Slavery Still Exists: Have You Used Products Made by North Korean Slaves?

Despotic North Korean leader Kim Jong Un touts his nuclear weapons capabilities in the news daily. You may wonder how his country funds this arsenal, since sanctions prohibit North Korea from exporting goods. The answer is Kim has skirted around the sanctions by sending his workers to other countries. There they reportedly work under slave-like conditions and turn over 70% of their wages to their government back home. North Korea reportedly earns between $200 million and $500 million a year from slave labor.

Although President Donald Trump signed a law in 2017 prohibiting companies from importing products made by North Korean workers, some of these very items may have made their way to the United States and may be sitting on your table now. Here we’ll take a look at eight surprising things produced by North Koreans under slave-like labor conditions abroad.

1. Fish

Catfish steak cooking on a grill

Some of the fish ended up in Walmart stores. | Lester120/iStock/Getty Images

If you have eaten fish bought from Walmart or Aldi, there’s a chance your meal originated from North Korean labor. Around 3,000 North Koreans work in the Chinese industrial hub Hunchun. After conducting an investigation, the Associated Press reported last October that seafood processed in Hunchun by North Koreans made its way to the United States.

While some of the seafood was put in generic packaging, some was already branded before it left China with Walmart packaging, according to the AP report. Other fish packages labeled in Hunchun listed Sea Queen, a brand sold exclusively at Aldi supermarkets. American distributors imported packages of snow crab, salmon fillets, squid rings, and more.

Next: Another Hunchun product may have arrived.

2. Wood flooring

There is also evidence of North Korean laborers making wood flooring. | iStock/Getty Images

In addition to seafood, the AP investigation found North Korean laborers making wood flooring in Hunchun. This industry also exports to the United States from Hunchun, but AP did not track specific shipments of wood flooring and where it goes in the U.S. As for workers’ conditions in Hunchun factories, at several facilities the North Korean workers are under the watchful eye of an overseer, according to the AP report. They work up to 12 hours a day with one day off each week. They also live in crowded rooms above factories and are not allowed to talk to Chinese workers. Official salaries often equal $1 per month.

A North Korean expert told of the inhumane conditions for North Koreans working in China. “If a North Korean wants to go [abroad], China is his or her least favorable option,” said Andrei Lankov from Kookmin University in South Korea. “Because in China, [factories] have essentially prison-like conditions.”

Next: Workers were warned.

3. Sewn garments

women in white work on yellow fabric in an assembly line

The AP didn’t track where the garments were going after. | Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

In addition to seafood and wood flooring, the AP investigation found North Korean laborers sewing garments in Hunchun factories. This industry also exports to the U.S. from Hunchun, AP reported. Like with wood flooring, the investigation didn’t track just where specific garment shipments ended up. When female garment workers in bright polyester clothes were questioned by a reporter, one confirmed they were from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. Then a minder arrived telling the workers, “Don’t talk to him!”

Next: Troubling news for soccer fans

4. World Cup stadium

Workers at the Saint-Petersburg Stadium during construction works

Slave laborers helped build the Zenit Arena. | Francois Xavier Marit/AFP/Getty Images

Russia will host 2018 World Cup games at Zenit Arena in St. Petersburg. A patriotic opening ceremony was held at the new stadium in 2017. But what some may not have known was the stadium was built largely by immigrant slave laborers, including at least 190 “downtrodden” North Koreans, The Guardian reported. According to a subcontractor, these North Korean laborers worked 11-hour days for $10-$15, seven days a week, with six to eight workers sharing one construction caravan. At least one North Korean worker, a 47-year-old laborer, was said to have died.

Next: Slaves are building a city from scratch.

5. An entire city in Qatar

Early works on Lusail Stadium near completion ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar

Their labor also helped built the World Cup city in Qatar. | Warren Little/Getty Images

North Korean slave labor has been associated with another World Cup venture – this time, the 2020 games, set to be hosted by Qatar. The cash-flush Middle Eastern country is endeavoring to construct an entire city named Lusail, for the event. The skyscraper-packed, multibillion-dollar project is taking place in the desert outside Doha and is known as Qatar’s “Future City.”

Around 2,800 North Koreans work in the Gulf state, some building the new city, reports say. According to activists, these North Korean workers receive almost no pay for their labors. “We are here to earn foreign currency for our nation,” one North Korean worker told The Guardian.

Next: A shipyard where safety wasn’t the first priority.

6. State-of-the-art ships

Ships moored at the wharf in the port of Gdynia

The port of Gdynia has also hired North Koreans to build ships. | nightman1965/iStock/Getty Images

A shipyard called Crist, located in the Polish port of Gdynia, has hired North Koreans to build ships, reports say. Among the North Koreans’ handiwork is a new $80 million Danish navy vessel. The ship was partially built in Poland because labor there is cheaper. Advanced Norwegian seismic ships, bound for Arctic waters missions, were built at the Polish shipyard for the same reason. Three years ago, a North Korean welder burned to death at the Crist shipyard because he wasn’t wearing adequate safety gear. Reports of the incident caused alarm among Crist’s European customers.

Next: Eerie, abandoned projects

7. African monuments

statue of Mozambique's first president Samora Moises Machel in Maputo

North Korean companies have built numerous monuments in Africa, such as this statue of Samora Moises Machel in Mozambique. | Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images

African countries have employed North Koreans to build monuments, palaces, and ammunition factories. Giant statues of leaders with their fingers pointed toward the heavens dominate platforms in different African countries – all quite similar in appearance to statues in North Korea. North Korean labor also has built a palace and a munitions factory in Namibia. In recent months, pressure associated with U.N. sanctions has caused a halt in some North Korean factory work in Africa, CNN reported. This has resulted in empty buildings and abandoned projects.

Next: Some workers remained after a deadly explosion.

8. Malaysian mines

a Malaysian flag flies at the entry-point to a Bauxite mining site in Bukit Goh situated in Malaysia's rural state of Pahang

Locals would not take the jobs, so North Koreans did. | Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

North Koreans worked in a coal mine in Malaysia as part of an agreement between the two countries’ governments. The foreign workers were needed because locals would not take the jobs and specialized workers were required. In 2014, 46 North Koreans were employed at the Selantik coal mine when an explosion hit, killing three people, a North Korean among them. Despite the dangerous working conditions, some North Koreans remained employed in Malaysia mines until May 2017. At that time, 300 workers returned to North Korea amid tensions after the assassination of Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, in Malaysia.

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