Tag Archives: emigration: escaping communism

Helping North Korean refugees: an evaluation

Roughly speaking, we can estimate the value of rescuing people from a totalitarian regime or otherwise dysfunctional system by considering the difference between the quality of life they’d experience once rescued and the quality of life they’d experience if not rescued. Given how unchanging life is in North Korea, the quality of life they’d experience if not rescued is about the same as the quality of life they were leading prior to being rescued.

North Korea seems a particularly promising place because we have good reason both to believe that people lead low-quality lives there currently, and that they are likely to lead high-quality lives if they are successfully rescued (though there are some important caveats to the latter).

Life in North Korea at present

Estimates put GDP (PPP) per capita in North Korea at around $1800 per year. This is not the lowest in the world, but it’s at the low end; the poorer countries are mainly Haiti, Afghanistan, and some small countries, most of them in Africa. Further, because of the closed and highly restrictive nature of the North Korean economy, prospects for economic growth in North Korea look bleak unless there is some kind of political change.

Potential for North Korean who escape

In general, there are serious questions about the extent to which refugees will be able to adapt to their new enviroments. Although life for them will most likely be better than where they came from, the size of the gap depends on a number of factors. Below, I list some factors to consider:

  • According to official estimates, North Korea has a 99% national literacy rate. This is better than the global literacy rate (estimated at 84%) and dramatically better than literacy rates in other countries with incomes in a similar ballpark. For comparison, Nigeria and India, both large countries that are wealthier per capita than North Korea, have literacy rates 61.3% and 73.8% according to this table.
  • However, the official statistics are hard to interpret, because literacy could be defined in many different ways and statistics are hard to corroborate in a country where there is little scope for outsiders to independently verify claims.
  • Further, it seems that most North Koreans don’t learn any language other than Korean, which makes it difficult for them to immediately settle anywhere other than South Korea.
  • The educational system in North Korea indoctrinates people into worshipping their leaders and often teaches blatant falsehoods to boost national glory and prevent people from being attracted to knowledge that might undermine the regime. Thus, people have to “unlearn” a lot when they move out of North Korea. This might be an argument in favor of rescuing people when they are younger.
  • The anecdotal story of Joseph Kim (video) suggests that many North Koreans are unable to put their best in school because they are constantly looking for food and battling hunger — a concern similar to that in many other countries. Joseph Kim describes himself as having been a F student back in elementary school in North Korea, and he says he didn’t even go to middle school. Upon moving to the United States, Joseph Kim was able to turn around his academic performance. It’s unclear how unusual he is relative to other potential North Korean refugees.
  • Genetically, North Koreans are quite similar, probably indistinguishable, from South Koreans. Thus, to the extent that we consider South Korea’s rapid recent economic growth and technological progress as being linked to genetic potential, this is an argument in favor of North Koreans having huge potential when they leave. Whether this counterbalances the concerns surrounding indoctrination and wasted childhoods is unclear. Note also that at the individual level, higher IQ doesn’t lead to substantially higher earnings or life satisfaction, so this connection is not that strong.
  • There is some weak evidence of high ability for North Koreans, but it is hard to interpret. North Korea, despite having a population of only 25 million, consistently does well at the International Mathematical Olympiad (here are their historical scores). There were some accusations of cheating in 1991 and 2010, but these were not well-substantiated and in any case the consistently good performance over many years is not explained. However, it seems that, since North Korean education stops after grade 10, the IMO team gets intensive separate training (i.e., they study primarily for Olympiads, rather than juggle that with schoolwork). This arguably gives them an advantage over people in other countries for whom excelling in Olympiads is just one of many things they are juggling. There is little evidence of other significant accomplishment, but the indoctrination and the closed nature of the society probably explains that completely. Also note that Communist countries have historically performed well at mathematics. Part of the reason may be that the regime is happy to encourage mathematical excellence, considering mathematics a relatively harmless outlet for intellectual curiosity that would not threaten the regime’s indoctrination attempts.
  • The North Korean regime ruthlessly prevents people from escaping, both by suppressing information and by using physical force. Thus, the set of people who manage to successfully escape are likely to be highly selected. This could be an argument that strengthens the case for rescuing people (since the people rescued are likely to have unique talents that make them likely to both gain and contribute more once they have escaped), but it could also be an argument for diminishing returns from scaling up rescue operations (as rescue becomes accessible to people who are not that well-selected). Note that diminishing returns could still be pretty huge returns in absolute terms — it’s just that extrapolating from the gains to current refugees might lead one to overstate returns.

