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The suffering that the North Korean regime inflicts on its citizens is a lesser source of suffering than malaria worldwide (but not compared to individual highly malarial countries of similar population as North Korea) or industrial agriculture in US states of similar population. However, it may be on par or even exceed that inflicted on the US American prison population, a cause prioritized by the Open Philanthropy Project. There are risky but promising interventions, which could be scaled up if more funding were available. The cause area seems well suited for hits-based giving by major donors looking for funding gaps. The government change in South Korea of May 9, 2017, may further increase the marginal utility of funding. (Reposted from my blog, where you can read it with better formatting and image embedding.)

Note that I published this in 2017 and have only made cosmetic changes since. All information in here is potentially out of date. See this thread for a more up-to-date comment of mine.

[Content warning: torture, rape, suicide.]

Photo courtesy of HRNK.

North Korea has been in the press for reasons of its nuclear program, but its military capabilities have long been sufficient to attack Seoul, a city of over 10 million. What the latest concerns overshadow is the enormous suffering of the population of North Korea itself, a cause area that compares well to some other cause areas that receive greatly more attention within EA. Since 2016, I’ve had the chance to talk to some highly active activists in the space – primarily Eunkyoung Kwon (ICNK) and Nicolai Sprekels (Saram e. V.) – and to North Korean survivors.

In the following, I will lay out the scale of the problem combined with a comparison to the US prison system, the tractability of interventions, and the neglectedness of the cause area. I will augment this framework with a bundle of other considerations: comparative advantage, capacity building, robustness, value of information, option value, control, equality, and institutional risks. I always try to give a full account of all opportunities and risks that I can see. I’m neither trying to advertise nor to caution against the cause area.


Two sources of enormous suffering within the borders of North Korea are the prison and re-education camps, each the size of a small city, and the social situation in the country affecting most of the population.

It is difficult to obtain reliable information about North Korea — namely, because of the country’s policy of isolation. Every North Korean child quickly learns that lying is vital to survival in their culture, something that some refugees, understandably, have a hard time unlearning. Hence the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) of the United Nations Human Rights Council took the testimony of eighty witnesses in an effort to use their sheer number to compile one reliable picture of the situation:

The Commission of Inquiry has found systematic, widespread and grave human rights violations occurring in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It has also found a disturbing array of crimes against humanity. These crimes are committed against inmates of political and other prison camps; against starving populations; against religious believers; against persons who try to flee the country — including those forcibly repatriated by China.

These crimes arise from policies established at the highest level of the State. They have been committed, and continue to take place in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, because the policies, institutions and patterns of impunity that lie at their heart remain in place.

The gravity, scale, duration and nature of the unspeakable atrocities committed in the country reveal a totalitarian State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.


I try to model the scale of the suffering on Guesstimate using the DALY framework and intuitive, somewhat informed guesses at the inputs, distributions, and influences. I share a lot of the common criticisms of the DALY framework, but it allows for comparisons to other causes of suffering such as malaria or confinement in US prisons or jails.

Of course, as the term “guesstimate” should make plenty clear, all of my inputs are guesses of ranges based on intuitions or testimonies of witnesses whose information is unreliable and may be outdated too. Institutions with more resources, however, can draw on the testimonies of many more witnesses – over 30,000 from all walks of life now living in South Korea alone – some of whom even have contact to the North Korean elite. My own limited insight into North Korea is no reason to think that highly reliable and up-to-date information about North Korea is impossible to come by.

Even so, the model is provided “as is,” without warranty of any kind, express or implied, including but not limited to the warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall the copyright holders or anyone distributing the model or parts of the model be liable for any damages or other liability, whether in contract, tort or otherwise, arising from, out of or in connection with the model or the use or other dealings in the model.

Other information is based on about one year of occasional online research of various relevant topics and less than 100 hours of chats and discussions with activists of Saram, ICNK, NK Watch, Amnesty International, and a few others. I still feel like I have a superficial understanding of the situation and likely one that is colored by the values of the activist community I’ve been in touch with.

