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How North Korean eyelashes make their way to West as ‘made in China’

2024.02.03 11:26

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© Reuters. A employee works on a manufacturing line manufacturing false eyelashes at a workshop of Monsheery, in Pingdu, Shandong province, China November 16, 2023. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

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By Ju-min Park and Eduardo Baptista

SEOUL/PINGDU, China (Reuters) – Millions of {dollars} in gross sales of North Korean false eyelashes – marketed in magnificence shops all over the world as “made in China” – helped drive a restoration in the secretive state’s exports final 12 months.

The processing and packaging of North Korean false eyelashes – brazenly carried out in neighbouring China, the nation’s largest buying and selling associate – offers Kim Jong Un’s regime a way to skirt worldwide sanctions, offering a significant supply of overseas forex.

Reuters spoke to 20 folks – together with 15 in the eyelash business, as properly as commerce legal professionals and consultants on North Korea’s financial system – who described a system in which China-based companies import semi-finished merchandise from North Korea, that are then accomplished and packaged as Chinese.

The completed eyelashes are then exported to markets together with the West, Japan and South Korea, in accordance to eight individuals who work for corporations straight concerned in the commerce.

Some of the folks spoke given that solely their final names be used as a result of they weren’t authorised to speak to the media.

North Korea has lengthy been a significant exporter of hair merchandise like wigs and false lashes, which allow folks to keep away from the trouble of mascara and to obtain a dramatic look. But exports tumbled throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, when North Korea slammed its borders tightly shut.

Significant commerce in North Korea-made lashes through China resumed in 2023, in accordance to customs paperwork and 4 folks in the business.

Chinese customs knowledge confirmed that North Korea’s exports to China greater than doubled in 2023, when borders reopened. China is the vacation spot for almost all of North Korea’s declared exports.

Wigs and eyelashes comprised virtually 60% of declared North Korean exports to China final 12 months. In complete, North Korea exported 1,680 tonnes of false eyelashes, beards and wigs to China in 2023, value round $167 million.

In 2019, when costs have been decrease, it exported 1,829 tonnes at a price of simply $31.1 million.

The U.S. State Department and worldwide consultants estimate that North Korea seizes up to 90% of overseas revenue generated by its residents, a lot of whom reside in poverty. Reuters was unable to decide how a lot of the income from eyelash gross sales flowed again to Kim’s authorities, or the way it was used. 

“We have to assume that … millions of dollars every month that North Korea is making through this eyelash trade is being used for the Kim Jong Un regime,” mentioned Seoul-based sanctions lawyer Shin Tong-chan. His view was corroborated by two different worldwide commerce consultants, although none supplied particular proof.

North Korea didn’t reply to requests for remark for this story despatched to its U.N. missions in New York and Geneva, its embassy in Beijing and its consular workplace in the Chinese border metropolis of Dandong.

A spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry mentioned Beijing and Pyongyang “are friendly neighbors” and that “normal cooperation between the two countries that is lawful and compliant should not be exaggerated.”

U.N. AND U.S. SANCTIONS

Since 2006, the United Nations Security Council has sought to stall Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme by means of almost a dozen sanctions resolutions that prohibit its capacity to commerce merchandise such as coal, textiles and oil. It additionally imposed strict restrictions on North Koreans working overseas.

Sanctions handed by the Security Council are supposed to be enforced by U.N. member states – all of whom are legally certain to implement them – utilizing native laws.

But there isn’t a direct ban on hair merchandise, so buying and selling false eyelashes from North Korea doesn’t essentially violate worldwide regulation, three sanctions consultants advised Reuters.

Reuters introduced its findings to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, which mentioned it was “not aware of the circumstances” described however that any alleged violations of U.N. sanctions are “completely without foundation”.

Japan’s overseas ministry didn’t touch upon Reuters’ findings, however mentioned Tokyo, which bans commerce with Pyongyang, would proceed to think about “the most effective approach” towards North Korea. The European Union’s diplomatic service didn’t return requests for touch upon North Korean-made eyelashes being offered in its jurisdiction.

The United States has since 2008 individually expanded its personal measures in opposition to North Korea, which embody sanctions on any firm stocking or promoting merchandise whose gross sales fund the Kim regime: a restriction that additionally applies to non-American companies utilizing the U.S. greenback.

But there are sensible and political limitations on Washington’s capacity to implement such sanctions unilaterally on entities such as overseas companies which have minimal publicity to the U.S. monetary system and do not promote primarily to American shoppers, in accordance to two worldwide sanctions legal professionals.

A U.S. Treasury spokesperson mentioned it “actively enforces the range of our broad North Korea sanctions authorities against both U.S. and foreign firms” and would “continue to aggressively target any revenue generation efforts” by Pyongyang.

The Treasury additionally referenced its almost $1 million settlement with e.l.f. Cosmetics in 2019 over allegations that the U.S.-based agency inadvertently offered false eyelashes containing supplies from North Korea.

e.l.f.’s mother or father firm mentioned in a 2019 submitting that it found two suppliers had used North Korean supplies throughout a “routine, self-administered audit” and that it rapidly addressed the problem, which it decided was “not material.”

The firm, which has since stopped promoting false eyelashes, reiterated its dedication to making merchandise legally and responsibly in an announcement to Reuters for this story.

