Economy

N. Korean workers process seafood in China for U.S. stores, restaurants

N. Korean workers process seafood in China for U.S. stores, restaurants

"We found that packages of frozen salmon go from these factories where North Koreans work to places like Walmart", says Martha Mendoza, part of the AP's investigative team.

At a time when North Korea faces sanctions on many exports, the government is sending tens of thousands of workers worldwide, bringing in revenue estimated at anywhere from $200 million to $500 million a year. That could account for a sizeable portion of North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programs, which South Korea says have cost more than $US1 billion.

The authorities in a northeastern Chinese border city have secretly warned local firms they will be slapped with fines if they newly hire North Korean workers in violation of United Nations sanctions, amounting to 5,000 yuan ($750) per worker, sources familiar with the situation said Wednesday.

Workers at the plant are not allowed to leave the compounds without permission and have no access to telephones or email. And they are paid a fraction of their salaries, while the rest-as much as 70 percent-is taken by North Korea's government.

John Connelly, president of the largest seafood trade association in the USA, said the National Fisheries Institute was strongly encouraging all of its companies to investigate their supply chains "to ensure that wages to the workers, and are not siphoned off to support a unsafe dictator".

Besides seafood, AP found North Korean labourers making wood flooring and sewing garments in factories in Hunchun.

Those industries also export to the U.S., but AP did not track specific shipments except for seafood.

Companies are asked to voluntarily send back North Korean workers hired on or after that date, and their failure to do so will be subject to additional penalty charges, the sources said. "It's supporting a repressive regime". "We can hypothesise that they might, but, as the observation goes, those who know don't say and those who say probably don't know", he said.

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North Korean laborers work in several industries around the world, including construction in Gulf states and shipbuilding in Poland. New U.N. sanctions bar countries from expanding their North Korean workforce. But for North Koreans, a job overseas is highly coveted. The scene along the China-North Korea border provides some clues.

At some factories, laborers worked hunched over tables as North Korean political slogans blasted from loudspeakers. "The checkpoints and inspections are aimed at blocking smugglers and defectors, which does not come as good news for North Korean residents".

The AP's investigation adds to a growing saga over some of the appalling conditions workers face in the seafood industry.

According to a North Korean source with knowledge of the issue, Chinese frontier public security officers in military garb are enforcing thorough inspections and crackdowns on smuggling from the Hwanggumpyong Island area to the Yalu River Estuary near Donggang. The other Chinese companies didn't comment.

North Koreans outsourced by their government are preparing seafood in China that ends up in American stores and homes, the report said.

One importer, The Fishin' Co.in Munhall, Pa., said it cut ties with Hunchun processors and got its last shipment this summer. But the AP notes that the seafood could remain in the supply chain for "more than a year".

Often the fish arrives in generic packaging.

One of the products dealt with by the factories is Sea Queen - a fish brand sold exclusively at Aldi supermarkets.