Debate on North Korea’s nuclear testing


30th November 2007

For the full text of the debate, click here

Lord Alton of Liverpool rose to call attention to the implications of North Korea’s decision to conduct its first nuclear test; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving the Motion, I should like to thank in advance all those Members of your Lordships’ House who are to participate in the debate, and I should like to express my appreciation for the opportunity to raise the matter today. This is the third occasion on which I have had the privilege of opening a debate in your Lordships’ House on the subject of North Korea. Today I should like to raise three interconnected strands: security questions, humanitarian issues and human rights. Each of these concerns plays into the other.

This Motion was tabled in the aftermath of the October weapons test at Gilju in Hamgyong Province. In becoming the ninth country to possess nuclear weapons, North Korea’s actions were described by China as “brazen”, by Japan as “unpardonable” and by the United States as “provocative”. But of course the test did not just come out of the blue. Its genesis lies in the unfinished business of the 1950 to 1953 war in Korea, which claimed between 2.5 million and3.5 million lives, including those of 1,000 British servicemen. With the 1953 ceasefire, the country was severed along the 38th parallel and, technically, the principal combatants are still at war. The border bristles with mines, artillery and troops. Anyone who travels in North Korea sees a state whose massive arsenal and resources are overwhelmingly geared to the protection and the survival of the regime.

When, in 2003, North Korea pulled out the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, its intentions rapidly became clear. It also became clear that primarily China, through the control of electricity and oil, was in a position to temper the DPRK’s military ambitions. In September 2005, there was a brief glimmer of hope when, during the six-nation talks, North Korea agreed to give up nuclear activity, only to be followed by contradictory statements from Sean McCormack, the White House spokesman, and a retraction by the DPRK the following day. Then, of course, in July of this year, North Korea test-fired seven missiles, and in October it proceeded to test a nuclear device.

On 14 October, the Security Council responded by unanimously voting to impose weapons and financial sanctions. Resolution 1718 demanded that North Korea eliminate all its nuclear weapons, weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. The resolution also called for Pyongyang to return “without precondition” to the stalled six-nation talks. On31 October, China announced that the talks would resume “soon”.

If the unfinished business of 1953 continues to have huge security implications, there are also implications for humanitarian and human rights concerns as well. These three questions are inextricably linked and need to be tackled together. Let us take, for example, the humanitarian situation. The escalation of the security issues is already having an adverse effect, in particular on the provision of food aid, which will lead to famine and mass starvation. This, in turn, will lead to more people trying to flee the country, which, in turn, will lead to their incarceration and unspeakable violations of human rights if they are caught.

At a meeting here on 16 November addressed by Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights, I asked him about the plight of the 400,000 people estimated to have been killed by the regime in the past three decades, about the 200,000 people said to be currently detained in the country’s gulags and about the likelihood of a new famine and mass starvation following 2 million deaths during the famine of the 1990s. His view was that there is a real danger of a new famine. That was endorsed on Monday of this week at a meeting held under the auspices of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, which I chair.

Professor Hazel Smith worked for the World Food Programme in North Korea. She told us:

    “The under twenties have never seen anything other than hunger and if food doesn’t go in there will be another famine, and soon”.

Last week, during the debate on the gracious Speech, the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, disputed figures that I gave the House concerning food aid. I said that funds for the World Food Programme were down from £6 million to £1.9 million. These figures were not mine; they were the figures of the special rapporteur, Professor Muntarbhorn. He added:

    “In reality it could be even half of this amount”.

He told us that only 10 per cent of needed funds have come in and that only 30 countries out of 200 had contributed food. China is believed to have cut food support by one-third and South Korea suspended shipments after Pyongyang’s missile tests in July.

North Korea has, of course, scandalously used at least 30 per cent of its GDP on armaments and in developing nuclear weapons—resources that should have been used to develop the country’s economy and agriculture—but we have to draw a distinction between a regime and its ideology on the one hand and the people of that benighted land on the other.

More than 37 per cent of six year-olds in North Korea are chronically malnourished. Stunted growth among the population has even led—this is an interesting illustration—to the height requirement for the North Korean army being reduced from 4 foot 11 to 4 foot 3.

Professor Smith says that the country’s stocks of food,

    “will not last long into the New Year”.

We must not become complicit in the potential starvation of millions of people. I hope that when the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, replies to the debate he will be able to give the House details of the current humanitarian situation, particularly regarding food.

We must also consider the implications of the worsening situation for human rights on the Korean peninsular. Without UNHCR access, and in breach of the 1951 convention, China continues to return many of the 50,000 refugees who have fled there. I would like to know from the Government what representations we have made about this. The worsening security and economic situation will undoubtedly add to that exodus. What will be their fate? Two weeks ago the General Assembly of the United Nations passed a motion detailing North Korea’s use of torture, public executions and degrading treatments, as well as a morass of other allegations. The penal code particularly, we should note, criminalises defection.

In 2003, my noble friend Lady Cox, who will speak more extensively on this point later in our proceedings, and I travelled to North Korea. My interest had been initially aroused when an escapee came to London and graphically described to me how his wife and young family had all died, either from starvation or as they tried to escape from North Korea into China. For years in the West, we genuinely claimed to know very little of the realities of life in North Korea, but thanks to the testimonies of escapees this is no longer a tenable argument.

