Question for Short Debate
Tabled By Lord Alton of Liverpool
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of security and human rights issues on the Korean peninsula.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I greatly welcome the opportunity to question the Government about recent developments on the Korean peninsula, especially as they relate to security and human rights questions. In doing so, I express my thanks to all noble Lords who will participate in the debate and I remind the House of my non-pecuniary interest as chairman of the all-party group that considers North Korean issues.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of war on the Korean peninsula. That war led to the loss of between 2 million and 3 million lives, including the lives of 1,000 British servicemen. The immediate cause for seeking today’s short debate, however, was the sinking in March of the South Korean naval vessel “Cheonan” with the loss of 46 lives. This was a shocking and tragic development, which has led to a massive deterioration in relations between South Korea and North Korea; it was reckless belligerence, which could have calamitous consequences. The folly of indifference-this is a faraway country about which we know very little-is self-evident.
History rarely repeats itself exactly, but we need to see the dangers for what they are. The sinking of the “Cheonan” represents one of the worst breaches of the armistice that ended the Korean War 57 years ago. Before this unprovoked attack, the Korean peninsula was already a tense and dangerous place. North Korea has the world’s fourth-largest standing army, comprising over 1 million troops, who are on a war footing. There is the added danger of nuclear capability.
In this jittery climate, it is easy to see how the two sides could slide into combat. America has an estimated 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea, who would be sucked into the conflict, while simultaneously China might find itself in a stand-off against the Americans and South Koreans. That would make the Korean peninsula the most dangerous place on earth. The prospect of two great world powers being dragged into direct conflict should give us all pause for thought.
In assessing these events and what to do about them, the United Nations Security Council and the British Government must not countenance impunity. That would merely tempt the North Koreans to go further. Crucial to finding a way forward will be the leadership and involvement of the Government of China. With China’s active involvement, we should seek the establishment of a United Nations commission of inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity. We should press for a referral of the sinking of the “Cheonan” to the International Criminal Court and we should call for an evaluation of the egregious violations of human rights in North Korea. I hope that the Minister will spell out to us today precisely how we have used our seat at the Security Council and what we have done to engage the Government of China.
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When on 2 June I pressed the Government to say whether they would instigate a referral of North Korea to the International Criminal Court, the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, replied:
“North Korea is not a signatory to the ICC”.-[Official Report, 2/6/10; col. 250.]
Sudan is not a signatory either, but that did not prevent the indictment by the ICC of a sitting president, Omar al-Bashir, for crimes against humanity in Darfur. Furthermore, this crime was committed against South Koreans in South Korean territory and South Korea is a signatory to the ICC.
The noble Lord, Lord Howell, also doubted whether China would be willing to support joint international action. However, if North Korea went into freefall or if there were to be a new war, China would have more to lose than anyone. Millions of refugees and the danger of two world powers being sucked into such a vortex would threaten China’s stability and development.
The international award-winning human rights lawyer Jared Genser, writing in the Wall Street Journal on 3 June, addressed the issue of the ICC’s jurisdiction. I sent a copy of the article to the noble Lords, Lord Howell and Lord Wallace, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock. Genser says that a case can legitimately be brought before the ICC because one of the war crimes that can be prosecuted in the ICC is,
“killing … treacherously individuals belonging to the hostile nation or army”.
“Merely conducting a sneak attack itself is not considered treachery under the laws of war, as surprise is often used in wartime. What was actually ‘treacherous’ is that North Korea signed the 1953 armistice and committed unequivocally to ‘order and enforce a complete cessation of hostilities'”.
He argues that:
“In this case, North Korea invited the confidence of South Korea that the armistice was in force … That confidence was intentionally betrayed to sink the vessel and kill its crew. The laws of war make very clear that while an armistice merely suspends active fighting and can indeed be broken, notice must be provided to the other side first”.
I repeat that, although North Korea is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court, South Korea is, and this offence took place against South Korea and against a South Korean vessel. The United Nations special rapporteur on North Korea, Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, who will be speaking at a meeting in your Lordships’ House on 21 June, has also called for a referral to the ICC. As in the case of Omar al-Bashir, the ICC’s investigation would underline the ultimate accountability of all political leaders before judicial authorities, demonstrate that there is no impunity and leave open the possibility of a day of reckoning.
Thus far, China has been right to urge restraint, but it would help if she were more outspoken and insisted that those responsible are brought to justice. China correctly described North Korea’s decision to test a nuclear weapon as “brazen” but this is of a similar order. Both our countries must stand with the victim and condemn the aggressor. A common front could transform the situation in North Korea and deliver reform and hope for its beleaguered citizens-and they are beleaguered. The BBC journalist, Sue Lloyd-Roberts, was recently in North Korea and South Korea.
