North Korea’s forced labor program in China: Abuse, sexual assault, wages taken away by government North Korea’s forced labor program in China: Abuse, sexual assault, wages taken away by government

North Korea’s forced labor program in China: Abuse, sexual assault, wages taken away by government

North Korea’s forced labor program in China: Abuse, sexual assault, wages taken away by government

China has violated United Nations sanctions against North Korea and U.S. laws by employing large numbers of North Korean workers in its factories. The workers disclosed that they were subjected to various forms of unfair treatment, including sexual assault.

In February 2023, Donggang Jinhui Food Company, a seafood processing company in Dandong, China, held a party. It was a successful year, with the company opening a large new factory on its campus in the city and doubling the amount of squid exported to the United States. Video of the party was posted on TikTok and showed singers, musicians, dancers, pyrotechnics and strobe lights. Key to the company's success is its use of North Korean workers, who are sent by North Korea to work in Chinese factories under harsh conditions to make money for the Pyongyang government. Video posted by the company shows machines marked with Korean characters and shows workers explaining in Korean how to clean and weigh squid.

At the party, the food company played popular Pyongyang songs, including "The People Honor Our Party" (written by North Korea's poet laureate in 1989) and "We Will Go to Paektu Mountain" (a reference to Kim Jong Il's birthplace myth). In the audience, dozens of workers swayed to music, cheered and waved miniature North Korean flags, and a video shown at the event showed drone footage of the 21-acre, walled-in complex with processing and cold storage facilities and a 7-story worker dormitory. The video highlights the company's growing customer base in the West and showcases certifications from Western businesses such as the international nonprofit Marine Stewardship Council and the Suppliers Ethical Data Exchange, which should Used to check for abuse in the workplace. A seafood trader who does business with the company estimated that Jinhui Food currently employs about 50 to 70 North Korean workers.

In the video of the event, there were performers wearing clothes with North Korean colors, and the North Korean flag was flying behind them. When this video was posted online, some netizens left a message asking, "Aren't you prohibited from filming this?" presumably out of confusion, because it is illegal for Chinese companies to use North Korean workers.

Like many other factories, Jinhui Foods relies on North Korea's massive labor transfer program, which moves tens of thousands of North Korean workers to China each year to make money for the North Korean government (Jinhui Foods did not respond to a request for comment). The program is run by Room 39, a secret agency of the North Korean government that sends personnel abroad to engage in assassinations, money laundering, nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, and cyberattacks. (According to North Korean defectors, this facility is called Room 39 because it is located in the ninth room on the third floor of the Workers’ Party of Korea headquarters.) North Korea began sending large numbers of workers to China in 2012, the year , more than 40,000 workers were issued special visas. Part of the wages of these workers were withheld by the North Korean authorities, which not only provided funds for the activities of Room 39 but also became an important source of foreign exchange for North Korean Communist Party members. The United Nations estimated in 2017 that North Korea earned between $120 and $230 million a year through the program.

In 2017, North Korea conducted a series of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests. In response, the United Nations imposed various sanctions and it became illegal for foreign companies to use North Korean labor. The reason given by the United Nations is that the labor of these North Korean workers is forced and the wages they receive are used to fund the Pyongyang regime. In the same year, the United States passed a strict law called the "American Adversary to the United States Sanctions Act" (CAATSA), which imposes heavy penalties on companies that import products related to North Korean labor. The law creates a "rebuttable presumption" that all work performed by North Korean workers is considered forced labor unless the company can provide evidence to the contrary. However, China continues to employ large numbers of North Korean workers, who provide cheap labor. According to U.S. State Department estimates, more than 100,000 North Koreans currently work in China. These workers are usually placed in construction companies, textile factories and software companies, but many also handle seafood, especially in Dandong, which has a developed seafood industry. . According to statistics accidentally released by the Chinese government in 2022, there are as many as 80,000 North Korean workers in Dandong alone.