Escaping and returning

Do those who escape from North Korea regret it? Surprisingly, many do desire to return, and some sneak back in.

It is very, very difficult to escape directly across the border from North Korea to South Korea. The typical route for defectors is to escape to China and from there to other places (Mongolia, South Korea, Thailand). One escape route is to China, then Mongolia (via the Gobi desert), where they are arrested by the Mongolian government and deported to South Korea.

Those who manage to escape to China but aren’t able to escape further have to live underground as illegal immigrants, in constant fear of deportation. Here’s what Wikipedia says about North Korean defectors in China:

In China there are 20,000−30,000 North Korean refugees.[citation needed] There was a continued decline in the number of North Korean refugees in China, with around 11,000 in the country at year’s end,[when?][13][14] mostly in the northeast, making them the largest population outside of North Korea; these are not typically considered to be members of the ethnic Korean community, and the Chinese census does not count them as such. Some North Korean refugees who are unable to obtain transport to South Korea marry ethnic Koreans in China and settle there; they blend into the community but are subject to deportation if discovered by the authorities. Those who have found ‘escape brokers’, try to enter the South Korean consulate in Shenyang. In recent years, the Chinese government has tightened the security and increased the number of police outside the consulate.

Today there are new ways of getting into South Korea. One is to follow the route to the Mongolian border; another is the route to southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, who welcome the North Korean defectors.[15]

According to a source from 2005, “60 to 70% of the defectors [in China] are women, 70 to 80% of whom are victims of human trafficking.”[16] Most of the clients of North Korean women are Chinese citizens of Korean descent, largely elderly bachelors.[17] Violent abuse starts in apartments near the border with China, from where the women are then moved to cities further away to work as sex slaves. Chinese authorities arrest and repatriate these North Korean victims. North Korean authorities keep repatriates in penal labour colonies (and/or execute them) and execute the Chinese-fathered babies “to protect North Korean pure blood” and force abortions on pregnant repatriates who are not executed.[16]

China refuses to grant refugee status to North Korean defectors and considers them illegal economic migrants. The Chinese authorities arrest and deport hundreds of defectors back into North Korea, sometimes in mass immigration sweeps. Chinese citizens caught aiding defectors face fines and imprisonment. In February 2012, Chinese authorities repatriated North Korean defectors being held in Shenyang and five defectors in Changchun from the same location. The case of the 24 detainees, who have been held since early February garnered international attention due to the North’s reported harsh punishment of those who attempted to defect. Beijing repatriates North Korean refugees under a deal made with Pyongyang, its ally. Human rights activists say those repatriated face harsh punishment including torture and imprisonment in labor camps.[18]

North Koreans are escaping the impoverished country every day, across the heavily guarded border to mainland China to avoid persecution and starvation. The escapees might face death, if returned to their homeland. South Korean human rights activists are continuing to stage hunger strikes and appeal to the U.N. Human Rights Council to urge China to stop the deportation of the refugees.[19][20][21]

Human rights organizations have compiled a list of hundreds of North Korean defectors repatriated by China.[22][23] For some of them the fate after repatriation to North Korea is described, ranging from torture, detention or prison camp to execution. The list also includes humanitarian workers, who were assassinated or abducted by North Korean agents for helping refugees.

Thus, simply escaping to China is not much good. It’s a first step, but one that can easily be reversed without complementary steps.

