Tag Archives: North Korea

South-South migration and the “natural state”

This blog post builds upon an Open Borders Action Group post of mine and the comments on it.

In an earlier post on what open borders advocates and scholars of migration and development can learn from each other, one of the things I had said open borders advocates can learn from scholars of migration and development was the importance to give to forms of migration that currently exist, as opposed to what might exist in a hypothetical open borders world:

More focus on intranational migration, migration between low-income countries, and migration from low-income to middle-income countries: […] [I]t might be worth looking at the huge amount of migration that already exists and understanding its implications. While still arguing morally for open borders worldwide, we can focus on understanding what already exists and making changes to it. Often, there is little reliable data and little interest among readers in such matters (such as Nepal and India, or North Korean refugees), simply because blog readers are highly likely to be in First World countries and are more aware of First World issues. But I think that pushing more in the direction of better understanding migration as it’s actually happening is worthwhile, even if it doesn’t make us popular. We can be inspired here by migration scholars, who have worked very hard to compile data and collect anecdotes to further the world’s understanding of migration.

World Press 2014 Signals from DjiboutiWorld Press 2014 photo: Signal from Djibouti, source National Geographic. The photo shows people from Somalia living in Ethiopia trying to catch Somali cellphone networks at the border of the country so as to talk cheaply with their families.

This post can be considered a partial attempt to put that learning in practice. Here are some examples of “South-South migration” that I have in mind when listing my general observations. Each of these should deserve its own post. For those that don’t already have posts I link to a relevant news article or paper:

Some of the salient features of much of this South-South migration:

  1. In most of the cases, the destination countries of migration are large and somewhat heterogeneous economically. The average GDP per capita in the destination may be somewhere between 2 and 5 times that in the source country (with the exception of the somewhat special case of migration from North Korea to China, the range is more like 2 to 3 times). However, this hides a large degree of intranational variation in the destination country. The destination countries, despite their poverty and Third World status, generally have greater scope for people to become rich and successful. They have bigger cities with more opportunities. Compare, for instance, Afghanistan with Pakistan. Pakistan scores pretty poorly in terms of GDP per capita or HDI. But it has cities like Karachi and Lahore, that are (relatively speaking) thriving centers of commerce. Similarly, Indian cities offer opportunities that most Bangladeshis can’t access in their home countries. Even if the migrants don’t initially move to cities, the promise is there.
  2. Large parts of the destination country are rural, and the rural-urban gap on many development indicators is huge. Moreover, the rural areas may not really have much affiliation with or integration into the national identity. Many people in rural areas may not even have any form of documentation establishing citizenship or national membership. Thus, many natives are also “undocumented” and in some ways indistinguishable from migrants. The role of ethnicity as betrayed by appearance and accent is therefore greater than the role of formal citizenship.
  3. Migrants tend to move to border towns and to some large cities, generally those with pre-existing diasporas (cf. diaspora dynamics). These are the places where the issue of migration has the greatest salience, and anti-migration sentiment may be more common, and expressed more openly and virulently than in most developed countries.
  4. There is usually no pro-migration or pro-migrant movement per se, though there may be NGOs focused on providing services for migrants.
  5. If anything, intranational migration might be more salient in many parts of the country. In fact, intranational migration may also quantitatively swamp international migration, as is the case in China and India (here’s a blog post on intranational migration within India and a blog post discussing large-scale migration within India and China). But insofar as there are no real constitutional ways of restricting intranational migration, it might never become a politically important issue at the national level. In many regions, on the other hand, intranational migration may take on more significance than international migration in political rhetoric, even if politicians have little power or little interest in actually curbing such migration.
  6. At the national level, the importance of migration is minimal. This is partly because the destination countries have many more pressing problems. Anti-migration movements are relatively localized, and pro-migration movements are negligible.
  7. For many people in such countries, the issue of open borders and migration restrictions is a largely theoretical one, and their answers to it might represent generic ideas of human fairness untainted by personal interest, so to speak. This might explain why India, despite not being known for having a high degree of tolerance and welcome for foreigners of different races and ethnicities, had a roughly 25-25-25-25 split in the World Values Survey question of how open migration policy should be.

In some ways, the current nature of South-South migration as well as the social and political attitudes to it closely resemble 18th and 19th century migration worldwide. People moved from very poor countries to less poor countries with more vibrant cities and growth opportunities. Natives weren’t exactly thrilled, but strong anti-migration sentiment, while often virulent by modern standards, was relatively localized and took a fair amount of time to translate to successful national movements to curb migration. I’m not aware of survey data similar to the World Values Survey for the 19th century, but my guess is we’d see a similar 25-25-25-25 split about migration despite more overtly prejudicial attitudes among the people (similar to the situation in India today).