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Among the defectors that she traced and interviewed-and others whose lives are documented by Barbara Demick in her brilliant new book, Nothing to Envy-were men and women who gave first-hand accounts of enforced disappearances, executions and arbitrary detentions. Here are the stories of religious persecution, the lack of freedom of movement, the lack of labour rights, the non-implementation of legal codes, the lack of a fair trial, the lack of judicial oversight of detention facilities and the severe mistreatment of repatriated persons-mainly repatriated from China, which remains reluctant to give the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees access to the border areas.
The violence against women in detention facilities is appalling, and the accounts of life in prisons and labour camps are chilling. The individual stories bring home the enormity of the suffering that lies behind individual statistics: the 2 million people who died in the famine during the 1990s, and the 300,000 people who are estimated to be in the gulags today. One such story was recounted here in the Moses Room, at a meeting which I chaired, by a remarkable young man whom I invited to Westminster. Shin Dong-Hyok, who is 26, was born in, and spent the first 23 years of his life doing forced labour in, North Korea’s political prison camp 14. He watched as his mother and brother were publicly executed.
When the Minister replies, perhaps he can tell us what is known about current conditions in North Korean prisons and camps; what individual cases we are pursuing; what is known about food supplies and the humanitarian situation; and what discussions we have had with China about refugees.
Finally, we should reassess the strategic approach being adopted by Her Majesty’s Government and our allies. The 1994 US framework document, the more recent agreements brokered during the six-party talks, and the stop-start initiatives of the Bush Administration have all been too narrowly focused on arms control issues alone.
When, with my noble friend Lady Cox, I first visited North Korea in 2003, among the recommendations in our report, Finding a Way Forward, was the need for a Helsinki-style approach which links security and human rights issues. We called for the formal ending of the Korean War, the creation of an American diplomatic presence in Pyongyang, and a sustained elevation of human rights concerns. In 2009, after our second visit and our report, Carpe Diem-Seizing the Moment for Change, we reiterated these recommendations along with a series of other proposals.
Making human rights a pivotal issue has also been advocated by the American North Korea expert, David Hawk. In his 2010 report, Pursuing Peace While Advancing Rights: The Untried Approach to North Korea, he says:
“It is the approach that has yet to be tried in North Korea”.
Throughout the Cold War, alliances were formed between dissidents, religious leaders, democrats and human rights activists. The Helsinki principle of critical engagement, dialogue, strong deterrence of attempted aggression and the insistence of respect for human rights defeated tyranny. We need Helsinki with a Korean face.
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I believe that there is a Korean proverb, Karure tanbi, may there be sweet rain in a drought-the cherished hope that something longed for may come about. For 60 years, the Korean peninsula has longed for a lasting settlement based on justice, peace, reconciliation, coexistence and mutual respect. Instead its people have experienced suffering, division and threats. In this 60th anniversary year of the outbreak of the Korean War and in the aftermath of the terrible loss of life on the “Cheonan”, we should redouble our efforts to bring about a lasting settlement. I beg to move.
Lord Bates: My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton. His knowledge and his work in the area of the conflict and the situation in Korea is acknowledged and respected by the whole House. If Her Majesty’s Government or the United Nations were ever looking for an envoy to dispatch to the Korean peninsula, his would be a fitting name to put forward.
I also welcome my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire to the Front Bench. We are looking forward to his contribution not only in this debate but also in future debates on this matter. I have two points to raise: the first is a specific case of human rights and the second relates to some of my own thoughts about the way forward on the Korean peninsula and some of the issues faced there.
I want to ask the Minister specifically about what more can be done to ensure that human rights abuses in North Korea are put firmly on the international agenda. The House may remember that Robert Park, a 28 year-old American human rights activist, was arrested after entering North Korea on Christmas Day. Happily, as a result of international representations and after being detained for 43 days, he was released. Park had crossed the border from China, carrying a letter to North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-il. He had attempted to draw attention to tens of thousands of political prisoners held in the communist state.
Since then, Aijalon Gomes has also entered North Korea in the hope of shining a light on some of the 154,000 political prisoners who are believed to be held in six camps across the country. In a Written Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, last week the Government said:
“We are aware of Mr Gomes’ case. The Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, which is the consular protecting power for US nationals in North Korea, is handling his case. We are in touch with the Swedish embassy and stand ready to offer assistance if they request it”.-[Official Report, 8/6/10; col. WA39.]
I should be grateful if the Minister could tell us what response he has received from the Swedish embassy and what is currently known about the whereabouts of Mr Gomes.