Many people from North Korea currently living in South Korea evince desires to return. Commonly cited reasons include:

  • Many of them are saddled with the debt they had to pay to the people who smuggled them out. Although the South Korean government does give them some money to get started with their new lives (about $3,000 according to a comment in a discussion of LiNK on the Open Borders Action Group) this isn’t enough to repay the debt (about $7000).
  • They miss their families acutely. The situation for North Koreans is considerably harder than for migrants from other countries because of the absence of communication channels with their relatives. Also, unlike migrants from other countries, they cannot easily send remittances to their family. (There do exist informal channels of smuggling in foreign currencies, but these are quite costly because of the clandestine nature of operations).
  • Those who escape as children often have difficulty adjusting to South Korea’s highly competitive educational system. Coming from a place with low educational standards and significant indoctrination, they find it hard to readjust to the intellectual expectations in South Korea. Affirmative action (intended to help them) often places them in universities with higher academic standards than they are prepared for.
  • The ones who escape as adults often lack the necessary skills to get good jobs in the South Korean economy, and they have difficulty affording the high living costs, particularly housing costs.

See here, here, and here for more.

The cost of rescue and resettlement

Obviously, one factor that would go into determining whether rescuing people from North Korea is cost-effective is the cost of rescue and resettlement. I’ve been told that people who pay for smugglers generally pay about $7,000 to get all the way to South Korea (it’s cheaper to get to China alone, but, as noted above, that is often not enough and could even make things worse). Liberty in North Korea claim that they can execute a rescue for $2,500. Their 2012 budget is about a million dollars, of which about $149,000 were spent directly on rescuing 40 people (average about $3,700). The figure of $2,500 may reflect cost reductions since then. If we assume that their entire budget was necessary in order to facilitate the existing rescues, the effective cost per rescue comes at $25,000. It’s unclear how to interpret the figures, because of many hidden costs and questions regarding the scalability of operations. I would expect the cost of rescue to range between $2,500 and $100,000 per person for the next few thousand people to be rescued. At the lower end of the estimate range, it seems that the cost of rescue is very small relative to the other considerations, so that even a slight net of benefits relative to costs makes rescuing people arguably competitive with GiveDirectly. At the higher end (which is probably more realistic), it does start becoming comparable with the net of other costs and benefits, though I still think rescues are potentially cost-competitive with other philanthropic options (but more on this later).

Spending resources on better resettlement might help increase the value of rescues (by reducing the rate at which people regret their decision to migrate), so that might need to be factored into the total cost of rescues but also increase the benefits from rescues.

Other factors

Some other considerations:

  • More rescues mean that the world gets a better understanding of life in North Korea.
  • Existing rescues may facilitate further rescues, and also facilitate political change in North Korea as more people in North Korea get to learn more about the world outside.
  • An increase in rescues could lead to further tightening of the border, specifically the North Korean border with China, further immiserating the population.
  • The South Korean government and society get a sense of the challenges that they might face under an eventual reunification.

Immigration, emigration, and the rule of law

Large numbers of people in the United States (and possibly elsewhere) draw a sharp distinction between legal and illegal immigration. Common refrains include, “I have nothing against immigration, only illegal immigration.” Prospective immigrants are urged to get in line. Illegal immigrants are called “illegals” and questionable analogies are drawn with hostile alien invasions. Crossing borders without authorization is considered so fundamentally immoral that people who do so are punished more harshly than sex offenders. The kinder, gentler opponents of unauthorized border-crossing go far enough to concede that deporting millions of people isn’t practical, and instead favor attrition through enforcement, aka self-deportation.

For the moment, I’m interested specifically in those opponents of illegal immigration who explicitly argue that they have nothing against immigration per se, even dramatically increased immigration, but illegal immigration is bad specifically because it undermines respect for the rule of law. And given that people don’t have enough respect for US law (or the laws of the country they’re immigrating to) to immigrate legally, why would they respect the laws of the land once they have settled there?

This argument can be, and has been, critiqued from many angles (see the legal versus illegal page for more). Here, I’m going to critique it by contrasting it with emigration. A number of regimes, mostly communist, explicitly forbid people from leaving the country (fortunately, this number has been dwindling over the last few decades, with Cuba’s lifting of its travel embargo being the latest positive development). And yet, we know that emigration has been crucial for people escaping communist and other tyrannical regimes. And these people have helped shed light on the crimes of these regimes and helped end some of the worst practices of these regimes. Today, the only country that’s really hard to leave due to government restrictions is North Korea.

