False eyelashes raise hard currency for North Korea

In a Chinese town on the border with North Korea, a cosmetic enhancement item plays a key role in the dramatic revival of trade between the two countries.

"These false eyelashes were made in North Korea. They're good quality," a Chinese trader said, showing packages of the beauty product.

The North has been exporting the eyelashes in great quantities since early this year, providing it with foreign currency while evading economic sanctions the United Nations Security Council imposed on Pyongyang for its weapons development activities.

After Pyongyang and Beijing eased COVID-19 restrictions, commerce has staged a rapid recovery. NHK recently visited the border town, seeking a view from the ground.

Changes seen at N.Korean border

On July 2023, an NHK team arrived at Dandong in the Liaoning Province of China, known as the largest base for Chinese-North Korean trade. It is roughly five hours from Beijing by high-speed railway. North Korea is visible across the Yalu River.

Dandong in Liaoning Province, China, with North Korea visible across the river (July 2023)

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, North Korea began to strictly regulate its borders in January 2020. It suspended all travel to and from other countries, making it impossible to enter freely.

During this time, a popular boat tour in Dandong circled around the Yalu River and offered views of the North. NHK went on the tour, and observed a man leading cattle while doing farmwork, a two-man border patrol team, and some women chatting as they walked through fields.

Women chat while walking through a field in North Korea (January 2020)

Some Chinese tourists waved and called out to the people on shore, but the North Koreans only stared back.

Pyongyang adopted extreme precautions as COVID-19 infections spread, including a warning that anyone who approached the country's borders would be shot and killed on the spot.

In February 2023, NHK once again went on the boat tour. On the North Korean side, soldiers and residents were all wearing masks.

A North Korean soldier wearing a mask (February 2023)

In July, however, many people visible on shore were maskless. This suggests North Korea has relaxed its COVID-19 preventative measures, although nothing has been announced.

China-North Korea trade dramatically recovers

Before North Korea eased its restrictions, it had been facing a tough economic situation. On top of the impact of the extended sanctions, the strict border control measures took a steep toll.

South Korea's central bank, the Bank of Korea, estimates that North Korea's 2020 gross domestic product was -4.5 percent compared to the previous year, the sharpest drop in more than two decades. Its GDP shrank annually in the three years through 2022.

North Korea turned to its neighbor to help reverse the slide. China's customs administration said on July 20 that Chinese-North Korean trade had reached 1.05 billion dollars so far in 2023, more than triple 2022's total. That represents a recovery of 84 percent to 2019's pre-pandemic levels.

NHK visited a district of Dandong which has many companies involved in trade with North Korea.

One such company has engaged in transactions with the North for false eyelashes and other items for over 10 years. It said it sends raw materials such as synthetic fibers to a factory in Sinuiju, on the North Korean side of the river, which manufactures the eyelashes and exports them back to China.

The Chinese company can import upwards of a million units at one time, with over a thousand varieties. The company's representative said it does business with North Korea because of its quality and low manufacturing costs, which are a third of what they are in China.

"North Korea has a high level of skill and good quality, too. Also, they make our orders exactly as requested," the representative said.

He added, "The friendlier we become with North Korea, the brighter our future looks."

The United Nations Security Council's sanctions restrict North Korea from exporting many items, including coal, marine products and clothing. However, false eyelashes are not on the list.

Chinese statistics show its imports of North Korean false eyelashes and other hair products came to about 10.8 billion Japanese yen, or roughly 73 million dollars, in the first half of 2023 ― comprising over half of the North's total exports to that country.

Mimura Mitsuhiro is a professor at the University of Niigata Prefecture Economic and Social Research Institute of Northeast Asia, who has visited North Korea almost 40 times. He said he believes the North is revving up its false eyelash exports to acquire foreign currency and also to fight domestic unemployment.

Professor Mimura Mitsuhiro, University of Niigata Prefecture Economic and Social Research Institute of Northeast Asia

Mimura said North Korea imports much more than it exports, meaning that earning foreign currency is crucial. The sanctions put many people out of work, so eyelash manufacturing solves both problems.

"Due to the economic sanctions, people who worked at sewing factories lost their jobs. Workers who had been creating goods that were affected by the sanction are being sent back to factories," he said.

China apparently exporting marble to North Korea

NHK also visited a freight train loaded with goods headed for North Korea.

A freight train crosses a bridge headed to North Korea (photo taken from Dandong, China, July 2023)

Workers in a fenced area were loading stacks of goods. The containers had "Seopo" and "Dandong" written on them in hangul, the Korean alphabet. Seopo is a logistics center located in Pyongyang.

A large box close to the container had "marble" written in Chinese characters. Other boxes were labeled "tile" in English.

The boxes apparently contain building materials bound for North Korea. Chinese statistics show the North imported 3 billion yen, or about 20 million dollars' worth of marble and tiles in the first half of this year.

Marble products from a Chinese company trading with North Korea (photo taken in Dandong, China, July 2023)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un unveiled a plan to build 10,000 residences a year in Pyongyang for five years through 2025.

The residences are intended as gifts for people who contributed to the Workers' Party of Korea. Ri Chun-hee, an announcer considered to be the face of the country's state-run television, personally received one from Kim.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gifts a Pyongyang residence to announcer Ri Chun-hee in September 2022.

NHK observed at least 20 residential buildings being built in Sinuiju, across the river from Dandong. But no cranes or other construction equipment could be seen.

Residential buildings under construction in North Korea (photo taken from Dandong, China in July 2023)

Will China respect the economic sanctions?

On July 27, 2023, North Korea held a military parade coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the Korean War's armistice. It invited Russia and China. Li Hongzhong, Vice Chairperson of the National People's Congress of China, led the Chinese delegation.

Kim Jong Un (left) shakes hands with Li Hongzhong (right), Vice Chairperson of National People's Congress of China, at a North Korean military parade. (July 2023)

Kim warmly greeted Li, signaling the countries' close relationship.

Mimura said that if trade between China and North Korea continues on its recovery path, its total value could exceed 2019's pre-pandemic level by 30 to 50 percent in the near future.

He said the key question is whether or not China remains on the same page as other countries in regard to the economic sanctions.

"If China decides on its own to relax how it internally handles the economic sanctions, China's enforcement of the sanctions will weaken, which will have a big impact internationally," Mimura said.

As tensions between the US and China rise and antagonism at the UN Security Council grows, China increasingly serves as North Korea's protector. The surging trade in false eyelashes could be a harbinger of closer economic and security ties between Beijing and Pyongyang.