This year, the authors set out with a team of researchers to document the employment of North Korean workers in the seafood processing industry. We reviewed leaked government documents, corporate literature, satellite imagery, online forums, and local news reports, and viewed hundreds of cellphone videos shot inside and outside factories and posted on TikTok, Bilibili (a Chinese video-sharing website) and WeChat, appear to show North Koreans working in China. In some videos, the content explicitly identified North Koreans; in others, we asked experts to review the videos to check whether the workers in the videos were North Koreans through accents, language use and other aspects of culture. Reporting in China is extremely difficult for Western journalists, but we sent investigators in China to visit factories, talk to managers, and film production lines. The author also secretly interviewed twenty-four North Koreans (including twenty workers and four managers) and wrote about their conditions in Chinese factories. The workers, mostly women, described widespread incarceration, violence and rampant sexual abuse at the factory. “For me, it was like a prison there,” a woman who worked in a factory in Dalian from 2021 to 2023 wrote to the author. “At the beginning, I almost vomited because of the bad situation, but I gradually got used to it. "

In total, the authors identified at least 15 seafood processing plants that have used more than a thousand North Korean workers since 2017, processing seafood that is mostly destined for the United States. Chinese officials deny the existence of these workers, although it is an open secret. “They are easy to identify,” a Dandong native commented on Bilibili, where videos of North Korean workers often appear online. "They all wear uniforms, have leaders, and follow instructions." In a video released by the "Dandong Yuanyi Seafood Fine Products" seafood processing factory, 15 women perform synchronized dances in the factory courtyard, with behind them A mural commemorating the North Korean holiday "Youth Day", the video also shows the North Korean flag and subtitles that read "Little North Korean beauty in Donggang cold storage" (Dandong Yuanyi did not respond to the author's request for comment).

In late 2023, one of the investigators on the author's team visited a Chinese factory called Donggang Xinxin. Investigators found hundreds of North Korean women working under a red banner that read, in Korean, "Let us implement the resolutions of the Eighth Congress of the Workers' Party." (Donggang Xinxin did not respond to the author's request for comment). Soon after, he visited another nearby factory, Donggang Haimeng Food . He saw a North Korean manager sitting behind a wooden table with two small national flags on the table, one for China and the other for North Korea, the wall behind the desk contains nothing but two portraits of former North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Later, the manager took the investigator to the employee cafeteria to eat Korean cold noodles and then showed him the processing room. In the processing room, hundreds of North Korean women wearing one-piece red uniforms, pink aprons and white rain boots stand side by side at long metal tables under strong lights, lowering their heads to inspect products in plastic baskets containing seafood. Slice and sort. The factory has exported thousands of tons of pollack to U.S. retailers such as Walmart and ShopRite (Donggang Haimeng did not respond to a request for comment).

China is working hard to hide the fact that it employs North Korean workers. After our team’s investigators visited several seafood processing plants in Dandong, local authorities issued a stern warning brochure in late November, stating that anyone who attempts to “contact North Korean workers, or persons in the workplace in question, will be prosecuted.” deemed to be engaging in espionage activities that endanger national security and subject to severe penalties." The manual also warns that workers found to be cooperating with foreign media will face Espionage Act charges.

Dandong is a city of 2 million people located on the Yalu River on the border between China and North Korea. The China-North Korea Friendship Bridge connects Dandong with the North Korean city of Sinuiju on the other side of the border. The second bridge connecting the two countries was bombed during the Korean War and now extends only halfway down the river. It serves as a viewing platform for Chinese residents to view the North Korean side from less than 600 yards away. The Friendship Bridge is one of the few links between North Korea and the rest of the world. About 70% of all goods traded between the two countries pass through this bridge. Department stores in Dandong have lists of products favored by North Korean customers, and local souvenir shops sell North Korean ginseng, beer and "7.27" cigarettes, named after the date when the Korean War Armistice Agreement was signed. Dandong has a museum about the Korean War, officially called the "Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea Memorial Hall." On cruise ships departing from Dandong, Chinese tourists sometimes buy bags of biscuits and throw them at North Korean children across the river.

