Here’s Why You Should Never Rescue People From Prison Or Brothels By Paying Off Their Captors

These days, the most natural connotation of the phrase “ransoming the captive” involves well-meaning Christians raising money to pay off governments, gangs, pimps, and prison guards to release their unjustly-held victims, typically either sex-trafficked women or Christians imprisoned for their faith.

While seemingly quite compassionate, this is a bad, bad, very bad idea indeed. It takes a heartbreaking situation and pumps it up into a limitlessly profitable line of work for the most reprehensible people on the planet.

You will recall I serve as CEO of Seoul USA, and a primary field for our work is North Korea. That means that we deal daily with some of the most anguishing cases of sex-trafficking and Christian persecution on the planet.

A background note may be helpful: Women are sex-trafficked into China from North Korea by Korean-Chinese gangs as a result of China’s one-child policy, which as Nicholas Eberstadt notes has resulted in way too many Chinese men and way too few Chinese women, especially in the countryside:

China will face a growing number of young men who will never marry due to the country’s one-child policy, which has resulted in a reported birth ratio of almost 120 boys for every 100 girls…By 2030, projections suggest that more than 25% of Chinese men in their late 30s will never have married. The coming marriage squeeze will likely be even more acute in the Chinese countryside, since the poor, uneducated and rural population will be more likely to lose out in the competition for brides.

Enter North Korea, which is only too happy to make (a lot of) extra money by selling its young women.

There is, however, another source of equally lucrative income on which North Korea and the Korean-Chinese gangs also depend: Money from Christians seeking to buy the freedom of the women who are held captive.

After all, why use a 13 year old as a prostitute (or why execute an underground Christian) if instead you can make a lot more money through ransom? What business sense is there in going for the minor profit when there’s serious money to be made if you expand your criminal horizons? A pimp who kidnaps young girls from their homes is only too happy to diversify his profits. A young prostitute can make a few dollars a day for him, but Christians halfway around the world are happy to pay literally hundreds of times more. Do we think pimps and prison guards are unaware of this?

When we started in North Korea work ten years ago it was possible to bribe someone out of the worst North Korean prisons for less than a thousand dollars. Today, the going rate for ransoms is $15,000 to $20,000, or higher. What accounts for the price hike?

Christians driving up the market through this misunderstanding of ransoming the captives as a willingness to pay the ransom demanded by the captor.

The real tragedy is not the price inflation, however. It’s the staggering demand created in the market for more ransoms. (Heartbreakingly the same dynamic is at work in international adoptions, where some well-meaning but impatient Christians working through dodgy channels are driving an escalating market of baby kidnapping and wombs-for-hire because their desire to do good can be monetized by people desperate for any way to make a buck, sometimes just to stay alive. Don’t stop adopting but do read E.J. Graff’s The Lie We Love for a sobering reality check that will keep you out of the wrong channels and in the right ones.)

The math is irresistible to fiends: If one Christian in prison or one 13 year old girl in a brothel produces one ransom, then ten Christians or ten 13 year old girls produces ten ransoms. That’s mafia economics, and it works with Wall Street precision.

Sadly, some well-meaning nonprofits believe that looking at the big picture is the opposite of compassion. They say, “Yes, what you are saying may be true, but 13 year old Nan is in a brothel and we can rescue her for $80. How can we not act to set her free?”

But the true opposite of compassion…is compassion–the wrong kind of compassion, that is. Compassion that frees Nan but thus consigns 12 year old Ann, Tran, and Lan to the brothel with a buyback of $120 each.

As we talked about last post, theologically it is always bad practice to negotiate with the devil. It is of course the worst form of negotiating with terrorists: Even if it results in one person being freed from prison (and, by the way, that’s no foregone conclusion–nonprofits are suspiciously quiet about the number of these ransom deals that go bad), it only results in new prisons and brothels, more victims, and greater demands.

“So what are we to do?” sigh the well-meaning Christian nonprofit organizations in exasperation. “Ignore Nan? Turn a blind eye to our brothers and sisters in prison who are persecuted for their faith?”

Not at all. But as we’ll talk about in our next post, the cost will run us a lot higher than $80.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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