Tag Archives: South Korea

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.

Who favors open borders?

The World Values Survey records quite a bit of information about public opinion related to immigration. I’d like to do in-depth analysis of it at some point. Here are a few things I’ve noted so far (no rich statistical analysis yet though):

  • Young people worldwide are more favorable to open borders, but the effect is very slight. There is no sign– yet– that generational change will tilt the world towards open borders.
  • Children of immigrants are somewhat more favorable to immigration.
  • There seems to be NO correlation worldwide between attitudes towards immigration policy and self-positioning on the left-right spectrum. (This surprised me.)
  • There seems to be no correlation between social class and attitudes towards immigration policy, unless it’s that the middle classes are a bit more favorable.
  • Correlations with life satisfaction are weak; however, the most strongly restrictionist attitudes seem to be more common among people leaning towards dissatisfaction with their lives.
  • People who trust foreigners “completely” are more favorable to a welcoming immigration policy (well, duh), yet 13% of those who don’t trust foreigners at all still say “let anyone come.”
  • People who don’t want immigrants as neighbors are more likely to favor strict limits on or prohibition of immigration (58%, to 42% of those who don’t mind immigrant neighbors) but some of these, too, favor “letting anyone come.”
  • No difference between men and women.

There are large differences across countries in attitudes towards immigration policy. Only 48 countries seem to be covered by the survey, but among those, two-thirds have public opinion more favorable to immigration than the United States, as measured by the share saying “let anyone come.” In particular, Mexican attitudes towards immigration policy are more liberal than Americans’. Some commenters at this site have suggested Asia as an example of a more restrictionist society that nativist Americans might desire to emulate. The WVS data suggest that this is true at the level of public opinion: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Malaysia have some of the lowest shares of open borders supporters in the world, though in the terms of the number favoring “strict limits” or more, South Koreans are more liberal on immigration than Americans are.

What I find most interesting in the international data is that some developing countries have far more favorable attitudes towards immigration than any rich country. In Vietnam, Burkina Faso, Rwanda, and Ethiopia, nearly half the population favors letting anyone come. India has an unusually large number of open borders supporters as well, though it is also tied for highest in terms of the number of people supporting complete prohibition of immigration. Several countries in Eastern Europe and Latin America also seem to have more open borders supporters than any of the rich countries, except Sweden, which appears to be an outlier, with a far more pro-open borders populace of any rich country included in the survey.

Country Let anyone come As long as jobs available Strict limits Prohibit

1

Vietnam

49%

27%

22%

1%

2

Burkina Faso

43%

45%

10%

1%

3

Rwanda

41%

48%

8%

2%

4

Ethiopia

40%

28%

27%

5%

5

Mali

34%

46%

16%

4%

6

Morocco

28%

41%

20%

11%

7

Romania

23%

42%

23%

11%

8

Uruguay

23%

56%

17%

3%

9

Peru

23%

50%

21%

6%

10

India

23%

22%

25%

30%

11

Ukraine

21%

53%

19%

7%

12

China

20%

51%

21%

8%

13

Ghana

18%

39%

36%

6%

14

Sweden

18%

54%

27%

1%

15

Guatemala

17%

55%

21%

7%

16

Argentina

15%

45%

34%

6%

17

Serbia

14%

26%

46%

14%

18

Bulgaria

13%

55%

24%

8%

19

Moldova

13%

50%

26%

11%

20

Poland

12%

35%

46%

6%

21

Mexico

12%

45%

25%

17%

22

Zambia

11%

30%

44%

15%

23

Brazil

9%

47%

33%

11%

24

Georgia

9%

19%

56%

16%

25

Finland

9%

40%

48%

3%

26

Turkey

9%

43%

27%

21%

27

Italy

8%

49%

37%

6%

28

Canada

8%

51%

39%

2%

29

Spain

8%

48%

42%

3%

30

Slovenia

7%

56%

29%

8%

31

Germany

7%

43%

45%

5%

32

USA

7%

37%

49%

8%

33

Chile

6%

50%

35%

9%

34

Cyprus

6%

36%

51%

7%

35

S Africa

6%

16%

48%

30%

36

Switzerland

6%

67%

26%

1%

37

Indonesia

6%

15%

72%

8%

38

Andorra

5%

72%

22%

1%

39

Egypt

5%

25%

43%

26%

40

Thailand

5%

16%

65%

14%

41

Norway

4%

53%

42%

1%

42

Trinidad And Tobago

4%

32%

55%

10%

43

Australia

3%

54%

41%

2%

44

S Korea

3%

56%

36%

5%

45

Japan

3%

42%

50%

5%

46

Taiwan

3%

30%

58%

9%

47

Jordan

2%

28%

46%

25%

48

Malaysia

2%

8%

72%

18%

 

Another very interesting pattern emerged when I dug down into the data involving religion. When asked “How important is God in your life?” on a scale of 1 to 10, about half the respondents answered “10” and half answered something less.  I was distressed to discover that those for whom God was very important in their lives seemed to have less favorable attitudes towards immigration. But when I broke it down by religious demonination, I found something different. While Muslims who regard God as very important in their lives tend to be more restrictionist, Christians of each denomination are more likely to support open borders if they are strongly in touch with God, as shown in the table below (which includes all denominations for which there were over 500 observations in the WVS dataset):

 

How important is God in your life? (scale: 1-10)
Religious Denomination <10 10
Roman Catholic 9% 15%
Protestant 7% 15%
Evangelical 7% 11%
Orthodox 13% 19%
Church of Sweden 16% 19%
Muslim 19% 13%
Buddhist 7% 9%
Ancestor worship 44% 57%
Hindu 12% 15%

 

The percentage in each cell represents the share of respondents saying “Let anyone come.” Note that it is not the case that Christians are more supportive of open borders in general. Many factors affect support for open borders, and it seems that public opinion in rich countries is often less favorable to open borders. And of course most rich countries are nominally/historically Christian. So Muslims are actually more likely than most Christian denominations to favor open borders. But within each Christians denomination, there is a statistically significant (though fairly small) positive correlation between rating God’s importance in one’s life “10” and advocating “let anyone come.”

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