A guide to identifying and addressing North Korean modern slavery risk in China.

China’s other modern slavery problem: North Korean forced labour in Jilin and Liaoning.

Disclaimer: nothing in this guide is to be construed as legal advice. This guide is for informational purposes only.


While much attention has, rightly, been paid to forced labour in China’s Xinjiang region, the country’s northeastern provinces of Jilin and Liaoning also carry a high risk of modern slavery. Jilin and Liaoning border the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and there have been multiple reports of North Korean forced labourers being exploited in the two province’s factories and offices.
China’s North Korean workers are often made to work and live in terrible conditions They are held under close supervision and can be subjected to violence. Those who defy the regime risk execution. All live with the knowledge that their loved ones at home will be severely punished if they seek asylum abroad.
Every company should conduct due diligence of its supply chain for North Korean forced labour risk, with a focus on exposure to Jilin and Liaoning. This is not just the right thing to do, it will also help ensure compliance with sanctions and regulations around the world.

North Korean forced labour

North Korea is an extremely repressive dictatorship where power is consolidated in the hands of the Kim dynasty. The regime perpetrates human rights abuses on a vast scale against its own people. 
North Korea is subject to multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions and sanctions from, among others, the EU, Japan, US and UK. As a consequence, trading with the country in most categories of products and services is effectively prohibited.
For many years North Korea has exported people abroad as part of the regime’s efforts to generate foreign currency and fund its nuclear weapons programme. These workers are widely recognised to be victims of forced labour, which is a form of modern slavery. In response, the UN Security Council ordered member states not to issue new work authorisations for North Korean workers, commencing 2017. It subsequently ordered member states to return North Korean workers to their home country by December 2019.

North Korean forced labour in China’s Northeast: Jilin and Liaoning

We first wrote about the plight of China’s North Korean forced labourers in 2020; sadly large numbers continue to be exploited today. Indeed, Reuters has estimated the number of North Korean victims at 20,000-100,000. The vast majority of North Korean forced labourers are based in Jilin and Liaoning, though it is probable that some are exploited in other parts of China.

Which industries carry the highest risk of North Korean forced labour?

The industries that carry the highest risk of North Korean forced labour are apparel and clothing (including Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)), electronics, information technology (IT) and seafood. 

Apparel and clothing

China’s apparel and clothing industry is vast, accounting for more than half of global production. The industry is centred in the south and east of the country, but Jilin and Liaoning also have sizable apparel sectors. We estimate that the two provinces host over a thousand clothing factories.
Multiple investigations have found evidence of the large scale use of North Korean labourers in Jilin and Liaoning’s clothing industries. In 2020 a Guardian investigation found that PPE made by North Koreans in Liaoning was being exported to the US, UK, Italy, Japan and Germany. The following year CBC undercover teams identified suspected North Korean workers at a factory supplying clothing to a number of large Canadian retailers.
Most recently, reports have emerged of large scale protests, linked to non-payment of wages, occurring in January 2024 by North Korean workers at Chinese clothing factories.


Electronics was Liaoning’s largest export category; the province exported over $3bn of electronic circuit boards in 2023 alone. Unfortunately, there are credible reports linking Liaoning’s electronics industry to forced labour, including a 2020 investigation by Nikkei Asia which indicated that North Koreans were being exploited in Dandong’s electronics sector. Dandong is one of Liaoning’s largest cities, it is situated on the border and serves as China’s main entrepôt to North Korea.

Information Technology

While modern slavery is commonly associated with lower skilled and more manual work, it can be present in any industry. A case in point is the IT sector, where the North Korean regime exploits its citizens to generate foreign currency.
The US Government issued guidance to companies on North Korean IT workers in 2022. In it, the US Government notes that North Korea “dispatches thousands of highly skilled IT workers around the world to generate revenue that contributes to its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and ballistic missile programs, in violation of U.S. and UN sanctions.” 
A North Korean IT worker in northeastern China told the BBC that “The North Korean state exploits IT workers like slaves, making us work six days a week, 12-14 hours a day." The staff are worked through the night for European and US clients, which causes chronic sleep deprivation and illnesses.
The US Government believes that North Korean IT workers engage in a “wide range of IT development of varying complexity and difficulty” including, developing mobile and web-based applications and AI related systems. The workers’ services are sold via foreign front companies and freelancing platforms. 


China is the world’s largest processor of fish and seafood and Liaoning is one of the industry’s main hubs. China farms seafood and fishes in domestic and international waters. But it also has a very large reimport industry, where fish caught by Western trawlers in their own countries’ waters are taken to China for processing before being returned to the original country for sale. Prawns caught in Scottish waters and labelled as Scottish and sold on the UK high street, for example, could well have been processed in Liaoning.
Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) testified in 2023 that “North Korean workers have long been involved in the Chinese overseas seafood processing industry. Over three thousand workers were employed pre-COVID in seafood processing plants in the northeastern Chinese city of Hunchun.”
In 2023 a highly comprehensive investigation by the Outlaw Ocean Project identified widescale abuse of human rights in China’s fishing fleet and processing industry. They found Uyghur forced labourers being exploited in Shandong and North Koreans in Liaoning’s seafood fish processing factories.

How are North Korean workers treated in China?

