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How North Korea eyelashes make their way to West, Japan, South Korea, as ‘made in China’

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 a system in which 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, according to eight people who work for companies directly involved in the trade.

Some of the people spoke on condition that only their last names be used because they were not authorised to talk to the media.

North Korea has long been a major exporter of hair products like wigs and false lashes, which enable people to avoid the hassle of mascara and to achieve a dramatic look. But exports tumbled during the Covid-19 pandemic, when North Korea slammed its borders tightly shut.

Significant trade in North Korea-made lashes via China resumed in 2023, according to customs documents and four people in the industry.

Chinese customs data showed that North Korea’s exports to China more than doubled in 2023, when borders reopened. China is the destination for nearly all of North Korea’s declared exports.

Wigs and eyelashes comprised almost 60 per cent 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 US$167 million.

In 2019, when prices were lower, it exported 1,829 tonnes at a value of just US$31.1 million.

The US State Department and international experts estimate that North Korea seizes up to 90 per cent 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