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.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.


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