Prison and Re-education Camps

Under the Songbun system, the citizens of the DPRK are split into three main castes. The loyal “core,” preferred class constitutes about 30% of the North Korean population, the “wavering,” ordinary class about 40%, and the “hostile,” undesirable class about 30%. The North Korean government treats the entire undesireable cast as traitors or enemies of the state. Any offenses against the regime, be it just a careless word, can be enough for the person and often three generations of their family to be deported to prison or re-education camps, often without knowing the “crime” they’re being punished for. People deported to re-education camps are meant to be released again as their term ends (but few survive for long enough). People deported to the prison camps – less ambiguously referred to as Kwallisos – are not meant to be released again, and it happens very rarely in practice. These camps are also referred to as concentration camps or gulags. There are five of these Kwallisos and 15 to 20 re-education camps.

In all these camps, people sleep some three to four hours per night in flea-infested or, in winter, unheated, freezing cold sheds, try to catch rats to supplement the food they receive rarely and irregularly, often have to run for miles to get to work where they do hard physical labor under dangerous conditions for 16–18 hours per day and are regularly humiliated, raped, and tortured. They often suffer life-threatening injuries that go untreated. The guards, meanwhile, practice martial arts on prisoners, are rewarded for killing anyone who attempts to escape, and have to fear punishment themselves if they are caught showing any leniency to prisoners.

According to testimonies to the Human Rights Council, most people die within three years and almost all within five; a few manage to somehow adjust to the extreme conditions and survive longer. The culture views suicide as comparable to murder,1 and particularly in camps, three generations of the family would be imprisoned, tortured, or executed as punishment for suicide. Therefore, few overt suicides seem to happen, but people who try to commit suicide will probably (my uninformed conjecture) do so by trying to die in mining accidents or getting shot while pretending to try to escape (if they don’t have families), so that only they will know their intentions.2

The musical documentary Yodok Stories captures the essence of life in such a camp. But if you’re sensitivity is anything like mine you may want to avoid watching it and rather read the summary of the UN report.

I can’t imagine that I could physically adjust to such a camp and I have no idea what it would mean to adjust psychologically. Knowing the low probability of getting out of any political prison camps, my top priority would be to plan my suicide, particularly since there is little stigma attached to it in my culture. I therefore estimate that across all inmates the disability weight is at least centered around 1.5.

There are between 80,000 and 120,000 people imprisoned in Kwalliso camps right now, most of whom don’t know what they are imprisoned for because they’re being punished for crimes (usually some display of disloyalty) of distant relatives. As such, I have a hard time getting an idea of the distribution of the ages of people at the time of their deportation – one element in my estimate of their years of life lost (YLL). (Check Guesstimate for the interactive model.)

General Population

The population of North Korea, some 25 million, suffers from widespread malnutrition and starvation, especially outside the capital Pyongyang, which is reserved for the small upper class. Most people lack access to proper medical services, so treatments, including surgeries, are often administered without anesthetics if they happen at all.

The ideology of the country also forces everyone, from the earliest age, to be secretive, deceptive, and suspicious. If a North Korean child is in an obstreperous phase and, for example, insults a member of the “Kim Dynasty,” the parent can either hope that no one will tell on the child— or on the parent for not reporting their child— and risk that they themselves, the child, and three generations of the family get deported, or they can turn the child in. Such stress surely adds great psychological strain to the day to day life of common citizens and their families.

I try to model this disability weight with a log-normal distribution with an average around 0.1. The Global Burden of Disease study finds YLDs from health problems in the area of 0.08–0.13 YLD per person per year, so the range seems plausible for the additional burden from the North Korean regime, though it seems like an underestimate to me. (But that is consistent with how I usually feel about disability weights.)

The life expectancy is also over ten years lower than in South Korea and Japan according to the World Bank and the CIA, which are not necessarily independent estimates. (Check Guesstimate for the interactive model.)


I previously compared the suffering and death in North Korea to that caused by malaria finding that malaria causes greatly more DALYs worldwide but the North Korean regime may cause more suffering than malaria causes even in highly malarial countries of similar population.

Bailey Norwood and Jayson Lusk, professors of agricultural economics and authors of Compassion, by the Pound, and Dr. Sara Shields of the Humane Society International agree that chickens farmed for eggs have greatly net-negative lives. Most North Koreans have probably limited access to meat, but the population of North Korea is almost that of Texas, which may be representative of the meat consumption of the US. So a population of 25 million humans tends to produce between 640 million to 1 billion YLD per year (90% CI) suffered by chickens alone. (Or 8.1 to 13 billion YLD per year in the US.)

The scale of these forms of suffering is vastly greater, and they rightly are major priorities in the movement. The risks from misaligned AGI are surely still vastly greater, but I will not attempt an estimate.

