The Secret Trade of North Korean False Eyelashes

North Korea is known for its nuclear weapons, human rights violations, and isolation from the world. But it is also a major exporter of false eyelashes, which are sold in beauty stores around the world as “made in China”.

The false eyelashes are part of a secret trade that gives Kim Jong Un’s regime a way to skirt international sanctions, which aim to curb its nuclear and missile programs. The trade provides a vital source of foreign currency for the impoverished country, which faces severe economic hardships due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

False Eyelashes
False Eyelashes

Reuters spoke to 20 people, including 15 in the eyelash industry, as well as trade lawyers and experts on North Korea’s economy, who described how the trade works. According to them, China-based firms import semi-finished products from North Korea, which are then completed and packaged as Chinese. The finished eyelashes are then exported to markets including the West, Japan, and South Korea.

The US State Department and international experts estimate that North Korea seizes up to 90% of foreign income generated by its citizens, many of whom live in poverty. Reuters was unable to determine how much of the revenue from eyelash sales flowed back to Kim’s government, or how it was used.

How North Korea Became a Leader in Hair Products

North Korea has long been a major exporter of hair products, such as wigs and false lashes, which enable people to avoid the hassle of mascara and to achieve a dramatic look. The country has a large pool of cheap and skilled labor, as well as abundant natural resources, such as human hair.

According to the Korea International Trade Association, North Korea exported $1.8 billion worth of hair products in 2019, making it the world’s second-largest exporter after China. The main destinations were China, the US, and Europe.

However, exports tumbled during the COVID-19 pandemic, when North Korea slammed its borders tightly shut. According to Chinese customs data, North Korea’s exports to China, its largest trading partner, plunged by 80% in 2020.

Significant trade in North Korea-made lashes via China resumed in 2023, when borders reopened. Wigs and eyelashes comprised almost 60% of declared North Korean exports to China last year. In total, North Korea exported 1,680 tonnes of false eyelashes, beards, and wigs to China in 2023, worth around $167 million.

How China Helps North Korea Evade Sanctions

The trade of North Korean false eyelashes via China is a clear violation of the UN Security Council resolutions, which ban the export of North Korean textiles, among other items. The resolutions also require countries to inspect and seize any cargo suspected of originating from or destined to North Korea.

However, China, which is North Korea’s closest ally and main economic lifeline, has been accused of lax enforcement of the sanctions and turning a blind eye to the illicit trade. China has also opposed any further sanctions on North Korea, arguing that they would worsen the humanitarian situation and hamper the diplomatic efforts to resolve the nuclear issue.

The processing and packaging of North Korean false eyelashes in China also makes it difficult to trace their origin and destination. The eyelashes are often labelled as “made in China” or “made in PRC”, which stands for People’s Republic of China. Some of the eyelashes are also mixed with Chinese-made ones, or have no labels at all.

The false eyelashes are then shipped to various countries, where they are sold in beauty stores, online platforms, or wholesale markets. Some of the buyers are unaware of the true origin of the eyelashes, while others are willing to overlook it for the sake of low prices and high quality.

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