October 27, 2023

North Korean Forced Labor in the U.S. Seafood Supply Chain

By Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director

October 27, 2023

Note: On October 24, 2023, HRNK Executive Director Greg Scarlatoiu was invited to testify before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) for a hearing on the subject of forced labor in the U.S. seafood supply chain. The following text reflects his remarks during the hearing, as prepared for delivery. The full text of his written submission to the CECC can be viewed at this link.

Chairman Smith, Chairman Merkley, distinguished Commissioners, I wish to begin by thanking you for inviting me to testify today. The official dispatch of North Korean workers to China’s seafood processing plants is a breach of applicable UN Security Council Sanctions, international human rights instruments, and most importantly of the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

Mindful of CAATSA provisions relating to Sanctions for Forced Labor and Slavery Overseas of North Koreans, HRNK has made a preliminary determination as to whether the working conditions these workers face are subject to Section 302(b) of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 (22 U.S.C. 9241 (b)). We further endeavored to identify Chinese entities that employ North Korean laborers, with the aim of determining if such entities and individuals in charge meet the criteria under Section 111 of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (22 U.S.C. 7108). 
Until their repatriation began on August 23 or August 29, there were thousands of North Korean workers officially dispatched to Chinese seafood processing factories. In many cases, these workers processed seafood imported from North Korea. The importation of seafood processed by North Korean workers in China, seafood exported from North Korea to China, or a combination of both, into the United States would constitute a blatant violation of CAATSA.
Three major seafood processing companies have historically employed North Korean labor and have exported their products to the United States.[1] Witnesses mentioned the presence of at least three seafood processing factories that employ North Korean workers in Donggang (東港), Dandong City.
Have Chinese Factories Processed Seafood Imported from North Korea?
North Korean seafood exported to China from Najin Port is primarily transported overland by vehicles, through Chinese customs.[2] It is then distributed and sold in China's Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, Liaoning Province, or flown to inland cities including Beijing. Seafood processed in Hunchun is exported as frozen or dried seafood to the United States, Europe, Japan, and other countries.[3] The main North Korean seafood products transported inland in this manner include various species of squid, croaker, snow crab, hair crab, and blue crab.[4] 
North Korean workers process fish caught seasonally, such as cod and pollock as well as clam during clam season. They also process octopus and shellfish, packaged as Chinese export products. There are reported instances of processed seafood marked “Made in China” being shipped out to Vladivostok, where labels are switched to “Made in Russia” and exported to third countries.
North Korean Workers in Chinese Seafood Processing Plants: 
International Legal Implications
The employment of North Korean workers in Chinese seafood processing plants and labor standards violations may contravene the ILO’s Forced Labor Convention (No. 29) and the Abolition of Forced Labor Convention (No. 105), other ILO conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (also known as the Palermo Protocol).
The North Korean seafood processing workers face:
1.  Inhumane Working Conditions: Long working hours, denial of proper rest and breaks, harsh treatment, and minimal safety measures, posing a risk to their physical and mental well-being.
2.  Lack of Freedom and Communication: They are often isolated, facing limited contact with the outside world and their families. They are unable to exercise their right to freedom of movement and communication. 
3.  Absence of Labor Rights: Such rights, including the right to unionize and engage in collective bargaining, are nonexistent.
Living and Working Conditions for North Korean Overseas Workers
North Korean workers covet overseas positions, as the average monthly remittance of $70 (500 Chinese yuan) is dramatically higher than the $3-dollar average monthly industrial wage in North Korea.[5] The average bribe paid to be dispatched overseas is $2,000 - $3,000. The workers must borrow the funds from money lenders and pay it back with interest.[6] The workers are lured with false promises and subsequently entrapped under abysmal working conditions.
Wage violations through compulsory “contributions” extracted by the North Korean authorities, unpaid overtime, precarious safety, and health conditions are widespread. 
The workers must moonlight for other companies to pay back their loans, with the approval of three site supervisors (party, security agency, technical manager), who must also be bribed. Including moonlighting, a North Korean seafood processing worker in China may make up to about $210 a month. (1,500 Chinese yuan).
The North Korean workers' monthly wages are paid upon their repatriation, in North Korean currency, at the official exchange rate. 
During the COVID-19 quarantine, the workers received no wages, and the interest on loans increased, reportedly leading to about thirty suicides, most of them women.
The Chinese companies pay the North Korean regime mostly based on production volume. The payment is made in Chinese currency. 
Men mainly carry frozen fish blocks, and women sit down and peel fish or squid or sort clams and crabs by size. Most of the North Koreans work the whole day in cold storage. Additionally, the pungent smell inside is unbearable. 
North Korean workers at the Chinese seafood processing plants usually work about 10 hours a day. If production targets are not met, the workday can extend to over 12 hours. 
The witness respectfully recommends the following:

Continue to encourage civil society groups with relevant networks to continue investigating conditions of work at Chinese seafood processing factories and whether products processed by North Koreans may end up on the U.S. market.

Propose that new findings on violations affecting North Koreans at such factories be included in the Annual Report on Trafficking in Persons, required under Section 110(B) of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (22 U.S.C. 707(B)).

Seek to determine whether the government of China has made any serious and sustained efforts to eliminate severe forms of trafficking in persons, as they relate to the official dispatching of North Korean workers to Chinese seafood processing plants.

Seek to confirm whether seafood exported from China to the United States contains North Korean seafood products, and whether North Korean workers officially dispatched to China processed seafood exported from China to the United States. If confirmed, such products would have to be denied entry at any of the U.S. ports, pursuant to a prohibition under Section 307 of the Tariff Act of 1930 (19 U.S.C. 1307).

The witness wishes to thank HRNK team members Ingyu Choe, Mohona Ganguly, Doohyun (Jake) Kim, and Damian Reddy, as well as Jung Gwang-il, Ko Young-hwan, Lee Hyun-seung and Ri Jong-ho for their invaluable contributions to research, translation, direct testimony, and securing testimony by key witnesses in China and North Korea.

[1] Tim Sullivan, Martha Mendoza, and Hyung-Jin Kim, “NKorean Workers Prep Seafood Going to US Stores, Restaurants,” AP News, August 21, 2021. https://apnews.com/article/sports-middle-east-canada-europe-global-trade-8b493b7df6e147e98d19f3abb5ca090a.
[2] Baek Seong-ho, “North Korea’s Seafood Production and Exports” [in Korean], KITA Inter-Korean Trade Report vol. 7 (2020). https://www.kita.net/cmmrcInfo/internationalTradeStudies/researchReport/northKoreaTradeReportDetail.do?pageIndex=1&no=13&classification=19&searchReqType=detail&pcRadio=19&searchClassification=19&searchStartDate=&searchEndDate=&searchCondition=CONTENT&searchKeyword=&continent_nm=&continent_cd=&country_nm=&country_cd=&sector_nm=&sector_cd=&itemCd_nm=&itemCd_cd=&searchOpenYn=.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Interview with North Korean escapee, October 8, 2023.
[6] Interview with North Korean escapee, October 9, 2023.