Apart from these cause areas, the Open Philanthropy Project, in its search for ever more funding gaps, has also made the US prison reform a major item on its agenda. It has made grants of over $22 million organizations working in this space. The scale of this cause area more closely resembles that of North Korea.

Ethical Robustness

Different ethical systems make very different predictions about the badness of years of life lost (YLL). In some, the death may be bad but the lost years of life neutral, in others, each YLL counts as strongly negatively as the greatest agony that doesn’t make the life net negative. The need for a reference class (usually the human life expectancy at birth in Japan) for calculating YLL further complicates the picture – chickens in industrial agriculture would not live their probably mostly net negative lives if it weren’t for the system, so taking into account YLL compared to pet chickens would inflate the DALY count enormously and confusingly, since that is not a realistic counterfactual. Similarly, some humans may genetically predisposed to live longer lives, have jobs that enable them to afford cryonics, eventually use Neuralink technology to train a digital model of themselves that’ll live on for centuries in the AWS EC2 cloud, etc. (Please continue reading; the rest is less speculative again.)

US Prison Reform

The more robust approach is the purely YLD-based one Alexander Berger chose in his back of the envelope estimate of the scale of the US prison reform. I recreated a slightly adapted version with Guesstimate.

Alexander assumed that a realistic successful outcome would be a 10% reduction in imprisonment. Someone might object that the dissolution of the North Korean state should be compared to the reduction of imprisonment to something like Canadian level, much more than a 10% reduction, so I’ve included that calculation as well.

In the second part of the estimate, I consider the YLL according to a few sources on life expectancy in prisons.

Alexander also estimated the dollar saving for the government. This is likely an underestimate of the full costs of the prison system, since it does not count negative effects on GDP, costs to the families of people who are imprisoned, etc. A study on the topic puts the total cost at about $1 trillion.

Below the averages compared to North Korea.3

US Prisons 10% US Prisons Full NK Total NK Camps NK Pop.
YLD 0.1 million 0.9 million 2.9 million 0.2 million 2.6 million
YLL 3.4 million 29 million 6.4 million 1.4 million 4.3 million
DALY 3.5 million 30 million 9.3 million 1.5 million 6.9 million
Dollar ≫ 6 billion ≫ 54 billion > 950 billion ? 950 billion

The black part of the table is the one I consider most important. Here North Korea clearly wins out. With YLL added in, NK is still ahead of the 10% reduction case of the prison reform but behind the “full” reduction to the level of Canada. I’m more comfortable saying that the causes are roughly on par, because the differences are of one order of magnitude at most (compared to four orders of magnitude in the case of US chickens), and the accuracy of my models is surely nowhere close to sufficient to make comparisons with much confidence at this level.


South Korea has a Ministry of Unification that makes grants of $10,000–$20,000 for individual projects of South Korean NGOs on short notice. Organizations in South Korea had hoped that it would also expand to providing regular funding to organizations and organizations outside South Korea had hoped that it might expand to supporting them as well in any form, but the government change of May 9, 2017, has made any expansions of its grantmaking unlikely and may even result in reductions or reallocations away from some NGOs I’m in contact with. I don’t feel like I understand the complexities of the situation, but the way is has been explained to me is that NGOs with a human rights focus tend to challenge the regime of North Korea, so that defunding these organizations may pacify the regime and make a military conflict less likely.4 If this is a good summary of the situations, then the motivation only applies to government funders, not private funders.

Some other governments also make grants to organizations in the space, but these grants may be tied to political agendas and can be discontinued abruptly if the grantee behaves in ways that don’t further the particular political goals of the grantor country. Some activists I’ve talked to don’t share these goals and have purposefully avoided accepting these grants so not to jeopardize their organization’s funding stability.

Otherwise, NGOs outside of South Korea are financially underserved and also short on staff (but more funding-constrained, so without funding to hire staff). A meeting of activists of various German organizations had an attendance of around a dozen, and a conference that did not charge for attendance had around 80 attendees over the course of the one day.

Within EA, the cause does not seem to have received attention outside the events of the EA-aligned secular humanist community in Berlin (friends of mine) and my last article.


There are a number of more or less promising interventions to address the human rights situation in North Korea.

