When we think of philanthropy, most often we’re thinking of giving a percentage of income or volunteering a few hours each month. This sort of philanthropy is important -- indeed, it’s the core of American philanthropy. We often think of those who tithe or who volunteer more than once or twice per month as especially generous.
But then there’s extreme philanthropy. Melanie Kirkpatrick, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former Wall Street Journal editor, has just published Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad, in which she describes the North Koreans desperate enough for freedom to risk torture and death to escape from North Korea and the network of those who likewise run extreme risks to help the North Koreans to freedom. Both the North Koreans fleeing totalitarianism and those who help them show astonishing courage. The later are what one might call extreme philanthropists—those who are willing to commit not only time and money but to risk their freedom and their family’s welfare.
In some cases, those who help North Korean refugees lose their lives. One such person was Rev. Kim Dong-shik -- a legal resident of the United States, the longtime minister of a Chicago church, and the father of an American citizen -- who had moved to China and aided North Korean refugees there:
A few months before his abduction, the pastor befriended a North Korean woman whom he believed to be a refugee. She was a North Korean agent. On January 16, 2000, the woman arranged to meet with Pastor Kim at a local restaurant on the pretext of introducing him to two other North Koreans who needed help. As they were leaving the restaurant, Pastor Kim, who was disabled, was wrenched out of his wheelchair and forced into a taxi. . . . [T]he details of what happened next are murky, but it is known that Pastor Kim was transported to a political prison camp [in North Korea]. He appears to have been beaten and starved to death after refusing to renounce his religion.
Others are undeterred by having suffered terribly for their work. One man, who specializes in repatriating South Korean POWs who have been held in North Korea since the end of the Korean War, was arrested in China in 2002 and imprisoned for eight years before being expelled to South Korea in 2010. When Kirkpatrick met him, he announced:
I just had my eyes done. . . . I’ve had plastic surgery to change my appearance so I can go back to China.
How many people could be so determined to return to such dangerous work after already suffering such a terrible consequence?
Others undertake work that risks severe consequences for their families. One retired American couple left their grown children in the United States to undertake the management of foster homes for children born to North Korean “brides” sold to Chinese men. Children enter the foster homes when their mothers escape or die and their Chinese fathers are no longer willing or able to raise them. If the American couple who manage the foster homes is caught, according to Kirkpatrick, “there is a good chance they will go to jail.” But these risks, serious as they are, are overshadowed by the risks run by the Chinese foster parents:
If the foster parents are arrested and sent to prison, putting the pieces of their lives back together won’t be easy. They will always be under suspicion. The foster parents are also putting their own biological families at risk . . . they’ll be separated from their [own] child if they are arrested and jailed.
I can’t imagine running the risk of being separated from my own children; I’m not even sure it’s reasonable of a parent to run this risk. And, I can’t imagine most retired couples I know running the risk of being separated from their own children and grandchildren.
Kirkpatrick tells many more tales of those who pay tremendous costs to help North Korean refugees (as well as, of course, tales of North Koreans who have fled their homeland). In some cases, one might question whether the risks run by would-be rescuers are appropriate, given the other obligations they have.
Those of us whose philanthropy is modest -- small checks and a few volunteer hours -- run the risk that our philanthropy feeds our vanity as we congratulate ourselves on modest sacrifices. Kirkpatrick’s book is a stiff antidote to such feelings of self-congratulation.