North Korean workers suffer a wide variety of abuses. These include: 

Modern slavery

North Korean workers in China are victims of modern slavery. 
Workers are sent by the North Korean state and are typically supervised closely by agents of the regime. The regime does not allow entire families to travel abroad and will punish family members if a worker tries to abscond or otherwise defies the regime. 
Multiple reports indicate that the North Korean state confiscates all of, or a vast part of, workers’ salaries. An IT worker told the BBC that “when he first arrived, he was paid between 15-20% of his earnings monthly, but in 2020 he claimed his payments stopped.” The HRNK reports that “during the COVID-19 quarantine period, the workers received no wages, and the interest on loans they had taken from loan sharks in North Korea increased, leading to roughly 30 female laborers taking their own lives.”  
It is unlikely that North Koreans are paid anywhere near the mandatory minimum wage (which currently ranges between 1,540 and 2,100 RMB per month in Liaoning and Jilian). 

Physical and mental abuse

It is evident that North Korean workers can be subjected to physical and mental abuse. A worker told the BBC how “managers are pressured to publicly shame underperforming staff, by slapping them in front of everyone, and later beating them until they bled.”

Inhumane working and living conditions

One of the reasons Chinese firms recruit North Koreans is because they are prepared to (or can be forced to) work in terrible conditions. The HRNK reports that “North Korean laborers have not only suffered from the severely inhumane working and living conditions but have also been explicitly discriminated against by their Chinese employers.”
The US Government states that workers are subjected to “excessive work hours, constant and close surveillance by North Korean government security agents, unsafe and unsanitary living conditions, and little freedom of movement.” 

How can companies manage North Korean human rights risk in their Chinese supply chains?

Companies should conduct human rights due diligence of their operations and supply chains. See our guide to human rights due diligence for in-depth guidance. As part of the due diligence, attempt to determine whether the goods you purchase are ultimately sourced from northeastern China. Be aware that exposure may occur at lower stages of your supply chain. For example, electronic components in machinery or fish products in ready meals. 
Search your import records to see if goods come from Jilin or Liaoning. Note that addresses in imports records are often incomplete. We recommend therefore that you also search for their commonly used postal abbreviations and the main cities in each state, as well as their corresponding postal/ zip codes. See table A below for further information.
Postal codes for major cities in Jilin and Liaoning provinces
You should engage with your direct suppliers to help assess exposure at lower tiers of your supply chain (i.e., your suppliers’ suppliers, and their suppliers). You can also research online to check if any of your suppliers operate in, or are otherwise associated with, Jilin and Liaoning. 
A clear focus should be on apparel and clothing, electronics and seafood sourced from China.
All information technology services procured, such as IT support and software development, should be scrutinised for North Korean exposure. Beyond the ethical and regulatory compliance benefits that doing so offers, it will also benefit your information security posture. North Korea has orchestrated large hacks of western companies and organisations, resulting in billions of dollars of theft and damage. Being sure that North Korean nationals do not have access to your IT systems is an important step in preventing a data breach in your company. If you need further guidance on information security risks related to use of North Korean labour in your supply chain, see the US guidance on IT risk indicators.

What should you do if you identify suspected North Korean forced labour in your supply chain?

In situations where possible North Koreans are identified in your supply chain, you should exercise caution and seek expert guidance from human rights specialists. In addition, consider seeking advice from the foreign service of the country where the company is domiciled (e.g. for US companies, the State Department). Companies have an obligation to respect the human rights of workers in their supply chain and to comply with sanctions targeting North Korea. Meeting these two obligations, while ensuring no harm is done to the workers in question, can be very challenging.
Remember that, if discovered, the North Korean regime may punish citizens who engage with foreigners. North Korean workers in contact with people who are not Chinese or North Korean may face considerable risks when returning home, including possible imposition of the death penalty.
The BBC reports that China “typically does not describe North Korean detainees as defectors or grant them asylum status, labelling them instead as illegal economic migrants.” China regularly deports North Korean refugees to their home country where, UN Human Rights Council experts assert, they face punishment and even execution at the hands of the authorities. The above should be considered prior to engaging with Chinese authorities.
Note that not all people who speak Korean in northeastern China are North Korean. There are approximately two million Korean Chinese (Chaoxianzu), who are Chinese citizens and, in many cases, descendants of people who fled the Korean peninsula during the 19th and 20th centuries. The majority of Korean Chinese live in Jilin and many speak both Korean and Chinese. Expert guidance should be sought to help determine whether workers who speak Korean are North Korean.

In summary: what is the outlook for North Korea’s forced labourers?

China’s workforce is shrinking. This trend is particularly acute in the Northeast, where the entire population is falling. Liaoning lost 324,000 people in 2022, more than any other Chinese province. We forecast that demand for North Korean workers will therefore increase to meet this shortfall.
Russia, which also shares a border with North Korea, has historically employed many North Korean workers. Numbers fell considerably in the early 2020s, however, following its invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Russia has become increasingly isolated from the Western world. It is also in desperate need of workers as it shifts to a war economy. The country is estimated to have a deficit of 365,000 workers with salaries in some munitions plants reported to have tripled since the attack on Ukraine. Russia has increased cooperation with North Korea in recent months and we anticipate that it will start increasing its imports of North Korean workers.
So modern slavery risk, stemming from the use of North Korean labour in China, is not going away. If your business operations are exposed to global supply chains, you should make sure that you have appropriate monitoring and controls in place to manage this risk effectively. 

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