How North Korea's Lucrative Human Hair Trade to West Bypasses Sanctions Influence

They almost certainly don't know it, but Western owners of new shiny wigs and false eyelashes could owe their looks to North Korean forced labor

by Sededin Dedovic
How North Korea's Lucrative Human Hair Trade to West Bypasses Sanctions Influence
© Carl Court / Getty Images

In recent years, the booming human hair trade has helped sustain North Korea's isolated economy, as reported by The Guardian, easing the impact of international sanctions and securing vital income for Pyongyang to pursue its nuclear ambitions.

Last year, exports to China included 1,680 tons – roughly equivalent to 135 double-decker buses – of false eyelashes, beards, and wigs valued at around $167 million, according to Chinese customs data. Millions of dollars from the sale of human hair have aided the recovery of this secretive state's exports in 2023, with wigs and other hair products constituting nearly 60% of declared goods sent to China, its largest trading partner.

These products are typically made from hair imported from China, assembled at low cost in the North, before being returned to Chinese firms that export them globally. However, buyers in London and Seoul scrutinizing hairpieces and other equipment will find labels stating they were made in China, not North Korea.

The light industry producing cosmetic products is not subject to UN sanctions against Pyongyang; instead, it is one of the few legal and other means through which the regime can mitigate the impact of international punitive measures and earn crucial foreign currency.

North Korea advances "on the suffering of its people"

It has been almost two decades since North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon, announcing 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 and imposed the first round of sanctions in 2006, demanding that the North cease nuclear testing, alongside a ban on exporting military supplies and luxury goods. However, over the years, sanctions have only hindered North Korea's quest for a functional nuclear deterrent.

Its leader, Kim Jong-Un, not only continued where his father Kim Jong-Il left off upon his death in 2011 but accelerated the acquisition of ballistic technology by his regime through a series of test launches that theoretically gave the North the capability to conduct a nuclear attack on U.S.

mainland. Leif-Erik , a professor at Ehwa University in Seoul, says it was "unreasonable" to expect sanctions alone to end Kim's nuclear ambitions. "Sanctions make it harder for North Korea to acquire the technology, components, and money for its weapons programs," he said.

"But sanctions haven't stopped North Korea because Kim's regime has built a management system that can survive, and even thrive, on the suffering of its people. Pyongyang is also adept at circumventing sanctions through smuggling and cyber hacking.

In 2017, it threatened to launch a long-range missile towards the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam. That same year, it flew two long-range missiles over Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost main island. After a hiatus caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, North Korea launched at least 30 ballistic missiles last year, including five ICBMs.

North Korea Fires ICBM March 24, 2022© Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images

This ambitious weapons program, of course, is not entirely funded by the sale of cosmetic products "Made in China." Despite the UN Security Council's bans on North Korean weapons transfers and exports of coal, iron, seafood, and textiles, the regime has continued to expand and enhance its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

A key factor in its success is its impressive capability in cyber warfare

Between 2017 and last year, North Korean hackers were suspected of conducting dozens of cyber attacks that reportedly garnered $3 billion to help develop its nuclear weapons program, according to a leaked UN report.

The regime has also tapped into its human resources. North Korea manages over 50 restaurants where its workers operate in Chinese cities, as shown in a March report by Voice of America, contradicting a 2017 UN resolution requiring all member states to repatriate North Korean laborers by 2019.

North Korea has also benefited from geopolitical upheavals that have strained Western relations with Russia and China. Putin is expected to make his first visit to North Korea since 2000 on Tuesday evening, with both leaders promising to expand their security and economic cooperation despite sanctions.

The UN Security Council, for years the primary driver of pressure on Pyongyang, has not adopted a resolution condemning North Korea since December 2017 due to increasing divisions among member states. The U.S. sanctions regime began to weaken in 2022 when Russia invaded Ukraine and Moscow and Beijing used their vetoes as permanent Security Council members to stifle U.S.

attempts to tighten measures following the ICBM launch. "Solutions, like all other means of the UN Security Council, are trapped by political gridlock and the interests of member states," said Maja Ungar, UN advocacy and research analyst at the International Crisis Group in New York.

While UN sanctions have not eradicated North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, "this does not mean that the sanctions regime has been a complete failure," she added. "South Koreans estimate that UN sanctions help slow down North Korea's activities in expanding its nuclear weapons, giving South Korea crucial time to build its own defense capabilities." Source: The Guardian