The House will also recall that two American journalists were also held in North Korean prisons last year. Laura Ling and Euna Lee were imprisoned in March 2009 after they strayed across the border between North Korea and China while on assignment for Current TV, a company owned and operated by the former American Vice President, Al Gore. They were intending to make a report on the trafficking of women across the border.
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North Korea sentenced them both to 12 years hard labour. Former President Bill Clinton intervened on their behalf. He flew to Pyongyang and, after five months in prison, they were released. Their arrest had not only been entirely unexpected but the Chinese authorities and missionaries working in the region had been warning for some time that North Koreans were looking for high profile foreigners to use as bargaining chips. Their reason for being on the border was to highlight the plight of refugees trying to flee from North Korea. It was also to highlight the dangers facing those brave Chinese families who have been assisting refugees and who face arrest for doing so.
Can the Minister tell us what is being done to persuade the Chinese Government to allow access to the border areas to United Nations agencies that work with refugees? How does he respond to the report published by Anti-Slavery International into the suffering of many women who make the border crossing in order to earn money to support their impoverished families? The United Nations estimates that 400,000 people have died in the camps in the past 30 years. Many of the stories that have emerged of escapees reveal the primitive brutality that has been experienced there. Many of these barbaric practices were pioneered by the Japanese during their occupation of the Korean peninsula.
In conclusion, I should like to make two points. First, we need to be very careful about demonising North Korea. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in The Gulag Archipelago, reminded us that the line between good and evil does not lie between nation states or even across the 38th parallel but within each and every human heart. It is not that the people of the north are evil and the people of the south are good. There is good and evil in all. That needs to be recognised. The people of the north have suffered a level of brutality which is unimaginable, not just over the years of the regime which has been in place for the past 50 years but for almost a century since they came under brutal Japanese occupation.
I know that, like me, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, have had the opportunity to visit both north and south of the border and have experienced the depth of feeling that remains there. The experience of Japanese occupation is taught in primary schools and from kindergarten. People experience that day in and day out; they have a living history of that brutality, and it is drummed into them. Not surprisingly, therefore, they view the external world with some suspicion and fear. That was added to by the short and brutal engagement of the Korean War, which is also scarred on the consciousness of every primary school child and every family in North Korea. If it were not so, there is no way that the country of North Korea could keep within its extensive porous borders to the north with China its population of 21 million. We need to place this in the context of the great crimes against the Korean people, and especially the North Korean people, which have been perpetrated over the past century, and seek some truth, justice and reconciliation for them.
The only way forward is the peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula. The Korean peninsula is artificially divided because of Cold War politics. It is a
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leftover of Cold War politics. It is a lingering injustice. Long after Germany has seen its reunification, the Koreans are still waiting for theirs. Why does it not happen? In part, people may say that that is a result of the north and the south, but it is not simply a matter of the north and the south getting together. We know that there are external pressures and that great powers are at play. Japan, China, Russia, and the United States all have interests there. They were represented in the six-party talks which followed North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2005.
Every effort has to be made to bring about that reunification. North Korea is economically virtually on its knees. Its GDP per capita is about $1,800, which makes it the 193rd poorest country on the planet. Just across the border in South Korea, there is a GDP per capita of $28,000, making it one of the richest countries on the planet. The total GDP of the north is $40 billion; the total GDP of the south runs to $800 billion. The inconsistencies between the two are vast. They are known and they are commented on.
Somehow, the international community needs to correct that injustice by creating a framework in which those two countries currently separated by that artificial division can begin reunification talks. When it was proposed that that might be on the agenda, it was at the six-party talks. When German unification took place there were not six-party talks, there were the four external powers, the Allied powers, but they were called four plus two talks. Germany was allowed to talk freely between east and west with other Allied and interested parties in the room. So it should be in North Korea. There should not be six-party talks; there should be two plus four talks. The agenda of peaceful reunification of a demilitarised and once again proud Korean nation standing there in east Asia should be an objective of us all.
Korean Peninsula: Human Rights
Question for Short Debate (Continued)
Lord Soley: My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for putting his important debate on North Korea before the House today. One reason why I wanted to speak is because we know that North Korea is an area where extreme actions are being taken by a dictator which are dangerous to world peace, dangerous to the people of Korea and,
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above all, extremely brutal to the people of that sad country. Therefore, it is right that we speak about it today; the noble Lord has a good record in doing precisely that.
I want to intervene relatively briefly because for many years I regarded North Korea as just about the worst of the failed regimes on the planet. By all accounts it is brutal in the extreme and is certainly dangerous. If you look at the effort it is putting into producing nuclear weapons and the rockets to carry them, and bear in mind that it has also been suspected over the years-with good evidence-of producing other weapons of mass destruction, and indeed testing some of them on its own people, you recognise just how extreme this regime is and how dangerous it is to the peace of the world.