Human rights, in this context, should not be interpreted in any profound deontological or contractualist fashion. Most of the activists I’ve met don’t have strong opinions on moral philosophy and would not pick a fight over whether you want to uphold Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”) or simply want to reduce suffering. So please feel free to interpret “human rights” in whatever fashion makes most sense to you in the context.

Capacity Building

The intervention that I find most promising is that of capacity building through improving cooperation within the space.

In “The Attribution Moloch,” I make the two-part argument that a dearth of resources can lead to a coordination failure that Vu Le, the author of Nonprofit AF, has termed the “nonprofit hunger games” – a collective prisoner’s dilemma where it seems at first both rational and morally demanded of nonprofits to inflate small epistemic or ethical disagreements between one another into mutual uncooperativeness. Vu Le cites donor hoarding as one symptom – trying to keep donors isolated from the rest of the space to bind them to one’s own nonprofit. Information hoarding may be another. Here, informants with special knowledge about North Korea can be a valuable selling point for nonprofits, but only so long as they can keep the information for themselves. Finally, what might be called impact hoarding leads to organizations doing little preparatory work in the open that others can build upon because these others can then claim the resulting impact for themselves neglecting to mention the preparatory work they built upon.

The second part of my argument addresses the implications of the pathology, namely a dysfunctional activist space of several isolated organizations that distrust the others.5 (Émile Durkheim might’ve referred to it as anomie.) And a lack of any preparatory work that does not engender clearly attributable impact.

Donors who are new to the space face another problem. They don’t want to take sides in conflicts they don’t understand. They don’t want to make the mistake of donating to the seemingly most impactful organization only to later notice that it seemed so impactful to them because it managed to attribute a lot of impact to itself that many other had contributed to at least as much.

I hope that umbrella organizations like the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea (ICNK) can serve an important role in organizing the space better by uniting all activist groups. This, I hope, will counter the coordination failures and provide a sort of “seal of approval” to cooperative organizations that donors can trust.

The ICNK in particular has focussed on networking among activists, organizing conferences and political events alongside UN general assembly meetings, and was critical to starting the process that led to the publication of the UN human rights report.

Metainterventions aiming at capacity building are said to be highly robust, and once a more coordinated space emerges, it will be easier for organizations to conduct research on further intervention in the open.

Political Pressure

Organizations like Saram are trying to use institutions such as the EU to put pressure on member countries to refuse North Korean slave labor,6 raise awareness of the situation in governments, and drive them to implement the recommendations of the UN Commission. According to NKDB, about 50,000 to 70,000 North Koreans are still employed in slave-like conditions in about 40 countries around the world, among them Russia, China, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Mongolia, Angola, Poland, Malaysia, Oman, Libya, Nigeria, Algeria, Equatorial Guinea, and Ethiopia. Some EU countries have recently stopped using such labor in response to political pressure.

Safe Escape Routes

The goal is to get North Koreans who escaped to China into safety.

Almost all North Koreans escape via China, but if they are caught in China, they are sent back to North Korea where they and often their families will be executed or sent to concentration camps. Nonprofits and individual activists work in China to find refugees and smuggle them into safety.

This intervention may be highly effective (though it may be limited in scale) since it costs some $300 to $1,000 to get a person to safety. The counterfactual is that they are found out and sent back, and that they and their families (for three generations) are very likely to be subjected to conditions that may be considered worse than death in the concentration camps.

Funding this intervention is only legal from some countries, the US and South Korea among them.

Establish a Parallel Libertarian Society

One might also try to devise of ways to supply the population with foreign currency to give more of them access to the “gray market” in North Korea and to allow more people to buy themselves free of prosecution thanks to the ubiquitous corruption in the country.

According to Tudor’s North Korea Confidential, even the police has become highly dependent on bribe money, so giving more of the population access to foreign currency can help to shield them from the despotic regime and maybe foster more of a libertarian parallel society.

But an organization attempting this would have similar responsibilities as a monetary authority like the Federal Reserve or the ECB. The goal should be to provide most people with a minimal supply of foreign currency to at least secure their personal safety without devaluing the currency in the process.

Most people are not free to travel within North Korea and can hardly even leave their villages, and can’t just move to Pyongyang the way people have traditionally moved to large cities around the world throughout the past centuries. Urbanization may be important for economic development – whether completely legal or just tolerated. Therefore, one idea of mine was to encourage more hubs for trade like Pyongyang in locations that many people can reach.

