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The North Korean forced labor program supplying seafood around the world

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

They will treat you like an insect - those are the words of a North Korean woman in her 30s who has spent the past several years gutting fish at a plant in China, also being made to work late into the night, getting sores in her mouth from exhaustion and being forced to have sex. Well, she told her story to journalist, Ian Urbina, who's written about it in The New Yorker and who has documented how upwards of 100,000 North Koreans have been sent to work in China, often in conditions of captivity, and despite the fact that this is illegal. Before we start, I do want to warn our listeners that we will be discussing sexual assault. Ian Urbina, welcome.

IAN URBINA: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: That number I just cited, 100,000 North Korean workers in China - that is per the U.S. State Department. Give us a sense of what kind of jobs they have been sent to do.

URBINA: Many of the workers are working in textile and garment factories, construction jobs and also in seafood processing plants.

KELLY: Do they leave North Korea and go to China of their own free will?

URBINA: This is an elaborate state-to-state, China/North Korean collaboration. It's sort of heavily regulated by the two governments. There's a lot of vetting on the North Korean side. You don't get to join this labor transfer program if you have any relatives who have ever defected or if you have anything on your record that might make the North Korean government worried that you might try to defect. And mostly, these are women who get transferred into China for these jobs. And they're pretty sought after by North Koreans because...

KELLY: I was going to - you used the word get to join this, which implies North Koreans want these jobs.

URBINA: Yeah. I mean, the - you know, the wages that are on offer in China are an order of five to six times more than anything these women could earn in North Korea. Oftentimes the women arrive and what they've been promised they don't receive. There are all sorts of hidden fees and then all sorts of abuses that occur at the factories.

KELLY: And what's the attraction for China? This is cheap labor?

URBINA: Cheap labor, often in industries where they can't find workers.

KELLY: OK. What about the fact I mentioned that this is not legal? It violates U.N. sanctions for Chinese companies to use North Korean labor. And these are sanctions that were imposed on grounds that the labor is forced, as you just told us, and that the salaries fund the regime back in Pyongyang. How does China get around that?

URBINA: Yeah, it's interesting, and especially so since the U.N. Security Council unanimously signed, in 2017, these sanctions. So that means China was on board. And so that China...

KELLY: China signed them, yeah.

URBINA: You know, the sanctions are a flawed tool, and they're only as good as the enforcement of the state that's usually breaking them. And in this case, China typically looks the other way. And then if some Western media or whatever confronts them, they usually say the proof isn't, you know, solid, and we don't believe it's really happening. So generally they ignore the sanctions on this issue. And as things have warmed between North Korea and China, they're ignoring them more and more.

KELLY: OK. I want to talk about the workers. And you were able to interview some of them. How?

URBINA: We assembled a team of investigators, all that specialize in talking to defectors, and then some of them actually have inroads into North Korea. We assembled a list of women - 'cause all of these are women - who either presently are still in processing plants in China, or most of them are now back in North Korea. And then we figured out a method to have contacts in North Korea visit these women, typically in open spaces like parks or, you know, city streets or whatever - harder to surveil. And we conveyed the written set of questions to the contacts there. They asked the questions, transcribed all their answers and then through encrypted apps, transmitted them back to us.

KELLY: And what did they tell you? What kind of conditions did these women describe?

URBINA: You know, these are sort of walled compounds - these plants, typically. And the North Korean workers - the women - are kept very apart. They're very conspicuous. You know, Dandong residents - the city where many of these women are in China - often film them on the street because they stand out. They dress the same. They have minders that are herding them into the store. They're mostly not allowed to leave the compound. On the compounds, they sleep in big dorms - sometimes 30 to a room. These are locked - facility guards at the gate. You know, the doors are always locked.

KELLY: You write that of the 20 workers you interviewed, 17 described being sexually assaulted - 17?

URBINA: Yeah, this was probably my biggest surprise because I - in all the things I'd read and all the people I talked to, I had not heard that. But when we asked, the women really opened up and described the tactics that were typically used to coerce sex - sometimes even forced into systematic prostitution for other folks at the plant. But - and violence, beatings and these sorts of things - pretty brutal stuff.

KELLY: I mean, it sounds very difficult given the interview and reporting situation you were dealing with, but were you able to gauge their mental health - what the long-term effects of this kind of labor would be on a person?

URBINA: No. You know, this is a snapshot in one moment with lots of layers of security. So you get little glimpses for which you could guess that this was probably pretty scarring - the way that the women described the sense of captivity. And remember, a lot of these women got trapped there. They expected a pretty hard go of a year, year and a half, two years. And then COVID happened, so some of them were stuck for four years. And sometimes those plants shut down because everything shut down in COVID. And so they were not just stuck there. They weren't even working, and they didn't know when they were going to get home. And they had no wage. A lot of them had taken loans out from loan sharks back to North Korea to pay bribes to get the jobs. So now their families were getting pressure by thugs back in North Korea - so real stress. There were several reports of suicides at some of the plants. We couldn't corroborate those. But if that's an indication, I think it was pretty brutal.

KELLY: Aside from the fact that we should all care as a basic matter of human dignity and law, Americans have a stake in this because some of the seafood produced at plants where you were able to document these North Korean workers are working ends up in the U.S. Do we know how much?

URBINA: We found 15 plants. We identified over a thousand workers. And these plants ship to the U.S. and Europe - and big brands - you know, McDonald's, Sysco.

KELLY: What kind of seafood? Like, what are we talking?

URBINA: A lot of shellfish in this part, so clams, oysters, but also pollock, so that's your fish sticks at McDonald's, that kind of thing - squid, and also going to surprising places like U.S. military bases and public schools. And again, you know, this isn't just a U.N. sanctions issue. There's a very strict U.S. law that says any product touched by North Korean workers is not allowed to come into the U.S.

KELLY: Did you reach out to any American companies, the ones that were implicated in your reporting, and ask, do you know about this?

URBINA: Yeah. I mean, we spent six months reaching out to over 150 different companies, and most of them stonewalled us and just wouldn't engage. A small portion did engage and said they were shocked to find out. Some of them very candidly engaged and said, look, China is a tough place to really know what's going on. Some companies, to their credit, severed ties to the plants immediately when we contacted them.

KELLY: When you say some of the companies severed ties, which ones?

URBINA: Several - one was Trident, and that's a company that, for example, supplies McDonald's. Another was Sysco, the world's largest food company, and then a Canadian company called High Liner - all very big companies - immediately said they're going to pause any imports until they can investigate.

KELLY: Ian Urbina, his New Yorker piece is headlined "Invisible Workers." Thank you.

URBINA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF APHEX TWIN'S "QKTHR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.