Reuters was unable to set up whether or not any Western corporations are at the moment concerned in the North Korean eyelash commerce.

CHINA’S ‘EYELASH CAPITAL OF THE WORLD’

The folks concerned in the business mentioned that Pingdu, an jap Chinese city that payments itself the ‘eyelash capital of the world’, is a key node in the provision chain from North Korea.

Many Pingdu-based corporations, such as Monsheery, bundle false eyelashes which are produced primarily by North Koreans, mentioned Wang Tingting, whose household owns the agency, which exports merchandise to the U.S., Brazil and Russia.

Wang mentioned in an interview from her manufacturing unit that North Korean items had helped construct Monsheery up from a small household workshop. The firm was based in 2015, company information present.

“The quality of the North Korean product is much better,” mentioned Wang, who mentioned that she was not conscious of any sanctions-related points with utilizing North Korean false eyelashes. She declined to identify her worldwide shoppers.

Others in Pingdu mentioned they’re aware of the function sanctions play in the difficult distribution chain.

“If not for these sanctions, there would be no need for (North Koreans) to export through China,” mentioned Gao, who owns Yumuhui Eyelash. 

Cui Huzhe, who represents a North Korean manufacturing unit that works with a Chinese associate in a enterprise referred to as the Korea-China Processing Joint Trading Company, mentioned the North Korean agency sends semi-finished eyelashes to China, the place they’re offered to markets together with the U.S., Europe, Japan and South Korea.

He declined to establish the 2 corporations concerned in the partnership or their shoppers. Subsequently, he could not be reached for touch upon the sanctions implications.

INCOME FOR A CASH-STRAPPED STATE

Chinese producers started working with North Korean eyelash vegetation in the early 2000s, in accordance to three Chinese manufacturing unit managers. They mentioned they prize the nation’s labour drive for its low value and the top quality of the eyelashes.

About 80% of Pingdu’s eyelash factories buy or course of false eyelash uncooked supplies and semi-finished merchandise from North Korea, in accordance to a 2023 estimate printed by Kali, a Chinese producer of eyelash bins, on its web site. 

Pingdu’s authorities says the city of roughly 1.2 million accounts for 70% of worldwide output of false eyelashes, which are sometimes fabricated from artificial fibres however may additionally be created from mink fur or human hair.

Trading firm Asia Pacific International Network Technology, based mostly in the Chinese border metropolis of Hunchun, advertises on its web site the providers of three North Korean eyelash processing factories with pictures of staff arranging hairs and pasting them on paper.

Reached by cellphone, an organization worker, who wouldn’t give her identify, declined to remark.

Seoul-based businessman Johny Lee imports merchandise like chicken-feet formed lashes used for extensions by means of Dandong into South Korea.

Those lashes are made by North Koreans, packaged in China, after which offered regionally or exported to Asian international locations like Japan, mentioned Lee, who chairs a commerce group in Seoul that features eyelash extension technicians from the West and South Korea.

Asked about authorized dangers, Lee – who started sourcing eyelashes from China a decade in the past – mentioned he was not promoting “sophisticated technology like semiconductors.” North Korean staff “are trying to make a living there,” he mentioned.

South Korean regulation states that if two or extra international locations are concerned in the manufacturing of imported items, the place the place the merchandise gained “essential characteristics” can be deemed the nation of origin.

Reuters described how eyelashes made by North Korean staff are packaged and accomplished in China to Shin Min-ho, a South Korea-certified customs legal professional. He mentioned North Korea would probably be thought-about their nation of origin as a result of it gave the uncooked supplies “essential characteristics.”

Seoul’s Korea Customs Services mentioned that “importing North Korean products disguised as Chinese can be punished,” however that it was “difficult to determine” nation of origin based mostly solely on Reuters’ description of the provision chain between North Korea and China and that it was not investigating the problem.

GOOD QUALITY, CHEAP SALARIES 

Despite the standard of the eyelashes, North Korean labour is poorly paid. North Korean salaries could be a tenth of Chinese wages, 4 Chinese manufacturing unit homeowners and managers mentioned.

In addition, Wang, a supervisor for Pingdu-based producer Co-Lash, which ceased North Korean operations throughout the pandemic, mentioned the employees gave up most of their revenue to the state. He did not provide proof.

Another Chinese producer, PD Lush, pays staff at its manufacturing unit in the North Korean border city of Rason – whose work is offered internationally – a mean month-to-month wage of 300 yuan ($42), mentioned Pingdu-based supervisor Wang. 

The centrality of North Korea to the business turned clear when the nation’s borders closed throughout the pandemic.

Monsheery’s Wang Tingting mentioned that after North Korea closed its borders in 2020 due to the pandemic, ships carrying over the small quantity of eyelashes exported throughout that point have been typically held up. “We have very high demand on our side,” she mentioned.

In the wake of the pandemic, provide was nonetheless not at full capability and delivery delays have been widespread, she added.

South Korean false eyelash model Cinderella Amisolution usually procures provides from Chinese merchants of semi-finished North Korean merchandise, which it then sells to prospects. But when North Korea sealed its border, contractors despatched samples that weren’t made by North Koreans.

“I thought, ‘this isn’t going to work’,” mentioned chief govt Choi Jee-won. “They were completely different.”

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