they have taken steps with Congalsa "to obtain more information about the worrying situation."

For its part, a spokesperson for Congalsa explains that in none of the visits they had made nor the audits commissioned had they detected any irregularity in Dalian Haiqing, with whom in any case they have provisionally interrupted their business relationship;

They have initiated “an internal investigation” and requested “information from the supplier, who denies the accusations.”

Dalian Haiqing products also reach the main supermarkets and distributors in Europe.

Even the European Parliament's catering


can be linked to Dalian Haiqing: Compass Group, which provides those services, receives whitefish from Pittman Seafoods, a Belgian company that has received at least two dozen shipments of seafood, or more than 600 tons. , from Dalian Haiqing since 2017. Compass Group did not respond to our request for comment.

(In this link you can consult, in English, the correspondence that The Outlaw Ocean Project has exchanged with all the companies named in its investigations into the Chinese fishing industry).

North Korea not only exports its workers.

It also exports fish caught in its waters, another means by which the Government secures foreign currency.

Chinese companies often buy this fish, because it tends to be cheaper than that caught in Chinese waters.

Chinese vessels sometimes pay illegal licenses to fish in North Korean waters.

Other times, they buy fish at sea, from North Korean ships.

A letter from a North Korean trader to a Chinese fishing company, leaked in 2022, proposed selling 10,000 tons of squid for $18 million and 500 tons of diesel for ships.

And sometimes the seafood is trucked to China.

All this trade is an open secret.

Last October, a Chinese man calling himself Anji posted a video on Douyin advertising crabs.

When a user wrote, “The merchandise cannot be shipped,” Anji responded with laughing emojis.

Anji explained that he ran a processing plant in North Korea, showing his Chinese passport and a North Korean residency card, and giving updates on shipments he planned to truck across the border.

Contacted by our team, Anji assures that he stopped importing North Korean seafood in 2016 – although these videos were published in 2023 – and adds: “It's none of his business, and I don't care who it is.”

Last year, a ship worker at a port in Dandong told a South Korean news network: “80% of the seafood products on the dock come from North Korea.”

A fleet of Chinese squid fishing boats in the waters off Ulleung Island, South Korea, in May 2019.Fábio Nascimento (The Outlaw Oc

Companies often claim that they comply with labor standards because they have passed “social audits,” carried out by companies that inspect workplaces to detect abuses.

But these audits are of dubious value.

Half of the factories using North Korean workers were certified by the sustainability group Marine Stewardship Council, which only grants certification if companies pass social audits or other third-party assessments.

Jackie Marks, head of public relations at the MSC, assures that these social audits are carried out by a third party, not the organization itself.

Skepticism regarding this type of audits is increasing.

In 2021, the US State Department stated that audits, especially in China, are not effective in detecting forced labor because auditors rely on government translators and rarely speak directly to employees.

Auditors are also reluctant to upset the companies that have hired them, and workers face retaliation if they report abuses.

Chris Smith, US congressman and China specialist, notes: “Social audits at China plants create a

Potemkin town

[false façade that tries to make reality better than it is], and American seafood companies that lend themselves They should know it.

The consequence is that millions of dollars, including federal ones, go to Chinese factories that use North Korean workers, and that money goes directly into the hands of the Kim Jong-un regime, which uses it to arm our adversaries and repress his own people.”

Interviews with victims

Late last year, I made an effort to communicate more directly with some of the North Korean workers who have been caught up in the program.

Western journalists are banned from entering North Korea, and the country's citizens are strictly prohibited from speaking to reporters.

That's why I hired a team of researchers in South Korea and China who help local and Western media report on conditions in North Korea.

They have contacts in North Korea that they use to get information out of the country, as they have done in the past, when they revealed food shortages, electricity outages in the country and graffiti against the Government.

Through them, we compiled a list of two dozen North Koreans who had been sent to China, most of whom have returned home;

The workers and managers were of different ages, came from different regions of the country and had worked in at least half a dozen Chinese factories.

I wrote up a list of questions and sent them, through the researchers, to their contacts in North Korea.

They managed to interview them secretly, individually so that none of them knew the identity of the others or what they said.

Meetings often took place in open fields, parks or on the street, where it is more difficult for security officers to use surveillance microphones.

A group of North Korean women on the streets of Dandong, China, in March 2023, monitored by a government guard.

