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The Pain of Good Intentions

By Nicholas D. Kristof
The New York Times Op-Ed

December 24, 2003


In 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.

"Here 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."

So 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.

"That's what everybody does now," she says matter-of-factly.

One 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.

Paradoxically, 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.

Foreigners 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.

Now 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 stations).

Yet 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.

It 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.

It's 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.

If 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.

Interviewing 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.

If we push too hard, we'll make their fears come true. Foreign policy, alas, requires more than moral clarity and good intentions.

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