Pain of Good Intentions
Nicholas D. Kristof
The New York Times Op-Ed
December 24, 2003
THE NORTH KOREAN BORDER, China
a safe house in a village here, a North Korean mother sits on
the floor, hunched over and crying silently, wiping away tears
- not because she is hungry or cold, but because she is warm
and well fed.
we have enough food and clothes, in a way that is unimaginable
in North Korea," she says. "Whenever I eat and dress
in new clothes, I feel guilty because of my family members still
in North Korea."
she plans to sneak back across the frozen Tumen River into North
Korea sometime soon to find her daughter and take her to China.
But before crossing the river, the
mother will swallow a plastic bag with money in it. That way,
if she is caught, her money will not be stolen by border guards,
and when the bag passes through her system she can try to bribe
her way out of jail.
what everybody does now," she says matter-of-factly.
of the knottiest human rights problems in the world concerns
the North Koreans hiding in China, probably 30,000 to 100,000
of them. China is catching them and forcing them back to North
Korea at a rate of 100 a week, and they are some of the sorriest
and most helpless people you can imagine.
their plight has been made worse by some of the people who care
most about them and try hardest to help them. The result is
a cautionary tale about the importance of understanding local
realities before barging in with good intentions.
ran an "underground railroad" in this border area
to spirit North Koreans to freedom. They helped the Koreans
swarm into foreign embassies and consulates in China, embarrassing
Chinese leaders - who then began rounding up tens of thousands
of North Korean migrants and sending them back across the border.
So dozens of North Koreans were helped, and tens of thousands
were harmed. Today, there are only about half as many North
Koreans in China as there were a year ago.
there's some risk that we're going to do that again.
Conservatives, particularly evangelical Christians, have taken
the lead in trying to help North Koreans. They are among the
few people focusing on human rights in North Korea, and they
have offered creative ideas, like dropping radios into North
Korea (ordinary North Korean radios are locked into propaganda
some are also pushing for the U.N. high commissioner for refugees
to interview the North Koreans in China and offer asylum. As
one person helping North Koreans here put it, that's a Western
solution to an Asian problem, and it would backfire. China would
crack down further on the North Koreans, sending even more back
to their homeland.
is appalling that China violates international law by sending
defectors back to North Korea, but China does quietly tolerate
a still considerable North Korean presence. I visited an orphanage
where sympathetic Chinese are raising North Korean children
whose parents starved to death or were captured. The walls of
the orphanage are covered with the children's drawings - happy
pictures of smiling children and sunny skies that are a tribute
to the resilience of youth.
great that conservatives are paying attention to the North Koreans,
and I wish liberals showed equal compassion for them. But well-meaning
Americans often overdose on
moral clarity and end up creating messes, like Iraq, or hurting
those they aim to help: the liberals' anti-sweatshop campaign
(which reduces opportunities for the poor) and the conservatives'
support for Cuban sanctions (which seem to keep Castro in power)
are both examples. Heaven preserve the world's desperate people
from well-intended Americans.
we want to help North Koreans, the best approach is not a flamboyant
Western solution, but a practical Asian approach: we should
quietly encourage China and Russia to accept North Koreans.
This is achievable and could create a de facto refuge, and the
cross-border migration might help to pry open North Korea itself.
North Koreans hiding in China was a delicate task that put them
in great danger, and once we got two safe houses mixed up. The
mistake put the North Koreans at some risk of capture, and for
a few moments they radiated a life-or-death terror that gave
me a glimpse of what they must suffer daily.
we push too hard, we'll make their fears come true. Foreign
policy, alas, requires more than moral clarity and good intentions.