The North Korean government carefully selects workers to be sent to factories in Dandong, China, and other places. This process is usually overseen by officials in Room 39, who strictly screen candidates for their political loyalty to reduce the risk of defection. To be eligible to work overseas, job seekers must already be employed by a company in North Korea and receive positive reviews from local party members. Candidates who have family members in China or relatives who defected to North Korea may be disqualified from going abroad. According to the Korean government's 2023 report, job seekers under the age of 27 must have living parents, and applicants over the age of 27 must be married. North Korean authorities even conduct selections based on height, and because of chronic malnutrition in the country, the government prefers candidates over five feet one inch tall to avoid the embarrassment of being represented abroad by shorter men. (The North Korean government has not commented on the matter.) Once Once selected, applicants undergo pre-departure training, which can last up to a year and often includes government-sponsored courses covering Chinese customs and etiquette to "hostilities" and the activities of other countries' intelligence agencies.

To move workers to Chinese seafood companies, North Korea's fisheries department coordinates with China's Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security. (Those agencies did not respond to requests for comment.) Transportation of personnel is typically handled by private Chinese "dispatch" companies, Placements are sometimes negotiated online. In September last year, in a Douyin video, an uploader announced that there were 2,500 North Korean workers "looking for some manual labor." One commenter asked if they could be sent to the seafood factory on the Dandong border? The poster agreed. Another post recently posted that 5,000 North Korean workers were available. The post received 21 replies. “Are there any leaders who can speak Mandarin?” one commenter asked, to which the author replied: “Yes. A leader, management, and a translator." A representative of Jilin Province Jinuo Human Resources Company wrote on Baidu Tieba: "I am a human resources company that cooperates with the embassy and currently has a large number of regular North Korean workers. ." Some people provided their phone numbers underneath the post, asking to be contacted via private message. (The forum appears to have ceased operations in 2021, and Jilin Province Jinuo Human Resources did not respond to a request for comment.)

Chinese jobs are very popular in North Korea because they typically pay $270 a month. By comparison, the monthly salary for similar work in North Korea is only $3. Selected workers sign two- or three-year contracts, but when they arrive in China, managers often confiscate their passports. At the same time, if workers try to escape or complain to people outside the factory, their families at home may will suffer retaliation from the North Korean government. Inside the factory, North Korean workers wore uniforms of different colors than Chinese workers. “Without this,” a factory director who had worked at Donggang Jinhui Food for six years wrote to the author, “we would have no way of knowing if someone disappeared from work.” In itself ruthless, working hours at seafood processing plants lasted 14 to 16 hours, and one worker who worked at a seafood processing plant in Dalian between 2016 and 2019 described managers yelling at them and throwing cigarette butts at them. "I feel bad and I want to fight them but I have to live with it," she wrote. "This is when I feel sad."

North Korean workers can only have at most one day off per month, and have almost no sick leave or holidays. In seafood processing plants, female workers sleep on bunk beds in locked dormitories, sometimes with 30 people living in a room. One worker estimated that more than 60% of female workers suffer from depression. “We regret coming to China, but we can’t leave empty-handed. Back," she said. North Korean workers are prohibited from watching local television or listening to the radio, or leaving factory grounds without an escort. A factory director who worked at Dalian Haiqing Fishery for two years wrote to the author that emails sent by workers were censored by North Korean security personnel, who would also "monitor workers' daily lives and report to the authorities." Occasionally, these women are allowed to socialize. In an October 2022 video, women wearing blue and white overalls played volleyball outside Dandong Omejia Food. One viewer commented on this: "They have been brainwashed and don't know. How wonderful the world is outside." (Dandong AOMEGA Food did not respond to a request for comment.)

The wages of these female workers are usually paid by Chinese factory owners to the North Korean government, and their families can receive them once a month. Kim Jieun, a North Korean defector in Seoul who works for this station, said that the factory will tell workers that because they live in dormitories and their money may be stolen, it is best to pay them in this way. But workers often receive less than one-tenth of what they were promised in their contracts. The author reviewed a contract signed by a North Korean worker. The contract stipulates that $40 will be deducted from the worker's salary every month to pay for food; in addition, the salary will also be deducted for electricity, dormitory fees, heating bills, and water bills. , insurance premiums and paying "loyalty" fees to the North Korean government, the remaining salary is less than $30 per month. Kim Jie-eun said that another reason why North Korean officials maintain wages is to prevent workers from defecting to North Korea, but even if these women want to try to escape from the factory, most of them cannot speak Chinese. Kim added that the North Korean government had warned the women that if they tried to defect, "they will be immediately captured by Chinese surveillance cameras installed everywhere." Last October, Chinese authorities deported nearly 600 women in Jilin and Liaoning provinces Detained North Korean defectors often face serving time in prison after being repatriated.

