In 2019, Liberty in North Korea (LINK) claims to have rescued 222 North Koreans, spending $3,660,223 across all programs, including refugee resettlement. In 2018, it was 326 rescues, spending $3,604,423. Combining, that's 548 rescued for $7,264,646, or $13,257 per rescue. Rescue expenses alone (so excluding employee pay, other program expenses, and everything else) over both years totaled $932,456, which would come out to $1,702 per rescue. For comparison, GiveWell's recommended life-saving charities are estimated to save a life for $3000-5000 on average.
EDIT (credits to Denis Drescher for pointing this out): What they do: They rescue already escaped North Koreans from China using secret routes, since if they are caught, Chinese authorities would send them back, or the women could be sold into sex trafficking or as brides. LINK doesn't help North Koreans escape in the first place. LINK claims thousands of North Koreans attempt to escape each year. They also write:
It costs $3,000* to help a North Korean refugee travel from Northern China to safety in South East Asia
*The Changing Costs of A Rescue
The cost of rescues varies on where a North Korean refugee begins their journey. The closer they are to the North Korean border when our partners find them, the greater the cost because of heightened security and increased travel time. A generous foundation funds these high-risk extractions from the border region.
There are likely several ways these cost-effectiveness estimates may be off (including possibly having the wrong sign) due to indirect effects and not accounting properly for the counterfactuals, and a cost-effectiveness model should take such considerations into account. Here are some:
- Less cost-effective: How likely is it that these people would have succeeded anyway, on their own or with the help of another group? Their website had someone who made 4 escape attempts (Jo Eun, on this page). How much earlier does LINK move their success if they would have been caught and made further attempts?
- Unclear, lean more cost-effective: What are the risks or benefits to the families of rescues, and how likely are they? If someone is caught, their family may be punished, e.g. with labour camps or execution, and by rescuing them, we may prevent this. On the other hand, we may incentivize further escapes, which risk punishment for them and their families. To what extent are the families also aware of and accept these risks? (Credits to Bruce Tsai and Denis Drescher.)
- Less cost-effective: They only rescued 15 North Koreans in 2020 due to increased security due to COVID, and maybe we should expect it to be similar going forward.
- Unclear: Does this undermine reform in North Korea, by taking those disproportionately likely to push for reform? (Credits to edwardhaigh) On the other hand, LINK says that refugees send money and information back to their families in North Korea, and it's possible this could undermine the regime. (Credits to Khorton)
- Less cost-effective: How would North Korea respond to increasing rescues? Harsher punishments and security? Further encouraging births?
- Unclear, but lean less cost-effective: Where does marginal funding actually go? Would they actually rescue more, or just spend more on resettlement and other services? In what proportions? If we funded them, could we get them to spend disproportionately more on rescues? How much could this scale before further rescues became very difficult?
- Unclear: How are descendants affected? Escapees who are caught and sent back may be prevented from having children, or have children anyway in North Korea (this is something to check). This may extent to their families, as well. Rescued escapees seem likely to have children outside of North Korea. So, rescuing seems likely to increase the number of descendants born outside North Korea and inside North Korea, and possibly move some descendants from North Korea to outside, in case escapees would have had children in North Korea even if they get caught. How does this interact with effects on the regime, like in 4? (If we're comparing to GiveWell-recommended charities, we should also include their generational effects. How exactly we include these effects will depend on your views on population ethics.)
There's also the question of how much welfare they would gain from rescue.
This seems like an intervention worth looking further into.
This post was prompted by an EA I recognized making a public donation to this charity.