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How North Korea’s lucrative trade in human hair is helping it skirt the impact of sanctions

A worker at a factory in Pyongyang, North Korea

Pyongyang’s trade in wigs and false eyelashes is booming, offering a vital revenue stream to help it pursue its nuclear ambitions

They almost certainly don’t know it, but western owners of shiny new wigs and false eyelashes could owe their look to North Korean slave labour.

In recent years, a booming trade in human hair has helped to sustain North Korea’s isolated economy, softening the impact of international sanctions and providing Pyongyang with vital revenue to pursue its nuclear ambitions.

Last year, exports to China included 1,680 tonnes – or about 135 double decker buses worth – of false eyelashes, beards and wigs worth around $167m, according to Chinese customs data. Millions of dollars in sales of human hair helped drive a recovery in the secretive state’s exports in 2023, with wigs and other hair products making up almost 60% of declared goods sent to China, by far its biggest trading partner.

The products are typically made with hair imported from China and assembled at low cost in the North, before being returned to Chinese businesses who export them all over the world. However, shoppers in London and Seoul perusing hairpieces and other accoutrements will find labels telling them the items were made in China, not North Korea.

Light industry of the kind that manufacture beauty products are not subject to UN sanctions against Pyongyang; instead, they are one of several ways – legal and otherwise – in which the regime is able to soften the blow from international punitive measures and earn vital foreign currency.

North Korea thrives ‘on the suffering of its people’

It has been almost two decades since North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon and announced the arrival of a potential threat to regional and global security from one of the world’s most brutal and unpredictable dictatorships.

The UN security council was shocked into action, passing its first rounds of sanctions in 2006 with the demand that the North end nuclear testing, along with a ban on exports to the country of military supplies and luxury goods.

But by any reasonable measure, years of sanctions have only dented North Korea’s pursuit of a working nuclear deterrent. Its leader, Kim Jong-un, has not just taken up where his father, Kim Jong-il, left off when he died in 2011; he has accelerated his regime’s acquisition of ballistic technology via a stream of test launches that have given the North the ability, in theory, to conduct a nuclear strike on the US mainland.

Then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il with his son Kim Jong-un in 2010
Then North Korean leader Kim Jong-il with his son Kim Jong-un in 2010. Photograph: Anonymous/AP

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, says it was “unreasonable” to expect sanctions alone would end Kim’s nuclear ambitions.

“Sanctions make it more difficult for North Korea to obtain technology, components, and money for its weapons programs,” he says.

“But sanctions haven’t stopped North Korea, because the Kim regime has built a governance system that can survive, and even thrive, on the suffering of its people. Pyongyang is also adept at evading sanctions through smuggling and cyber hacking, especially since countries such as Russia and China became increasingly lax about enforcement.”

Although many weapons experts doubt the regime’s ability to marry a miniaturised warhead with an intercontinental ballistic missile [ICBM], Kim has encountered little opposition in his mission to acquire the ability to wreak nuclear devastation on enemy targets.

In 2017, the North threatened to launch a long-range missile towards the US Pacific territory of Guam. The same year, it flew two long-range missiles over Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island. In 2023, after a hiatus caused by the Covid-19 pandemic – North Korea launched at least 30 ballistic missiles, including five ICBMs.

This ambitious weapons programme has not, of course, been funded entirely by sales of “made in China” beauty products. Despite UN security council bans on North Korean weapons transfers and exports of coal, iron, seafood and textiles, the regime has continued to expand and improve its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

Students braid wigs during a class at in China’s far west Xinjiang region
Students braid wigs during a class at in China’s far west Xinjiang region. Photograph: Mark Schiefelbein/AP

A crucial factor in its success is its impressive cyberwarfare capability. Between 2017 and last year, North Korean hackers were suspected of carrying out dozens of cyber-attacks that raked in $3bn to help develop its nuclear weapons programme, according to a leaked UN report.

The regime has also exploited its human resources. North Korea operates more than 50 restaurants staffed by its own workers in Chinese cities – according to a March report by Voice of America – in violation of a 2017 UN resolution requiring all member states to send North Korean workers back to their home countries by 2019.

North Korea has also been the beneficiary of geopolitical turmoil that has poisoned the west’s relationship with Russia and China. Fallout from the Ukraine war, and criticism of China’s military buildup and human rights abuses have fomented a new détente between Moscow and Beijing; it has also given Kim Jong-un an unprecedented opportunity to bust sanctions.

On Tuesday, Putin was expected to make his first visit to North Korea since 2000, with both leaders pledging to expand their security and economic cooperation in defiance of sanctions.

‘Prisoner to political gridlock’

The UN security council, for years the main driver of pressure on Pyongyang, has not adopted a resolution condemning North Korea since December 2017 due to widening differences between members countries.

The US sanctions regime began to falter in 2022 – the year Russia invaded Ukraine – when Moscow and Beijing used their vetoes as permanent members of the security council to sink a US attempt to tighten measures after an ICBM launch.

Russia’s assault on the UN’s sanctions armoury intensified this spring, when it vetoed the renewal of the panel of experts, an independent body that had monitored security council sanctions against North Korea since the country’s second nuclear test in 2009.

Hwang Joon-kook, the South Korean ambassador to the UN, reportedly described the move as akin to destroying a closed-circuit TV “to avoid being caught red-handed”.

While the West struggles to find new ways to monitor sanctions, the panel of experts’ demise is likely to encourage Pyongyang and its allies to commit more violations, according to Marcus Noland, executive vice-president and director of studies at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“Sanctions work when the sanctioning coalition is universal or near universal, the target country is small and weak, and the targeted policy or behaviour is not a core political value of the targeted regime,” Noland says.

“This clearly does not apply in the case of North Korea and its development of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems.

Sanctions, like all other tools of the UN security council, are prisoner to political gridlock and member state interests,” says Maya Ungar, UN advocacy and research analyst at the International Crisis Group in New York.

While UN sanctions have not resulted in the eradication of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, “that does not mean that the sanctions regime has been an entire failure”, she adds.

“The South Koreans assess the UN sanctions as helping to slow-down North Korea’s proliferation activities, which gives South Korea important time to build up their own defence capabilities.”

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