Photo/Illutration A wig made in North Korea, center, is priced at 2,000 yuan (40,000 yen, or $270) in Shenyang in China’s Liaoning province on Sept. 15. (Kim Soon-hi)

DANDONG, China--A merchant here in Liaoning province along the border with North Korea is helping the pariah state out as it desperately seeks sources of foreign currency.

But what the trader is dealing in is much more innocuous than items broadly restricted under international economic sanctions--handcrafted wigs.

“We want to receive as many orders as possible,” the merchant said.

North Korea is boosting exports of hair products to waiting customers in China.

North Koreans buy human hair and other materials from China and attach the hair to wigs by hand, according to sources familiar with production processes in the country. 

Profit margins are estimated to be about 5 to 10 percent of export values.

Wig making creates much-needed jobs in the impoverished nation, the sources said.

Manual production is also unaffected by the chronic power shortages in North Korea that cause outages.

“All you need are workers sitting in front of a bench,” a merchant said. “Neither machinery nor electricity is required.”

Sunlight is essential because workers must pay close attention to details.

At some factories, workers toil by the windows on cloudy days, the merchant said.

In the first seven months of this year, exports of North Korean wigs and false eyelashes to China totaled about $90 million (13.2 billion yen), more than three times as much as in the same period of 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to figures compiled by China’s General Administration of Customs.

Wig making is unlikely to prop up the overall economy, but the reclusive country appears to be doing whatever it can to boost foreign exchanges.

Exports of coal, seafood and weapons, among other items, are banned under prolonged international sanctions over its nuclear and missile development programs.

In August, North Korea reopened its borders for the return of its citizens after locking itself down for three years and seven months to prevent novel coronavirus infections.

The country previously allowed cargo transportation by ships and trains to resume. Transportation by trucks remains limited.

North Korea is increasing imports of rice, sugar and other commodities from China, but ordinary people continue to live in strained conditions.

Overall imports from China totaled about $1.08 billion during the first seven months of 2023, about triple the value of the same period the previous year and about 80 percent of the same period of 2019.

(This article was written by Kim Soon-hi in Dandong and Kiyohide Inada in Seoul.)