In the aftermath of the Korean War, North Korea’s leaders implemented a policy of “juche”—or self-reliance—which has led to decades of isolation. It has led to the state linking itself to criminal activities, including the narcotics trade, to abductions, to the testing, according to BBC allegations, of chemical weapons on civilians and to alleged links with terrorism; and it has led to torture and execution.

On 30 October, the all-party group hosted the launch of a 142-page report commissioned by Vaclav Havel, the former President of the Czech Republic, Elie Wiesel, the Nobel peace prize laureate, and Kjell Magne Bondevik, the former Norwegian Prime Minister. Mr Bondevik spoke at the launch of the report, which is called Failure to Protect: A Call for the UN Security Council to Act in North Korea. I have placed a copy of that report in the Library of your Lordships’ House.

The report invites the United Nations Security Council to evaluate the egregious violations of human rights in North Korea; to consider using Chapter 6 powers rather than those in Chapter 7; and to adopt a non-punitive resolution urging the DPRK to allow open access for international humanitarian organisations to feed its people. It calls for the release of political prisoners, as well as insisting that the UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea should be permitted to visit the country. If the new doctrine of “the responsibility to protect” means anything, the UN needs to respond positively to the Havel/Wiesel/Bondevik report, copies of which I have sent to the Prime Minister, the principal opposition spokesmen on foreign affairs and the noble Lord, Lord Triesman.

What would be a thoughtful and intelligent response to North Korea? One thing is clear: 50 years of isolation have not worked, and attempting to starve a patriotic and proud people into submission will not work either.Following the talks that my noble and friend and I had with senior figures in Pyongyang, including Kim Yong Nam, the president of the Presidium, and Choe Tae Boc, the Speaker of their Assembly, whom we invited to the United Kingdom in March 2004, we have argued for what I have called “Helsinki with an Asian face”, engaging respectfully, sincerely and forcefully on questions such as judicial reform. If the declared objective is simply regime change, then that will not work either. We need carrots as well as sticks. In some respects, I think that isolation rather suits the hardliners in the DPRK. 

Although the United States is understandably wary of being detached from the six-nation talks, I can see no justification for continuing the illusion that the US never talks directly to Pyongyang. There have been plenty of periodic encounters at the margins of multilateral talks. For instance, Kim Jong-il met Madeleine Albright. Establishing an embassy and diplomatic relations, as the United Kingdom has done, would be a positive and constructive move and could hardly be portrayed as rewarding the regime.

And what about the United Kingdom? North Korea’s ambassador to London, Yong-ho Ri, has just been recalled to Pyongyang, where he is likely to have a key role in overseeing the six-nation talks. I met him before he left, and he believes, as I do, that the UK could be a useful bridge-builder between the United States and North Korea. He also believes that Britain should provide leadership in Brussels in seeking varying levels of constructive engagement, especially once the security concerns are resolved through development aid and assistance towards reunification of the two Koreas.

All that said, for North Korea it is the United States that matters. It is the major player involved, and it alone can guarantee the security that North Korea craves. That is precisely the successful approach used by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher during the worst years of the Cold War. Think of the normalisation of US-Libyan relations in 2004.

Recent changes in Washington create new opportunities. Yesterday Tom Lantos, who is about to become chairman of the congressional Committee on International Relations, said that he is willing to meet Kim Jong-il, and he says that Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill should be dispatched to Pyongyang to open a dialogue. There are also other new, lower-key policy options that we can pursue. We have nothing to fear from, for example, student scholarships and exchanges, medical assistance or the offer of technical assistance to promote the rule of law. That will be crucial to economic development as well as to changing attitudes towards human rights.

While more substantial engagement depends on North Korea’s compliance with Security Council resolutions, the UK should in principle support its wish for sustainable development rather than food aid. Tying such development aid to capacity building in the rule of law would be a virtuous conditionality. English language training is also vital if North Korea is to be drawn into the international community and into rules-based international systems. The engagement policy of the South Korean Government also deserves our wholehearted support.

We should explore all possible steps that can open space for civil society, however modest. The “hermit kingdom” needs to know about the outside world, as opposed to the distorted picture that its people have been fed all their lives. We must encourage any moves towards reform and openness, not to mention making a small improvement in people’s lives. That might include scholarships, encouraging cultural exchange and pushing for more access by non-governmental organisations. Those are necessarily modest steps, but they should be supported by a clear road map that shows North Korea that it has an alternative. We should spell out what will flow and be on offer if it agrees to verifiably dismantle its nuclear programme, open up to the outside world, reform its economy and start taking steps to improve human rights and allow for basic freedoms. It should be made clear to the DPRK that nobody seeks to punish the country for its own sake, but that it has an option of being helped towards a better future. Essentially, that is precisely what President Bush and Secretary of State Rice said in Hanoi recently.

In many respects, North Korea’s mad dash to develop a nuclear weapon is a sign of weakness and desperation, and we should see it thus. When my noble friend Lady Cox and I stood at Panmunjom on the North Korean side of the border, where the 1953 ceasefire was signed, it was hard not to think of Berlin and the Cold War that divided and devastated large swathes of Europe. North Korea is often called “the land that never changes”, but for the sake of its people and its neighbours we should devote our energies to disproving that proposition. I beg to move for papers.