Inside North Korea’s Forced-Labor Program in China

Dandong, a city of more than two million people, sits on the Yalu River, just over the border from North Korea. The Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge links Dandong to the North Korean city of Sinuiju. A second bridge, bombed during the Korean War, still extends partway across the river, and serves as a platform from which Chinese residents can view the North Koreans living six hundred yards away. The Friendship Bridge is one of the Hermit Kingdom’s few gateways to the world. Some trade with North Korea is allowed under U.N. sanctions, and nearly seventy per cent of the goods exchanged between that country and China travel across this bridge. At least one department store in Dandong keeps a list of products preferred by North Korean customers. Shops sell North Korean ginseng, beer, and “7.27” cigarettes, named for the date on which the armistice ending the Korean War was signed. The city is home to a museum about the conflict, officially called the Memorial Hall of the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea. On boat tours, Chinese tourists purchase bags of biscuits to toss to children on the North Korean side of the river.

Government officials carefully select workers to send to China, screening them for their political loyalties to reduce the risk of defections. To qualify, a person must generally have a job at a North Korean company and a positive evaluation from a local Party official. “These checks start at the neighborhood,” Breuker said. Candidates who have family in China, or a relative who has already defected, can be disqualified. For some positions, applicants under twenty-seven years of age who are unmarried must have living parents, who can be punished if they try to defect, according to a report from the South Korean government; applicants over twenty-seven must be married. North Korean authorities even select for height: the country’s population is chronically malnourished, and the state prefers candidates who are taller than five feet one, to avoid the official embarrassment of being represented abroad by short people. Once selected, applicants go through pre-departure training, which can last a year and often includes government-run classes covering everything from Chinese customs and etiquette to “enemy operations” and the activities of other countries’ intelligence agencies. (The North Korean government did not respond to requests for comment.)

The governments of both countries coördinate to place workers, most of whom are women, with seafood companies. The logistics are often handled by local Chinese recruitment agencies, and advertisements can be found online. A video posted on Douyin this past September announced the availability of twenty-five hundred North Koreans, and a commenter asked if they could be sent to seafood factories. A post on a forum advertised five thousand workers; a commenter asked if any spoke Mandarin, and the poster replied, “There is a team leader, management, and an interpreter.” A company called Jinuo Human Resources posted, “I am a human-resources company coöperating with the embassy, and currently have a large number of regular North Korean workers.” Several people expressed interest. (The company did not respond to requests for comment.)

Jobs in China are coveted in North Korea, because they often come with contracts promising salaries of around two hundred and seventy dollars a month. (Similar work in North Korea pays just three dollars a month.) But the jobs come with hidden costs. Workers usually sign two- or three-year contracts. When they arrive in China, managers confiscate their passports. Inside the factories, North Korean workers wear different uniforms than Chinese workers. “Without this, we couldn’t tell if one disappeared,” a manager said. Shifts run as long as sixteen hours. If workers attempt to escape, or complain to people outside the plants, their families at home can face reprisals. One seafood worker described how managers cursed at her and flicked cigarette butts. “I felt bad, and I wanted to fight them, but I had to endure,” she said. “That was when I was sad.”

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Workers get few, if any, holidays or sick days. At seafood plants, the women sleep in bunk beds in locked dormitories, sometimes thirty to a room. One worker, who spent four years processing clams in Dandong, estimated that more than sixty per cent of her co-workers suffered from depression. “We regretted coming to China but couldn’t go back empty-handed,” she said. Workers are forbidden to tune in to local TV or radio. They are sometimes allowed to leave factory grounds—say, to go shopping—but generally in groups of no more than three, and accompanied by a minder. Mail is scrutinized by North Korean security agents who also “surveil the daily life and report back with official reports,” one manager said. Sometimes the women are allowed to socialize. In a video titled “North Korean beauties working in China play volleyball,” posted in 2022, women in blue-and-white uniforms exercise on the grounds of the Dandong Omeca Food seafood plant. (The company that owns the plant did not respond to requests for comment.) A commenter wrote, “The joy of poverty. That’s just how it is.”

Factories typically give the women’s money to their managers, who take cuts for themselves and the government, and hold on to the rest until the workers’ terms in China end. Kim Jieun, a North Korean defector who now works for Radio Free Asia, said that companies tell workers their money is safer this way, because it could be stolen in the dormitories. But, in the end, workers often see less than ten per cent of their promised salary. One contract that I reviewed stipulated that around forty dollars would be deducted each month by the state to pay for food. More is sometimes deducted for electricity, housing, heat, water, insurance, and “loyalty” payments to the state. Managers also hold on to wages to discourage defections. The women have been warned, Kim added, that if they try to defect “they will be immediately caught by Chinese CCTV cameras installed everywhere.” This past October, Chinese authorities repatriated around six hundred North Korean defectors. “China does not recognize North Korean defectors as refugees,” Edward Howell, who teaches politics at Oxford University, told me. “If they are caught by Chinese authorities, they will be forcibly returned to the D.P.R.K., where they face harsh punishment in labor camps.”

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