North Korea exports more than just workers. Last October, a Chinese man named Anji posted a video on Douyin advertising whole crabs from Rason, a port city in northeastern North Korea. A Chinese viewer seemed surprised by this. He wrote below the video: "The United Nations has imposed sanctions on North Korean seafood. How did Luo Xian's seafood get here? Is it smuggled?" Anji did not answer this, But when another user wrote: "Goods not shipping?" Angie responded with a smiley face emoji. In dozens of other videos, Angie updated viewers on the times and prices he planned to transport seafood from North Korea to the Chinese border, where he explained that he ran a processing plant. In another video, he showed off his Chinese passport and North Korean residence permit to prove his ability to cross the border. (In response to the author’s question, Angie said he stopped importing North Korean seafood in 2016, even though the videos were posted in 2023, adding: “It’s none of your business, I don’t care who you are.”)

The sanctions imposed by the United Nations and the United States on North Korea include not only seafood processed by North Korean workers, but also fish caught in North Korean waters, because this is another way for the country to obtain foreign currency. But Chinese companies continue to buy the seafood because it is often sold cheaper than Chinese ships sell it. Like other online traders, Anji appears to be more worried about running afoul of North Korean authorities than violating Chinese regulations. In one video, Anji mentioned that if the trade was not approved by the North Korean government, "the losses could be huge." Other Chinese seafood traders have also been quite open about the illegal trade, including a post last May. Showing a group of photos of peony shrimp, small squid and cuttlefish, the text reads "These are all native to North Korea and are now for sale." In October last year, a Chinese video appeared stating: "A large number of North Korean crabs and Dandong crabs have flooded into the market. They are big and fat." Commenters on the post also discussed the differences between North Korean seafood and seafood from Chinese waters (the aforementioned sellers are all did not respond to a request for comment). Last year, a seafarer working at the Dandong port told a South Korean news broadcaster: "80 percent of the seafood on the dock comes from North Korea."

Some of these seafood were caught by Chinese ships in North Korean waters. According to analysis of satellite data by a maritime research company called OceanMind, since 2023, more than 200 Chinese ships have returned to Chinese ports after fishing in North Korean waters, such as a ship named Liaodan Yu 15035 The clam fishing vessel has fished there at least eight times. (The author was unable to contact the owner of the vessel.) The North Korean government makes more than $1 million a year selling fishing licenses to Chinese captains, with license sales typically Conducted by radio at sea to circumvent paper records. To encourage payments, the North Korean government began penalizing ships without licenses. "North Korea has recently been crazy about seizing ships, please pay attention," a video released in November warned. The video also captured dozens of plastic buckets filled with crabs on the deck of a boat, with one seafood seller commenting: "How dare you even post this."

Chinese vessels sometimes purchase catches from North Korean vessels at sea. In 2022, South Korean broadcaster KBS obtained a letter from a North Korean trader to a Chinese fishing company, proposing to sell 10,000 tons of squid and 500 tons of marine diesel for $18 million. Other sales are smaller and temporary, with Chinese captains occasionally offering North Korean fishing boats gasoline, rice, sugar, fishing nets or other fishing equipment in exchange for squid, sea bass and clams. The North Korean government strongly opposes such free trade, and a TikTok video last year showed North Korean fishermen throwing a basket of crabs at a Chinese ship. "Don't take pictures," one viewer commented. "Once discovered, their life will not be easy." Another commentator said bluntly: "You will kill their whole family if you do this."

