North Korean Slave Labor Used to Process Fish Sold in US Stores

Yu Vongkiatajorn

There's really no way to know, as a consumer, which products are linked to North Korean workers. These workers face threats of government reprisals against them or their relatives in the [North Korea] if they attempt to escape or complain to outside parties.

It's illegal for an American company to import products made by North Korean workers anywhere in the world, but the connection with the Chinese companies was only recently uncovered by a team of investigative reporters from The Associated Press, who tracked the products from the factory to the freezer case. Aldi in Australia said it does not source any products from the factories in question. These same laborers also work in factories that make wood flooring and clothes in Hunchun, a Chinese city near the North Korean and Russian borders. They receive a fraction of their salaries, while the rest - as much as 70 percent - is taken by the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's government.

John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute, the largest seafood trade association in the U.S., told AP his group was urging all of its companies to immediately re-examine their supply chains "to ensure that wages go to the workers, and are not siphoned off to support a unsafe dictator". Those industries also export to the USA from Hunchun, but AP did not track specific shipments except for seafood.

The AP reached out to the Western companies involved, and each one agreed they would not tolerate modern day slavery and the potential support of Kim Jong Un's oppressive regime in their supply chains. A Walmart rep says they learned about this whole fiasco in an audit "a year go", and chose to ban Hunchun fish at some indefinite subsequent date. "It's supporting a repressive regime".

"Any country that hosts North Korean guest workers, provides any economic or military benefits, or fails to fully implement United Nations security council resolutions is aiding and abetting a unsafe regime", Tillerson said in July after North Korea's successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

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Some 3,000 North Koreans are believed to work in the area.

"While we understand that hiring North Korean workers may be legal in China", he said, "we are deeply concerned that any seafood companies could be inadvertently propping up the despotic regime".

Often the fish arrives in generic packaging.

Spokeswoman Marilee McInnis said: "Combating forced labour is a complex problem that no one company, industry, or government can tackle alone".

The exact number of North Korean laborers overseas is unknown, but estimates are in the tens of thousands.

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