Living in North Korea/The Outlaw Ocean Project

All workers were told that their responses would be shared publicly by an American news outlet.

They faced considerable risk, since, according to experts, if they were discovered they would probably be executed and their families sent to prison camps.

But they agreed to talk because they believe it is important for the rest of the world to know what is happening.

Our North Korean contacts transcribed their responses by hand, took photos, and sent them, using encrypted online tools and satellite phones, to the researchers, who in turn sent them to me.

(Workers and managers in China were interviewed in a similar way.) Because of these layers of protection, it is, of course, impossible to fully verify the content of the interviews.

But I had experts review the answers to make sure they fit with what is known about the labor transfer program and with interviews with North Korean defectors.

(More than two months after completing this process, our team checked on the interviewers and interviewees, and everyone was still safe.)

In their responses, employees describe exhausting work, in smelly factories and an environment of regular violence.

“They kicked us and treated us like subhuman beings,” wrote a worker who spent four years in a seafood factory in Dandong.

I asked all the women if they could remember any happy moments.

Most said there had been none, but almost all had sad moments to tell.

One confessed that her experience in a Chinese factory made her “want to die.”

The most striking pattern was the women's description of sexual abuse in the plants.

Of 20 workers interviewed, 17 indicated that they had been sexually assaulted by plant managers.

“When she didn't get her way [sexually], she got angry and kicked me,” said one of her superiors.

Three others claimed that their bosses had forced them into prostitution.

“Whenever they can, they flirt with us to the point of nausea and force us to have sex for money, and it's even worse if you're pretty,” said a woman who worked at Dalian Haiqing Food for several years.

A former employee at the Jinhui plant says: “Even when there was no work during the pandemic, the state demanded loyalty funds in foreign currency, so managers forced workers to sell their bodies.”

Notes from interviews with North Korean women about their experience in Chinese factories. The Outlaw Ocean Project

Notes from interviews with North Korean women about their experience in Chinese factories. The Outlaw Ocean Project (The Outlaw Ocean Project)

Notes from interviews with North Korean women about their experience in Chinese factories. The Outlaw Ocean Project (The Outlaw Ocean Project)

The pandemic made life more difficult for many of the women.

When China closed its borders, some found themselves trapped far from home.

Often their workplaces closed and they lost their income.

North Koreans often have to pay bribes to government officials and labor brokers who control hiring to secure a job in China.

Many have to hire loan sharks to lend them the funds needed for bribes.

These loans, which are usually around $1,500, can have interest of up to 10%.

But when work was disrupted in China, North Korean workers were unable to repay their loans.

Consequently, the loan sharks sent groups of thugs to their relatives' homes in North Korea to intimidate them.

Some of the families had to sell their houses to settle accounts.

In 2023, two North Korean women working in textile factories committed suicide.

Finally, restrictions in China were eased last year and the border between China and North Korea was reopened.

This allowed many North Koreans to return.

In August 2023, about 300 boarded 10 buses in Dandong to return home.

Police officers sent by the Dandong Public Security Bureau lined up around the buses to prevent desertions and keep curious Chinese away.

In the photos and in a video to which we have had access, some of the women are seen hurriedly loading large suitcases onto a bright green bus and leaving over the Friendship Bridge.

Similarly, in September, about 300 more North Koreans boarded a passenger train to travel from Dandong to Pyongyang.

That same month, nearly 200 workers were repatriated on a flight operated by Air Koryo, North Korea's main airline.

In late 2023, the Chinese and North Korean governments began negotiating to send the next wave of workers to Chinese factories.

According to Hyemin Son, a North Korean defector who works for Radio Free Asia, North Korean labor brokers asked Chinese companies for an advance of about $130 per worker.

The price had risen, a labor broker told him, because “Chinese companies cannot operate without North Korean labor.”

This report was produced in collaboration with

The Outlaw Ocean Project

, with information from

Joe Galvin


Maya Martin


Susan Ryan


Jake Conley


Austin Brush


Daniel Murphy


About the Author

Ian Urbina

Ian Urbina is the director of The Outlaw Ocean Project, a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington DC that is dedicated to investigating crimes against human rights, the environment and violations of labor rights at sea.

Before founding The Outlaw Ocean Project, Urbina worked for nearly 17 years as a reporter for The New York Times.

He has received several journalism awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, two George Polk Awards and an Emmy.

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Source: elparis

All news articles on 2024-02-27

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