Americans Buying Cheap Salmon May Be Unknowingly Funding North Korea's Missile Programs

It is a federal crime to import products made by North Korean labor. KCNA via Reuters

In an effort to force Kim Jong Un to suspend North Korea's nuclear weapons program, President Donald Trump has pressured China to intensify sanctions on the dictatorship. He might want to think about pressuring certain American seafood retailers to pay a little closer attention to who is processing their products.

According to an investigation by the Associated Press, some seafood sold in America was processed in China by exported North Korean workers, whose salaries go straight to the North Korean government.

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The AP identified three Chinese seafood processors that have exported products to the U.S. employing outsourced North Korean labor. Working overseas is a desirable job for North Koreans, but their employment conditions are so poor that the U.S. categorizes them as "modern slave labor."

The workers, mostly women in their 20s, are overseen by a North Korean handler and are not allowed to leave their dormitory or communicate with non-Koreans. They make what amounts to around 49 cents per month, and up to 70 percent of their salary goes to the North Korean government. In other words, American demand for cheap fish is essentially subsidizing North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

The AP identified Walmart and Aldi as two of the American retailers that carry the seafood, noting that the fish is often exported in generic packaging but sometimes is already branded upon arrival in the U.S. A spokesperson for Walmart told the AP that the retailer became aware of the labor issues a year ago and had prohibited its suppliers from getting their fish from the problematic processing plants. In August, President Donald Trump signed a law prohibiting American companies from importing goods made by North Korean labor, even outside of North Korea.

Shipping records obtained by the AP show that in 2017 more than 2,000 tons of seafood has been sent to the U.S. and Canada from the processing plants—which are located in Hunchun, China—that employ North Korean labor. The importers include Sea-Trek Enterprises and the Fishin' Company, which supply grocery stores and seafood retailers. Both companies have said that they plan to investigate. The Fishin' Company said it has already ended its relationship with the processors.

North Korea's exporting of workers to other countries to bring in revenue is nothing new. Those working in China, however, are kept under especially close surveillance for fear that they will defect. North Korean workers arrive at the processing plants in teams, live in concrete dormitories they are not allowed to leave and work up to 12 hours a day, six days a week.

Worldwide, it is estimated that the North Korean government takes $200 million to $500 million from the earnings of this exported labor. Considering South Korea's estimate that the dictatorship's missile programs have cost more than $1 billion, this added income is not insignificant.

Despite the poor working conditions, demand among North Koreans to work abroad will continue to be high. Though the workers in Hunchun make only $300 a month, of which they get to pocket only about $100, official salaries back home in North Korea hover around $1 per month.