As the saying goes, you are what you eat.
In this case, it's salmon and nuclear weapons.
The two may seem completely unrelated, but, according to a recent Associated Press investigation, the popular pink fish sold at U.S. companies like Walmart and ALDI has ties to North Korea's missile program. The report reveals that North Korea outsources thousands of its citizens to a seafood factory in Hunchun, China. Those North Korean employees are the ones that end up processing the salmon that ultimately ends up being sold in nearly a dozen American stores.
The North Korean employees are closely monitored -- restricted in what they can do, who they can talk to, and where they can go. Some experts describe the deplorable labor conditions as a form of forced labor.
"Now we talk about human trafficking as kind of the official international term for this phenomenon, but what we're really talking about is a form of modern slavery," Luis CdeBaca, the former U.S. ambassador to combat human trafficking, said.
But North Korea sees the cheap labor as a profitable industry. That's because the outsourced employees are only permitted to keep about a third of what they earn. The rest of the money gets funneled to Pyongyang. The AP report estimates that the regime gets somewhere between $200 and $500 million each year from the labor. That could account for a large portion of the dictatorship's missile program, which South Korea says costs as much as $1 billion each year.
"It allows them to buy munitions, it allows them to buy jet fuel. It allows them to buy all the things that have culminated now in their nuclear program and their missile testing."
This may seem like a roundabout way of doing business, and, to some extent it is. But it's also a clever strategy devised by North Korean leaders to circumvent the economic sanctions imposed against them. CdeBaca says it exports its citizens rather than its goods.
"You make the goods somewhere else and then you can get the money back into North Korea."
But that strategy may no longer work. In August, Congress approved a sanctions bill that would make it a federal crime to import goods produced by North Korean workers anywhere in the world. That means companies like Walmart and ALDI -- whether they are aware of where their supply comes from or not -- are in violation of U.S. law.
According to Walmart, the mega discount store said it was aware of potential labor problems in China during an audit last year. Walmart said that it's since banned its suppliers from getting seafood processed there unless improvements are made.
ALDI, on the other hand, issued this response:
The chain "is committed to human rights and fair labor practices and they expect their business partners to comply with laws and regulations."
John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute -- the largest seafood trade association in the U.S .-- urged all of its companies to re-examine their supply chains "to ensure that wages go to the workers, and are not siphoned off to support a dangerous dictator."
"While we understand that hiring North Korean workers may be legal in China, we are deeply concerned that any seafood companies could be inadvertently propping up the despotic regime."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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