This connects with my very first post on the Open Borders site, where I blegged readers on why immigration was freer to the 19th century USA. I had listed three potential reasons in that post: (1) wisdom/desirability, (2) technological/financial feasibility, and (3) moral permissibility. At the time, I had written that (1) was unlikely, and the likely truth was a mutually reinforcing loop of (2) and (3) (that did eventually get broken in the United States with the Chinese Exclusion Act). I think the same dynamic is at play in South-South migration, with the difference that South-South migration today has at least some nominal level of border controls, and there’s enough of a global precedent of strict border controls that the learning curve towards very strict border enforcement can be (and in many cases, is being) traversed a lot faster.

In many ways, both current South-South migration and historical migration are closer to the “natural state” of migration and the responses it engenders. All is not hunky-dory with this natural state. The occasional outbreak of riots against immigrants, while quantitatively negligible, as well as the more frequent displays of overt private prejudice, are disconcerting. But for all that, the system is still a bigger win-win for migrants and natives than the strict border controls that much of the developed world has successfully implemented, and that the developing world is rapidly building out.

Open borders between hostile nations

This blog post is an expanded version of a comment I posted on the Open Borders Action Group. It’s about whether hostile nations can or should have open borders, and how close a world would be to open borders if countries had open borders for all countries except those where they had nation-to-nation hostility.

In principle, one might say that having open borders with all countries except the few that the nation is officially hostile to is almost as good as having complete open borders. In most cases, a given nation is hostile to only one or two other nations, so curtailing the freedom to move to those specific nations is not that big an imposition. After all, if two nations with populations of a hundred million each closed their borders only to each other, that still leaves the residents of each nation access to the remaining ~7 billion of the world’s population and over 90% of the world economy. Isn’t that close enough to open borders?

In practice, though, countries with hostile relations aren’t random pairings — often the hostile relations are linked with shared cultural elements, a common language, family ties across the border, and interest in specific geographic locations. This is partly because hostilities arise from war, secession, or controversial historical reconfigurations of boundaries that failed to account for realities on the ground, often because it’s intrinsically impossible (see here, here, and here for more on how borders have been drawn historically around the world). Thus, cutting off people’s access to the hostile nation is a disproportionately large imposition relative to what the population sizes alone would suggest.

Now, it could still be argued that in some cases, the existential threat of free movement is so severe that, unfortunate as it is, free migration between the hostile nations cannot be permitted. But, as with many arguments to close borders, such arguments should be examined critically and appropriate keyhole solutions worked out wherever possible.

An additional point: looking at the most challenging situations for open borders can help us test the limits of the strength of the case for open borders. It can help explain just how far we believe the right to migrate stretches, and just where people who claim to be open borders advocates draw the line. I carried out a similar exercise earlier when considering denial of migration for people based on their criminal records.

Special dangers

Special benefits

High levels of cultural exchange, family ties, and commercial interaction give people in both countries vested interests in the preservation and safety of members of the other country. Free migration and free trade can facilitate these and make the world safer and more prosperous.

It’s not clear whether government leaders want these benefits. Those who derive their power from aggressive hawkish stances may find their authority undermined by friendly ties with hostile neighbors. But not all politicians fit this category. Further, politicians can sometimes combine hawkish rhetoric with the promotion of cultural interchange, getting the best of both worlds: the economic and cultural benefits and the support of people who care about national pride.

Temporary diplomatic standoffs

In cases where nations have temporary diplomatic standoffs over the actions of national leaders that don’t necessarily have popular support in either country, it doesn’t make sense to curtail migration — it’s highly unlikely that individuals in the country bear each other much ill-will. Ending free movement might turn a temporary standoff into long-term rivalry. Examples of such temporary standoffs arise when a government in one country clandestinely (often without the knowledge or support of its own citizens) supports a rebel faction, or an incumbent who eventually gets deposed, during infighting in the other country. The focus in this post is not on such instances but rather on cases where there seem to be enduring feuds based on long-term grievances. This article on how the West should respond to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine makes a similar point.

Some examples

The following are some examples of hostile nations that may be considered tough cases for the open borders paradigm:

  • North Korea and South Korea: This example is perhaps too unusual, because the main constraint here is not immigration restrictions but emigration restrictions put in place by North Korea. For more on North Korea, see here.
  • India and Pakistan: The countries were created as a result of the 1947 Partition of India, with a lot of bloodshed accompanying the creation. There is considerable mutual hostility over the disputed territory of Kashmir. More on India and Pakistan in a separate blog post. You can also get a good historical primer on the countries here.
  • Israel and Palestine: This is a highly asymmetric situation in many ways. Israel is internationally recognized and has considerably greater military might. Palestine is not internationally recognized and does not have a strong government, but there have been many suicide terrorists from the area attacking locations in Israel. We hope to write more, but for now, you might want to check out this post.
  • Russia and its neighbors (Ukraine, Georgia): There are land disputes between Russia and some of its neighbors, due to inherently contested boundaries. You might want to check out co-blogger Nathan Smith’s post, and we hope to write more about these issues later. This article (also linked from the temporary diplomatic standoffs section of the post) has an interesting relevant quote:

    Georgian policy towards Putin is a good example, I think. The Georgian government abolished visas for Russian tourists in spite of the tough relations between the two countries. Lots of Russians had an opportunity to see with their own eyes what was really happening in Georgia and how the market-oriented anti-corruption reforms affected the society.