For Chinese companies, there is a huge incentive to use North Korean workers, whose wages are a quarter of those of local employees. In addition, although the Chinese government requires companies to enroll foreign workers in major social welfare programs (such as retirement, medical, unemployment, work-related injury, and maternity), North Korean workers are generally not included in the program to reduce labor costs. In 2017, the website of the Dandong Municipal Bureau of Commerce announced a plan to use North Korean workers as a source of labor for a new garment processing factory in the city. The website writes that North Korean workers will undergo political review before arriving in China. Only workers who are deemed to be "upright, firm and reliable" are allowed to come. Discipline among workers is extremely strict and their execution ability is high. There were no cases of absenteeism or disobedience to leadership, nor were there cases of malingering or delaying work.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to the author's relevant questions. However, the Chinese government has refuted external criticism of China-North Korea relations in the past. Last year, China's ambassador wrote in a letter to the United Nations that China had complied with U.N. sanctions despite the "huge losses" it meant, insisting it conducted a "thorough investigation" into allegations of non-compliance. A spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that China and North Korea have always been "close friends", adding: "The United States should reflect on its mistakes, assume responsibility, stop imposing sanctions and military deterrence, and take practical measures to restart meaningful dialogue."

More than 80% of the seafood consumed by American consumers is imported, most of which comes from China. Since most seafood in China is likely to pass through the hands of North Korean workers, this makes it illegal to import seafood from China. But opaque seafood supply chains make enforcement of the law difficult. To track seafood linked to North Korean labor, the team monitored trade data, shipping contracts, and codes printed on seafood packaging to maintain food safety. We found that ten Chinese factories using North Korean workers shipped more than 120,000 tons of clams, salt cod fillets, squid and other seafood to more than seventy importers in the United States. Stores that import the fish include Whole Foods, Walmart, Giant, ShopRite, and Weee!. Importers also supply goods to restaurant chains such as McDonald's and Sysco, the world's largest food distributor, which supplies more than a million restaurants as well as U.S. military bases, public schools and congressional cafeterias. (Walmart, ShopRite, Weee!, McDonald's and Whole Foods did not respond to requests for comment. Giant's parent company, Royal Ahold Delhaize, said it had contacted its suppliers and was informed that as of 2021 They have no longer purchased from the Chinese factory since the end of December. The company added that their audit report showed that there was no evidence of forced labor in the factory during the relevant period. Sysco said that the company is verifying the investigation of this article. , during the review period, the purchase of Dalian Haiqing aquatic products has been suspended.)

An investigator from this team visited two factories in China: Dandong Galicia Seafood and Dalian Haiqing Seafood, both of which had approximately 50 to 70 North Korean workers on site. “The manager kicked me when he got angry,” a worker who had worked at Haiqing Fisheries for five years wrote to me. "It is often emphasized that if you run away and are caught, you will be killed silently." Galicia and Haiqing are jointly responsible for exporting more than 100,000 tons of seafood to the United States, which is sent to Whole Foods Market, Walmart and McDonald's, Haiqing also sells seafood to suppliers serving the European Parliament canteen. (Dalian Haiqing Foods told the author only that it "does not employ North Korean workers overseas." Dandong Galicia Seafood did not respond to a request for comment. Trident Seafoods, which supplies Whole Foods and McDonald's, said Haiqing It has been audited by Poseidon Chapai's internal Chinese-speaking employees. According to the audit results in January, July, August and October 2023, "no evidence or doubts about the employment of North Korean workers were found." Poseidon Chapai and Canadian companies High Liner both said they launched an independent investigation into Haiqing and cut ties with Haiqing during the investigation.) We also tracked some seafood illegally caught in North Korean waters and found that it was distributed in the United States Importers include Nasdaq-listed HF Foods, which supplies more than 15,000 Asian restaurants across the United States. (Hopeng Group did not respond to a request for comment.)