I know little of history, but I would think that the usual process is a slow and wasteful one where several hubs form, compete, and one wins out. If one can be established as clear Schelling point from the start, the process may be sped up.

Whenever an outside power tries to interfere with North Korean politics, however, it is likely that North Korea will find ways to react that may jeopardize the intervention or even cause North Koreans to be killed (like hostages of their country) to discourage further meddling.

Lowering Prices of Exports

Another idea of mine was to try to depress prices of exports of North Korea, perhaps through a social enterprise.

The government makes a lot of money by exporting goods and raw materials produced through the forced labor of most of the population, not only prisoners. I surmised that there might be some avenues of encouraging for-profit interest in a few such areas to generate competition and lower prices, in particular since North Korea incurs additional shipping costs.

This may reduce the profit the government can make from the exports, money it then can no longer use for military and surveillance purposes.

Other Potential Interventions

  1. Providing more access to information on and communication with the outside world to the population.

  2. Somehow influencing the Chinese government. No one I’ve talked to sees any concrete avenues along which this may be possible, and they all see many roadblocks, but the Chinese government is in various key positions in the conflict.

  3. The idea of reducing tourism to North Korea has been met with mixed responses. It is a viable way of reducing the flow of foreign currency to the government of North Korea, but tourists also provide a glimpse of the outside world to at least the upper class living in Pyongyang.

  4. An important metastrategy is of course to research these and more interventions. Enormous amounts of knowledge of the country, e.g., from thousands of testimonies, exists in South Korea but is hard to distill into actionable insights due to its sheer amount.

Further Considerations

Value of Information

Avoiding Future North Koreas

Activists in the space agreed with me that it would likely not be possible anymore to create a new North Korea – a fairly stable, dystopian regime on the scale of a country. All of the world today is heavily interconnected and it is easily possible to establish a connection to past societies, too, through historical resources on the Internet.

North Korea has depended on lies about the rest of the world and an invented mythology. It was only possible in the first place because it was started at a time when access to information and communication was more limited and could be controlled more easily. Keeping the country isolated today is a herculean task that requires tremendous resources to keep up.

It seems to me that to establish a new North Korea, it would have to be worldwide to bar access to countries outside of it. But it would also have to bar access to countries of the past, to historical knowledge.

Global catastrophes may result in a breakdown of communication and a destruction of historical records. Catastrophic situations are also said to be particularly fertile ground for charismatic leaders to emerge. New, geographically limited North Koreas would be unstable so long as civilization recovers around them, but a worldwide dystopian regime like North Korea may be permanent if it emerges at the right moment.

The study of North Korea may produce insight into how dystopian societal attractor points can be averted or what preventive measures (beyond what is present in today’s North Korea) might help people on the inside destabilize them.

Experience in International Coordination

North Korea seems to me like a challenging puzzle of international coordination. What I have cited as a disadvantage – the fragmented nature of the activist space – can also serve as a source of experience with a variety of often contradictory strategies. Few movements manage to coordinate as well as liberalism might have or as EA attempts it. The result is often that only very few, socially winning strategies get tried at all. A variety of strategies are vying for control in the case of North Korean human rights activism, which may be informative insofar as the information is accessible (secrecy and monopolization of experience by obviate this advantage).

Who May be Particularly Interested in Helping?

The picture of comparative advantages for EAs as funders looks rather mixed:

  1. North Korea is geographically or culturally distant from all countries except South Korea, so that distance effects on morality prevent many non-EAs from engaging.

  2. There are no safe bets, so that EAs interested in hits-based giving and looking for “black swans” may be uniquely interested while most altruists would be repelled.

  3. The fragmentation of the space calls for more people who can enter it with a scout mindset and without preconceived opinions on what interventions will work.

  4. People who, unlike me, think that phenomenal consciousness is rare, may be less interested than I am in interventions to relieve the expected suffering of, say, artificial reinforcement learners, animals that have hundreds of short-lived offspring, or even factory-farmed chickens because of the low probability they assign to their suffering. Interventions that relieve extreme suffering of humans may, in turn, become a much higher priority for them because they can be almost certain that all humans have phenomenal consciousness.


  1. The comparative advantages of nonspeciesist and nonsubstratist altruists go unused – we’re facing human suffering.

  2. The comparative advantages of EAs who empathize with beings throughout the future go unused – we’re facing present suffering.