  • Armenia and Azerbaijan: There may be more about these countries on our blog later. Some good articles to read are here, here, and here.
  • China and Taiwan: We’ll have more about this pair of countries on our blog later. Some good initial articles to read are here, here, here, here, and here.

There are many other examples of countries that have disputes over specific territories. There are also some examples of intranational borders to keep competing factions within a country from attacking or getting into conflicts with each other. Examples include the peace line in Northern Ireland and the green line in Lebanon.

We hope to explore these situations in greater depth in future blog posts. Any other examples of hostile nations worth discussing? Any historical examples? Any general considerations I missed in my opening remarks above?

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.

What is the most fundamental human right? A lesson from North Korea

The title of this post may be a trick question, considering that the name of this website is Open Borders: The Case. I recently finished reading Only Beautiful, Please: A British Diplomat in North Korea (Amazon link), authored by former British ambassador to North Korea John Everard. Everard lived in Pyongyang and built relationships with many North Koreans in the professional class, which is how he came by the information in his book.

The book is interesting for many reasons — how often do we get a look inside the world’s most secluded and arguably most oppressed society? But from an immigration standpoint, one passage on page 82 of the paperback edition caught my eye:

The attraction of the West was its much higher standard of living, not the ability of Western citizens to speak freely or to vote. The only real freedom that I found my contacts did want was the freedom to travel — to be able to visit relatives without the cumbersome bureaucracy of travel permits, and (among some of the less poor ones) the ability to travel abroad. Cheju Island, off South Korea (where South Korean newlyweds used to aspire to spend their honeymoons before honeymoons abroad became fashionable) was a particular draw; it seemed to have caught the imagination of young North Koreans as a place of great beauty, and I was scolded more than once when I had to admit that I had never been there.

One can argue that North Koreans don’t really understand the value of other freedoms, some which they’ve never experienced at all. But North Koreans have experienced the most closed borders regime in modern history; it seems absurd to argue that they have a significantly better grasp of what it means to have freedom of movement than they do with freedom of speech or the ballot. Yet in one paragraph, Everard captures the burning North Korean desire for freedom that burns brightest: open borders.

Closed borders keep people from working in the legal and social regimes which foster economic prosperity. They keep people from living in legal and social regimes which protect and promote the rights and dignity of human beings. They keep people apart from their most loved ones. They keep people away from the beauty of new experiences, new sights, and new sounds.

The complaints most of us have about our lives and our governments pale in comparison with most anything a North Korean has the right to complain about. And yet the one freedom North Koreans seem to want most is the freedom most of us lackadaisically dismiss as one not worth thinking about. Modern passport and visa regimes force people to live under unjust governments or hollow economic systems. They tear people away from their friends and family. They prevent people from learning new things about the world, prevent them from experiencing new wonders of life and nature.

You may argue that allowing people the presumptive right to travel where they wish is too much of an imposition on you. Fair enough. But you need to show reason to believe that this is the case — that we can reasonably believe a sojourner or immigrant to your country will prove an imposition, and that the cost of this imposition is too much for society to bear. You cannot simply say “I just don’t care about you — go on and suffer, because you weren’t lucky enough to be born in my country”, unless you wish to disclaim any pretense of common humanity with those foreign to you.

There is an argument to be made that untrammeled freedom of movement for literally all people would be too much of an imposition to bear. But in some sense, this is a strawman: I think most open borders advocates believe that a single country which immediately opened its borders today would likely face significant costs enough to outweigh the benefits to humanity from its open borders. And I think most open borders advocates are open to revoking the presumptive right to freedom of movement for individuals who constitute proven or likely threats to public order or health. It remains that the focus of our conversation on borders should not be: “Why should we have to let them in?”

After all, most people are not thieves or criminals. Most people don’t carry contagious diseases that threaten public health. We should be asking ourselves: “Why should we have to keep good human beings out?” The burden of proof has to be on those who would deny to any human being, born in North Korea or not, a most fundamental human freedom, a freedom that is perhaps second only to the right to life itself: the freedom of movement. Without movement, we have no agency in our lives; without movement, we lose all that makes life worth living.