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. 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?] 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.
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.” Most of the clients of North Korean women are Chinese citizens of Korean descent, largely elderly bachelors. 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.
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.
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.
Human rights organizations have compiled a list of hundreds of North Korean defectors repatriated by China. 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.
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.
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.