These Chinese companies often claim they comply with labor standards because they have passed "social audits," which are conducted by companies that examine workplaces for abuse. However, we found that half of the factories using North Korean workers were certified by the sustainability organization Marine Stewardship Council, which only awards certification after a company passes a social audit or other assessment (Marine Stewardship Council Public Relations Supervisor Jackie Marks told me these social audits are conducted by a third party, not by the organization.) Last year, one of the investigators on this team visited Dandong Taifeng, a seafood processing plant in northeastern China. is China's largest exporter of clams, and it has been designated a "national brand" by the Beijing government, a designation reserved by the Chinese government for the most successful companies that supply tens of thousands of tons of the shellfish to supermarkets in the United States and around the world. Other seafood. At the Taifeng factory in Dandong, our investigators were led on a tour by a North Korean manager. The factory floor was filled with red, yellow and blue plastic boxes filled with seafood, and about 150 North Korean female workers were working there. At work, most of them are under 35 years old. They wear a full set of white protective clothing, plastic aprons, white rubber boots and red gloves. The gloves extend to their elbows. They lower their heads and work quietly, while water accumulates around their feet. "Hurry up, hurry up," one female worker told other members of her group in a North Korean accent. (Taifeng did not respond to the author's request for comment.) Just weeks after that visit, the plant was reopened by the Marine Stewardship Council. Certification. In this regard, Marcus Noland, director of the research department of the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE), a think tank in Washington, USA, said when talking about social audits in the seafood industry, “The basic attitude during audits seems to be ‘turn a blind eye’ .”

Skepticism about such audits is growing. In July 2021, the U.S. State Department stated that social audits are insufficient to identify forced labor. This situation is particularly serious in China because auditors rely on government translators and rarely talk directly to workers, and auditors are unwilling to annoy The companies that employ them. At the same time, workers in factories may also face retaliation for reporting misconduct. In November 2023, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) also recommended that when companies use social audits, the audit company must have "unannounced independent third-party audits; investigate all indicators of forced labor; and complete the audit in the native language of the worker" Interview" and other conditions. Liana Foxvog of the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent U.S. labor rights watchdog, said she had never heard of similar audits being performed in China.

Joshua Stanton, a Washington lawyer who helped draft the U.S. Hostile Countries Sanctions Act, said the U.S. government has not done enough to enforce the law: “If we really want to prevent North Korea from arming our enemies or building nuclear weapons, the U.S. government More pressure needs to be put on U.S. companies, and these companies need to be more stringent on their suppliers and supply chains or face harsher sanctions." Chris Smith, a Republican congressman from New Jersey who specializes in China issues. Chris Smith also pointed out that "social audits of Chinese factories have created a 'Potemkin village effect' (that is, building a political facade to deceive oneself and others). Those U.S. seafood companies that conduct social audits should be wiser. They The consequence of the U.S.’s business practices is that millions of dollars, some of it federal funds, flow to Chinese factories that use North Korean workers. This money then flows directly into the hands of Kim Jong Un’s regime and is used to arm U.S. adversaries and oppress Korean people.”

In late 2023, the author tried his best to communicate directly with North Korean workers sent to a Chinese seafood processing plant. North Korean citizens are strictly prohibited from talking to Western journalists, and Western journalists are generally not allowed to enter North Korea. By working with several investigators in China, North Korea, and South Korea, the author successfully contacted 24 North Korean workers and managers, almost all of whom were women, and most of whom had returned to North Korea after working in China. The author drafted a questionnaire for these workers, and then investigators in North Korea and China secretly handed the questionnaire to the workers. After the workers wrote their responses, the investigators would take photos of the answers and send them back to the workers electronically. author. Because these workers in North Korea and China face imprisonment or worse for communicating with Western journalists, the time and details of submitting the questionnaires were kept confidential by the investigators, and the authors were not given the opportunity to ask follow-up questions after receiving the responses. , because asking for more interaction with them could get them caught by state security agencies.

The women's responses were bleak, describing suffocating confinement and a deep sense of loneliness. The factory smells bad and violence is often seen in the premises. "They kicked us and didn't treat us as human beings," said a worker who has worked at a seafood processing plant in Dandong for five years. I asked all the women if they could recall any happy moments. Almost all said no, although a few mentioned going home or getting paid. "When all the money is not taken away, I feel happy when I think about the money I will make next time," said a woman who has worked at a seafood processing plant in Dalian for two years. When asked about sad moments, nearly all the women responded. One worker who returned to North Korea from a factory in Dalian last October said the experience at the factory made her "want to die." Another woman who has worked at a factory in Dalian for four years said she often felt tired and upset at work, but she remained silent for fear of retaliation after complaining. "It was a lonely feeling," she said. "I hate the kind of collective life that is like an army."

