China is the world's manufacturing hub. Like most electronic goods, China also leads in manufacturing medical supplies including medicines, ventilators, masks and even personal protective equipment (PPE). Countries like the U.S. and the U.K. heavily depend on the Asian country for medical supplies and hardly question the morality of such important goods. But a new report has revealed that China used North Korean slave labor to produce the PPEs and exported it to countries like the U.K., U.S., Italy, Germany, Japan and South Korea among others.

According to the Guardian investigation, the U.K. Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) imported hundreds of thousands of PPEs from such factories located in Dandong, a Chinese city on the North Korea border.

Slave Labor

The North Korean workers — mostly women — in those factories work 18 hours a day with hardly any time off and cannot go out of the workplace. Furthermore, they are put under constant surveillance and only earn about 30 percent of the wages while the rest of it goes to the North Korean government. Two other factories in the city also appear to use North Korean laborers.

PPEs
The U.S. and the U.K. both import PPEs from Chinese factories that use North Korean slave labor (representational image) Wikimedia Commons

The overseas labor earns around $300 to $400 a month but they only get to keep about $100 while the rest is collected by North Korean managers who pass it on to the government. "The workers have no days off. They are not allowed to go out. The North Korean [state] controls them. They make money for the country," one of the factories' manager told the Guardian.

Against UN Sanctions

If the report is to be believed, both the U.K. and the U.S. besides other countries have indirectly violated the United Nations' sanctions against Kim Jong Un's regime by spending taxpayers' money on slave labor. The UN said that North Korea was guilty of "widespread and gross human rights violations." Kim's government is notorious for using the citizens to bypass UN sanctions which were aimed at halting Pyongyang's nuclear and missile program. By taking a 70-percent cut from the workers' salaries, the government invests the money in its defense programs.

Interestingly, both the U.S. and the U.K. have put financial sanctions on North Korea over the past few years. As per the U.S. sanctions, importing goods that are manufactured by North Koreans in part or whole is prohibited. In the U.K., the Boris Johnson-led government has faced criticism for lack of transparency in awarding PPE contracts.

According to the investigation, the PPEs manufactured by North Korean slave labor was imported by Unispace Global, the largest contractor of PPEs in the U.K. The company received the contract from DHSC after the pandemic began. Unispace ordered the PPEs from a Chinese trading company before it was subcontracted to Dandong Huayang Textiles and Garments that used North Korean workers as per the investigation. However, no evidence suggests either DHSC or Unispace had an idea about such North Korean labor.

Kim Jong Un
Kim Jong Un's government takes 70 percent of the wages from the overseas workers Twitter

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also has 14 companies from Dandong as registered PPE suppliers. "Dandong has become a global center of production for gowns and coveralls because they already have cheap North Korean labor. Gown production is labor-intensive, so in Dandong, it can be produced at the lowest cost and the highest profit," said Seung Jae Kim, a South Korean author, who wrote two books on North Korean overseas workers.

Pyongyang Continues to Defy Sanctions

It also indicates that North Korea has continued to defy UN sanctions. Earlier this year, it was revealed that North Korea was evading sanctions with the help of China and Russia. It was illegally exporting coal and buying oil. Despite sanctions by the U.S. and the UN, about 100,000 of its citizens who work in China and Russian pig farms refused to return to their country.

While the amount they earn and keep is still more compared to what the North Koreans could get in their country, it is still a form of forced labor as per Professor Remco Breuker, who teaches Korean Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

However, since it is mutually beneficial for both the North Korean government and citizens, anybody hardly ever complains. The DHSC, in a statement, said that it expected all suppliers of NHS to follow the "highest legal and ethical standards."

As for the U.S., the country's Treasury Department slapped sanctions on two companies in Russia that were allegedly exporting forced labor from North Korea. Mokran LLC, a Russian construction company and Korea Cholsan General Trading Corp, a North Korean company that was operating in Russia were involved in the forced labor.