Hence my assessment that the space is particularly interesting for speciesist prioritarians with a high threshold for morally relevant suffering (to exclude suffering from, say, worm infections) and major funders like Open Phil that already have a hard time finding funding gaps to fill.

This only addresses comparative advantages for EA funders. Comparative advantages for direct work in the space are much more complex, but I’ve learned that speaking Korean is not a prerequisite.

Capacity Building

Engagement in the space may open doors to powerful political institutions, politicians, and the media. Such connections may be helpful for activists to build up political clout that can be directed for example to improved international coordination in general. This seems indirect to me. There may be more direct ways of achieving this objective.


The strong focus not only on suffering but on human suffering gives the cause strong robustness across a variety of value systems. It comes at a steep discount in cost-effectiveness as should be expected given that the wider appeal leads to more low-hanging fruit having been plucked.

My most highly recommended intervention – coordination of the activist space – is also a highly robust intervention. As a form of capacity building, it is usually cited as ultimately universal and thus robust.

The robustness may become more limited the more limited the scope of the activism, which points back to the comparative advantage of EAs, but I will also address this again below and warn against possible institutional risks.

Option Value

It may be difficult to engage with the space in a way that maintains option value because of its current fragmented situation. It will be challenging to engage in the space without aligning with some faction or being perceived as aligned with some faction. This effect will be costly to avoid (e.g., through thorough investigations of the space).


What I mean by control is the ability to try a strategy, draw on relatively quick feedback loops (about 2–3 years in one activist’s experience) to check whether it’s working, and if not, be able to change course at low costs.

Intuitively, it seems like regimes get toppled suddenly in one big revolution. But this intuition is likely not to be informative, because not being a historian, these are the only kinds of events knowledge of which is likely to have reached me. The reality is probably a lot more complicated.

Dismissing this intuition, I can still think of a few factors that may undermine control. Some people in the border regions of North Korea own illegal phones that allow them to make calls to the outside. (Three generations of their families can get punished harshly for this unless they can bribe the authorities.) This is one channel through with people outside of North Korea can obtain information from the inside. Otherwise the information channels are blocked or controlled by the government. Interventions that aim to influence politics inside may suffer from absent or misleading feedback as a result. (Feedback may also take the form of threats where the government may publically execute someone in response to outside activists’ actions as a deterrent.)

In a space where information sharing is not the norm it may also be difficult to see whether efforts at fostering cooperation take root. It is sometimes hard to determine for a long time whether someone is actually cooperating or only exploiting your cooperativeness.

But all in all, these seem minor reservations about control, especially compared to interventions aimed at existential risks or values spreading.

Institutional Risks

The fragmentation that I perceive in the space may be more by design than is apparent to me. In particular, the US defense department has a strategy for North Korea that may be aligned only with some nonprofits’ goals, and it has ways of encouraging the activism it wants to see and discourage the activism that it’s not interested in. I already mentioned that nonprofits have refused funding from US government sources so not to make themselves dependent on a funder that may not be value aligned with them and does not make exit grants.

I don’t know if there are any legal avenues for the US government to shut down or interfere with the work of foundations that it perceives may pose a danger to national security, but I’m worried that especially in the current political climate, human rights work in North Korea may overshadow a funder’s relationship with the the government of the country it operates from if it doesn’t coordinate its strategy carefully. This could endanger funding for even more important interventions.

  1. And the state ideology also treats suicide as a form of escape and thus treachery.

  2. According to Ms. Soon Ok Lee’s testimony: "The prisoners were warned that if they strayed from the path by even a step they would be shot to death instantly," and “When caught eating the pigs’ feed, they are shot and killed,” and similarly for stealing corn and stumbling while carrying a heavy weight. It seems easy to me to commit suicide this way without anyone realizing that it was suicide.

  3. These numbers are rounded but I relied on Guesstimate for the summation, hence the small oddities. Any large oddities are more likely to be errors.

  4. Or even less likely. One source of mine considers an escalation of the conflict unlikely to begin with.

  5. From what I’ve heard it seems to me that there are two such uncooperative camps in South Korea and a few more worldwide.

  6. The workers see little or none of the money they get paid in these countries.

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Summary: My uncertainty about this post lies in how much your proposed interventions can contribute to the overall size of the problem, which interventions these are, and how neglected they are.  