In the most shocking turn of events, these female workers described being sexually abused in their factories. Of the 20 workers I interviewed, 17 said they had been sexually assaulted by factory managers, and they described the various tactics managers used to force them to perform sexual acts. Some managers pretended to wipe something off their uniforms just to touch them, some called them into their offices as if there was an emergency and demanded sex, others asked them to drink alcohol at weekend parties. alcohol and then sexually assaulted them there. “When they were drunk, they touched all over my body like a toy,” said a woman who had worked in a factory in Dandong for three years. Almost all women expressed disgust. “When they suddenly put their mouths on It makes me want to puke when it's on my lips," said another. If the women resist, managers may become violent. “Sometimes he is gentle, sometimes he is angry,” one Haiqing worker said of her manager. "When he didn't get the sexual demands he wanted, he would get angry and kick me... He called me a 'fucking bitch.'" Four women said their managers forced them into prostitution. "Whenever they get a chance, they flirt with us to a disgusting level and force us to have sex for money. It's even worse if you're pretty," said a man who has worked at Dalian Haiqing Food for six years. women told me. A worker who still works at Jinhui Jinhui said, "Even if there is no work during the epidemic, the state will still require us to hand over foreign exchange funds on the grounds of loyalty, so the manager will force the workers to sell themselves."

The pandemic has made life more difficult for these women. When China closed its borders, some female workers found themselves stranded quite far from home, with their workplaces closed and therefore losing their income. North Korean workers often have to pay bribes to recruiting government officials and intermediaries to secure positions in China, and many have to borrow money from loan sharks to pay for the bribes. These loans are typically $1,500 and can have interest rates as high as 10 percent, so when the job is done, When the epidemic is suspended, North Korean workers will be unable to repay their loans. Finally, lenders sent thugs to the homes of relatives of North Korean workers to intimidate them, and some families had to sell their houses to pay off their debts. In 2023, two North Korean women working in a Chinese textile factory committed suicide. A worker who worked in a seafood factory for three years and returned to North Korea in 2023 told me that such deaths are usually hidden: “If someone dies by suicide , managers will be responsible, so they will keep it secret to avoid letting other workers or the Chinese know.”

As China eased epidemic restrictions last year, the border with North Korea reopened, allowing many North Koreans to return home. In August 2023, about 300 North Korean female workers boarded 10 buses to return home. The buses were parked in front of a hotel next to the Yalu River in Dandong, a few blocks away from the Chinese customs office. Police officers from the Dandong Public Security Bureau lined up around the bus to prevent North Korean workers from defecting and to prevent Chinese people from watching. In photos and videos reviewed by the author, some women can be seen hastily loading large suitcases onto fluorescent green buses before driving away across the Friendship Bridge. Also in September, about 300 North Koreans boarded a passenger train from Dandong to Pyongyang. At the same time, about 200 North Korean workers were repatriated on North Korean Air flights.

When workers return to North Korea, they are subject to rigorous interrogation by the government. “They asked us about everything that happened every day in China, as well as other workers, supervisors and agents,” one worker who worked at a seafood processing plant in Dandong for four years told the author. As 2023 draws to a close, the Chinese and North Korean governments have begun negotiations on sending the next wave of North Korean workers to Chinese factories. According to Hyemin Son, a North Korean defector who works for our station, labor agencies in North Korea require Chinese companies to pay an advance payment of about US$130 per worker. One labor agency told her that the price has increased because "China The company cannot operate without North Korean labor.”

Some North Koreans never return home. A woman in her 30s wrote to me and said she had been cleaning fish at a processing plant in Dalian for the past few years. She described working late at night and getting sores in her mouth from stress and fatigue. I asked her what was the worst part of her job? “When I was forced to have sex,” she wrote, noting the suffocating feeling of imprisonment. "If you show the slightest dissatisfaction, they will treat you like an insect," she said. "Our inability to see the outside world as we wish makes life so difficult it almost kills us," she wrote.


This report was produced in partnership with The Outlaw Ocean Project , a Washington-based nonprofit news organization, and contributed by Joe Galvin , Maya Martin , Susan Ryan , Jake Conley , Austin Brush , and Daniel Murphy .

Compiler: Tang Yuanyuan Translation editor: Li Yaqian Editor: He Zu


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