My question: when people illegally smuggle themselves out of North Korea to go to Mongolia and then to South Korea, or Cubans illegally escape their country to come to the United States, or East Germans cross the Berlin Wall to get into West Germany, why aren’t restrictionists equally worried about the lack of respect these emigrants display for the “rule of law” in their countries? After all, they are explicitly and clearly violating the laws of the country they were born into. If so, why should we expect them to follow the laws of the country they are migrating to?

You’d probably say I am attacking a straw man here. Clearly, the emigration laws of these countries are so depraved that it is morally permissible to break them, and morally impermissible to actively try to enforce them. And if somebody violates these laws, it does not mean that the person is likely to violate generally sensible laws in other domains of life.

But this raises the question: are immigration laws also sufficiently unjust that it is morally permissible to violate them? Although restrictionists often use the killing versus letting die distinction, the truth is that considerable violence is necessary to close borders — whether you’re closing them to prevent entry or to prevent escape. And does people’s violating immigration laws mean that they have no respect for the rule of law in general, or just that they simply don’t see immigration law as being on the same moral plane as, say, laws against murder and theft, or simple rules about what side of the road to drive on?

Now, my goal in this blog post is not to argue that opposition to immigration is obviously or always immoral, or that these moral considerations override the real-world costs of immigration (I do obviously believe that — or I wouldn’t have created this site and wouldn’t be blogging here — but that is not the purpose of this blog post). Rather, what I’m claiming is that people who specifically object to immigration because it’s “illegal” while claiming no objections to legal immigration are ducking the hard question of whether, in fact, immigration laws are sufficiently morally justified to make their violation immoral. Honest opponents of immigration would do better to actually engage the moral and practical considerations surrounding immigration rather than claim that their “only” problem with immigration is that it’s illegal.

Closed borders kill people

Open borders advocates have long seized philosophical hypotheticals to argue that open borders would, quite literally, save lives. Restrictionists tend to jump through all kinds of hoops to argue that preventing someone from earning an honest living isn’t economically equivalent to robbing that person of some of their income — which, in extreme cases, can obviously cause death. But it isn’t hard, at all, to find cases where closing the borders quite literally kills people.

Historically, developed countries have welcomed political refugees, knowing that to turn someone away would likely lead to their death. We regret and condemn cases where the civilised world has failed to do this, such as when the 1940s US denied visas to European Jews (perhaps the most famous victim of American oppression here being Anne Frank). West Germany welcoming East German escapees or the US welcoming Vietnamese refugees come to mind; even today, the US near-automatically grants residency to Cuban refugees.

While reading an article in the New York Times today about the corner of the world where the borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran meet, all I could think about was the power of open borders to transform people’s lives. I don’t know many people who would find it appealing to live in Iran, yet there are literally people willing to run the risk of death just to get into Iran (over 2 million of them, by one estimate from the article). That’s the immense power of the place premium.

I don’t have extremely strong views on Iran, but after reading the article, I don’t think I had a very positive impression of the country — to put it mildly. The way it treats undocumented Afghan workers, literally murdering people for crossing a line someone drew on a map, is unconscionable. Yet almost everything about Iranian immigration policy, short of murdering immigrants, resembles immigration policy in almost every country of the world. What makes Iranian immigration policy barbaric, but US or European immigration policy civilised?

Something else to chew on: Australia’s policy of jailing immigrants has backfired, because Indonesians are willing to risk death on the open seas to immigrate to Australian jails. The place premium’s existence and power are undeniable: people risk life and limb to get into Iran. They risk life and limb to get into an Australian jail, because that’s still a better life than what they had before. If closing the borders isn’t equivalent to taking food away from a starving man, it’s pretty damn close — especially when you need to literally kill some people to keep the borders closed.

Lifting the Cuban Travel Ban Is Good for U.S.

This piece originally appeared at the Cato-at-Liberty blog here and is reproduced with permission from the author.