  • Comparing the US prison population & NK: While I agree that the overall size of the problem is greater in NK, it does not help us to understand how much of the problem we can address. The US estimate are limited to prison reforms, but the NK estimate includes the losses from the general population's suffering, which is much broader and complicated.
  • Estimates of total GDP lost in NK: Comparing the $ lost from SK to NK is useful insofar as you're trying to estimate the effect of the communist regime on the prospects of NK. However, I don't think this is maybe the right number when thinking about the near-term gains made from "suceeding". Things that would affect your estimate:
    • What time-scale of gains are you looking at? For example, on the timescale of 50 years perhaps it is reasonable that eventually NK will catch up to SK but in the interim the gains would be less.
    • What solutions are you envisioning and what is the end goal?
      • It seems that a fair number of your proposals are to reduce the suffering but not try to make bigger changes to the overall regime. In that case, it seems that the overall GDP gains are going to be much smaller, and each solution may have a natural limiting factor.
        • e.g. Safe escape routes will have a limiting factor at which point authorities may crack down/make it harder to escape, and mass exodus of millions of people doesn't seem plausible without a breakdown of the entire state.
      • Some of your proposals could lead to regime change - e.g. the dissolution of the NK government or opening up of NK (e.g. lowering the price of exports), then the more appropriate reference  class would be to look at the various Eastern bloc/Soviet countries immediately after their independence. Many countries faced several years of economic recession followed by a slow recovery. Additionally, there is no guarantee, even if things go better than the ex-Soviet countries, what  timescale these changes would happen across. 
      • Does this sound right?
  • Neglectedness: Do you have an estimate range for the amount of funding currently in this space and the number of actors (e.g. organisations?).
  • Tractability: It might have been useful to get a little better sense of the track record of these interventions to date to help compare them better. E.g. how many NK's try and how many succeed to take a escape route?
  • Intervention - Capacity building: I think your point about improving coordination in capacity building is really interesting and I enjoyed reading the Attribution of Moloch post! You mention: "Metainterventions aiming at capacity building are said to be highly robust, and once a more coordinated space emerges, it will be easier for organizations to conduct research on further intervention in the open." - I'm curious what the source is for this?

Additionally, there is no guarantee, even if things go better than the ex-Soviet countries, that there would be 

Please do not leave us wondering. ;)

Sorry! Must have missed that hanging sentence. There is no guarantee of the timescale across when these changes would happen.

Edited :)

Thank you for your comprehensive comment! :-D

I’ve added a note to the post that I accidentally changed the publishing date of it yesterday. I wanted to edit it but made it a draft instead, and when I reversed that, it must’ve bumped the date. All of this information is 3–4 years out of date.

Today I would approach things differently in three main ways:

  1. I would put a strong emphasis on trying to determine the robustness of all candidate interventions, by which I mean how likely I think they are to backfire in terrible ways, how many such ways I can think of, whether they can be preempted, or monitored and responded to, or whether they are more likely to happen suddenly and irreversibly or unknowably.
  2. I would take more seriously the possibility that extreme suffering is worse than median-levels of suffering by factors of 10, 100, or 1000 than by a factor of around 2. That would make the suffering in concentration camps and that of factory-farmed chickens vastly more important than it appears according to the calculations here.
  3. I would ask how this problem interacts with other problems, especially those that I deem even more urgent and important. For example, would a more human rights–respecting North Korea (or a united Korea under a South Korea–like government) improve existential security? Might it decrease the probability of some s-risks? Or would activism in this area, especially EA-adjacent activism, detract from the talent pools, funding, or attention that other problems, such as AI policy, have/receive?

Comparing the US prison population & NK: Yes, that comparison only serves to get an idea of the scale but leaves open how many comparatively difficult subproblems we’re dealing with in each case, what interventions there are to address them severally or all together, and hence how tractable the most tractable ones of these interventions are and at what rate they’re becoming less tractable up to the point where the problem is largely solved.

Estimates of total GDP lost in NK: I think I agree. Only two comments: (1) I think all the interventions I came up with except for the one concerning safer escape routes are either “meta” or aim at destabilizing the regime as a whole. Whatever connects and empowers the North Korean population or weakens the government makes it more likely that the government can be overthrown or at least becomes irrelevant. And (2), maybe the recovery of the former German Democratic Republic could be seen as a best-case scenario because there there was also a more developed part of the same country that it could reunite with and receive support from. But I think the cultural differences between North and South Korea are more extreme at this point than the differences between GDR and FRD.

Neglectedness: Indeed! But I don’t. I think people at Saram or the ICNK may have estimates though. I would imagine that government grants are transparent and that the charities in the space also publish their financials. Maybe the financials of the Ministry of Unification (other than grants) or South Korean intelligence are harder to know.

Tractability: Yes, I think that should be possible to estimate at least for someone who speaks Korean because a lot of North Koreans eventually flee to South Korea where they receive support and so are known to the authorities. The charities that support them to get through and out of China are often US-based, so maybe there’s even English-language information on this.

Intervention - Capacity building: Thank you! The first part is a mix of the idea that capacity building is a convergent instrumental goal in a lot of contexts and a general impression I got from discussions in EA. The second part may not be true. What I think was true at the time was that the space had these Attribution Moloch type of dynamics going on that made organizations more secretive and suspicious of each other. I don’t know if that’s still the case. But even without that problem, they may still not be able to do their research completely in the open because then the North Korean government can react to it more easily. For example, if you send aid via balloons into North Korea, the North Korean government can launch identical balloons of their own, ostensibly coming from the south, but with poisoned products or misinformation.

Thanks again for all your comments! I probably won’t write an updated version of the article, but I hope someone else will want to dig deeper!

I changed the publish date of this post back to Nov 20, 2017, since it seems like you wanted to do that.

Thank you kindly!

One might also try to devise of ways to supply the population with foreign currency to give more of them access to the “gray market” in North Korea and to allow more people to buy themselves free of prosecution thanks to the ubiquitous corruption in the country.

This is a really interesting idea.

The study of North Korea may produce insight into how dystopian societal attractor points can be averted or what preventive measures (beyond what is present in today’s North Korea) might help people on the inside destabilize them.

This is a great point.

[Highly speculative]

Maybe there's an unpopularity/coercion downward spiral: the more unpopular a leader becomes, the more the leader needs to rely on coercion in order to stay in power, causing further unpopularity, etc.

Having a source of legitimacy, even if it's completely arbitrary (the "divine right of kings"), helps forestall the spiral, because the leader doesn't need coercion to stay in power during periods of unpopularity.

According to this story, the reason communism doesn't end well is because it's an ultra-egalitarian ideology that holds status differences to be illegitimate and revolution to be virtuous. So the only rulers able to stay in power do so through coercion. (See: "dominance" vs "prestige" in social science.)

A surprising implication of this view: the existence of democratically ruled countries makes authoritarian countries less nice to live in. Because democracies make autocrats look less legitimate, autocrats need to rely more on coercion to maintain power. This argument also work in reverse: If Putin makes US democracy look less legitimate, anti-Putin coalitions in Russia have a harder time gaining steam, so Putin doesn't need to crack down as hard on them.

Chinese leaders want a diplomatic solution to the crisis because deposing Kim makes them look less legitimate.

People instinctively want to take a hard line on Kim, but a soft line is an interesting thought experiment. Suppose the US offered Kim $100M to step down. Kim won't take it, because he knows the US can imprison him as soon as he takes his finger off the nuclear button. And there's no way the US can credibly precommit to not do this. Well, actually, I can think of a way to get the same effect: Let Kim keep Barron Trump and Sasha Obama as hostages. Not politically viable, and creates bad incentives for other autocrats, but fun to think about.

The fragmentation that I perceive in the space may be more by design than is apparent to me. In particular, the US defense department has a strategy for North Korea that may be aligned only with some nonprofits’ goals, and it has ways of encouraging the activism it wants to see and discourage the activism that it’s not interested in. I already mentioned that nonprofits have refused funding from US government sources so not to make themselves dependent on a funder that may not be value aligned with them and does not make exit grants.

Can you talk more about why the DoD might not be value aligned? Perhaps the DoD wants to minimize the probability of a nuclear war, whereas humanitarian activists want to alleviate present suffering, and in some cases these goals trade off?

I know little about it and what I know may or may not still apply to whoever makes the decisions at the DoD today. The way I understood it, it was some sort of trade off between reducing suffering and keeping the political situation stable (war or refugees or complicated network of international allegiances vel sim.). The activist I talked to had a particular example in mind, but for this public article we decided on just the wording you quoted. I’d rather like to connect you to him directly if you’d like to know more since I don’t feel like I know well how sensitive what information is and he knows much more too of course.

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