This morning the Cuban government announced reforms of its 52 year old travel ban. In mid-January, the Cuban government will cease requiring exit visas and invitations from foreign nationals so Cubans can leave. It’s unclear how the new plan will be applied in practice. The Cuban government’s announcement might not be as welcome as people hope, but this is a substantial change in rhetoric. My colleague Juan Carlos Hidalgo wrote about how such an approach would affect Cubans here.

Assuming the travel ban is mostly or entirely lifted, this policy change will also affect Americans in numerous ways.

First, the United States has a unique immigration policy for Cubans. Known as the “wet foot/dry foot policy,” if a Cuban reaches American soil he or she is allowed to gain permanent residency within a year. If a Cuban is captured at sea, he or she is returned to Cuba unless they cite fears of persecution. This means that most Cubans who want to leave, with the exception of violent or other criminal offenders, will be able to stay in the United States if they are able to make it to American soil. No other nationality in nearly a century, except the Hungarians in the 1950s, has been subject to such a generous policy.

Because of their unique legal-immigration status, the Cuban-born population living in the United States was excluded from estimates of unauthorized immigrants and very few of them are likely in violation of any immigration laws.

Second, the United States is the number one destination abroad for Cubans. Additionally, nearly 60 percent of Cuban-Americans were born abroad compared to less than 40 percent for all other Hispanic groups. Cubans tend to be older, more likely to own homes and businesses, more geographically concentrated in Florida, more educated, wealthier, and have fewer children than other Hispanic immigrant groups. They are overwhelmingly positive for the American economy.

Third, Florida has been the main destination and beneficiary of Cuban immigration since the 19th century century. Ybor City, a section of Tampa, owes its birth and development to Cuban and Spanish-born entrepreneurs like Ignacio Haya and Vincente Martinez Ybor who made the city a cigar manufacturing powerhouse by the early 20th century. For generations, Ybor City was known as “Little Havana.”

In addition to the tobacco trade, Cuban-American entrepreneurs in Ybor City also specialized in legal services, accounting offices, real estate development companies, and advertising. Restaurants have probably had the biggest impact on the habits of Americans. The Columbia Restaurant, currently Florida’s oldest restaurant, was opened by Cuban- born Casimiro Hernandez in 1905. It started as a small corner cafe serving authentic Cuban sandwiches and café con leche and has since expanded to seven other locations.

The situation was similar in Miami where Cubans excelled at opening small businesses and revitalizing large sections of the city that had begun to decay. Ever since the earliest Cubans came to America, they haven’t wasted any time in their pursuit of the American dream.

Fourth, Cuban immigration to Florida has not lowered the wages for Americans working there. According to an authoritative peer-reviewed paper written by Berkeley labor economist David Card, the sudden immigration of 125,000 Cubans on the famed Mariel boatlift in 1980 increased the size of Miami’s total labor market by 7 percent and the size of its Cuban workforce by 20 percent.

For non-Cubans in Miami with similar skills, wages were remarkably stable from about 1979-1985. A massive and sudden increase in labor supply did not lower wages for Americans or increase their unemployment. Miami businesses rapidly expanded production to account for the influx of new consumers and workers and Cuban immigrants started businesses with a gusto, thus creating their own employment opportunities.

Cuba’s reform of the travel ban could reignite Cuban immigration. In 2011, roughly 40,000 Cubans gained legal permanent residency and refugee status in the United States. That number could increase dramatically if the Cuban government truly got out of the way and let its people move toward relative freedom and economic opportunity.

Beginning in mid-January, assuming U.S. policy does not change (an unlikely scenario given that neither political party wants to upset the politically influential Cuban community in South Florida), we could witness a large new wave of Cuban immigration to the United States.

Despite entertaining movies like Scarface, the long run consequences of the Marial boatlift have been good for Americans, Cuban immigrants, and Florida. Cuban-Americans reveal a pattern of success and achievement similar to other contemporary immigrant groups and those in our country’s past. Immigrants are more successful in the United States than their former countrymen left behind. American capitalist institutions are the main cause of this, but it’s also because immigrants are overwhelmingly committed to economic advancement and the hard work that takes.

If Cuba truly lifts the travel ban, it will be a blessing for all Cubans. Many of them will likely immigrate to the United States, which will also be good for us.