In this context, China’s role is profoundly important, as has been said. It is incredibly frustrating that it does not use the pressure it undoubtedly has to bring about change in North Korea. I have great respect for what China has achieved in recent years. It is clearly determined to develop the rule of law and to develop its economy in a much more free and open way. However, it is still a bit ambivalent about democracy. One of its senior politicians asked me, “What advice do you give us, Mr Soley, to develop democracy in the country?”. I thought that we had enough problems here with a population of 60 million and wondered how you defined democracy with a population of more than 1 billion. However, China could do a lot worse than to look to its neighbour, India.
At the time of the cyclone in Burma, which led to the deaths of many people, I put it to the Chinese ambassador at a meeting in this House that China, along with India and Thailand, could, if it so wished, have told the Burmese regime that the aid ships that were sitting outside the cyclone area must be allowed in-that they would have been allowed in if those three countries had insisted on it. A similar incident occurred as regards China and North Korea. Only a few years ago, by all accounts at least a million people, perhaps more, starved to death in a famine. China did not let them cross the border and did very little, if anything, to help. When I put these dilemmas to the Chinese ambassador, she replied, “The problem is, you haven’t had the experience of colonialism”. That was the excuse given for non-intervention. There is something bizarre about all this, because it was the Europeans who defined a treaty of non-intervention several hundred years ago under the treaty of Westphalia. That has been abandoned more and more rapidly ever since, particularly since the British intervention to end the transatlantic slave trade, about which I have talked in this House on other occasions. Certainly since the formation of the United Nations, intervention has been seen as right and proper in certain situations.
China and some other countries are still very reluctant to think of imposing any form of intervention or pressure on a regime to make it change. However, China must be deeply troubled by what is happening in North Korea. Even if it is not concerned about human rights-both previous speakers have mentioned that-the sheer instability of the regime and the danger it poses to others, as shown by the sinking of the
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South Korean naval ship and the firing of missiles into the Sea of Japan, must make China worried about the nature of that regime. Its approach still appears to be that of, “We can’t do anything, we won’t do anything and it runs against our principles, too”.
One of the ways that the United Nations offered us great hope after the Second World War-a hope which has sadly not materialised, but which we must never lose sight of-was in its recognition that nation states and their Governments had a duty to treat their citizens well and not to ride roughshod over their rights. That led increasingly-particularly after the end of the Cold War-to intervention programmes, most of which were very successful. We regard the intervention programmes in Sierra Leone, Papua New Guinea and Kosovo as successful. The intervention in Iraq was possibly successful, but was carried out in a way which, post-conflict, led to far too much misery and loss of human life fully to justify that type of intervention. It was right, but badly carried out.
Could you do the same in North Korea? There is no doubt that if China chose to intervene and change the regime there, I for one would stand up to say, “I am pleased”-just as I remember welcoming Vietnam’s intervention in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the intervention by Tanzania into Uganda to remove Idi Amin, and the Indian Government’s decision to move into the then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. I welcomed all those interventions. Although I am not a great fan of the Chinese form of government, almost anything would be better than what is happening in North Korea.
What can we do? Some suggestions have already been made, but by far the most important is to persuade the Chinese that following the treaty of Westphalia in Asia, 300 years after it was written, is not necessarily the best definition of a good and humanitarian foreign policy. It is certainly not one for which you can make the excuse of having had a colonial experience in order to justify it. We all know that what is happening in North Korea is abhorrent in the extreme and intensely dangerous. We have to be very clear in telling that over and again to the Chinese Government. At the end of the day, only they can change this situation.
If it comes to a war between North Korea and South Korea-which, for what my judgment is worth, will not happen; there is too much to lose by them, and China would indicate that it would be an unacceptable step-the consequences would be horrendous. That is the only other way that change could happen. In fact, change in North Korea needs to come from China. The United Nations must keep asserting the importance of national Governments behaving in a civilised manner towards their own citizens. We must never lose sight of human rights and the importance of democracy and the rule of law in order to preserve stability, peace and tranquillity between and within nations.
For all those reasons I am glad to support the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in his debate.
Baroness Cox: My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Alton on this timely debate, on his dedication to the promotion of well-being for the people of North Korea through his chairmanship of the all-party
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parliamentary group, on which I serve as vice-chair, and on his unfailing commitment to justice and human rights in North Korea and many other troubled parts of the world.
My noble friend reminded the House that on two occasions we have travelled together to North Korea and that the reports we published recommended a Helsinki-type approach based on constructive critical engagement. We intend to travel to North Korea for a third time later this year.
Exactly 10 years ago, Britain and North Korea first created diplomatic relations and there is no doubt that despite the considerable issues which divide us -exacerbated by the sinking of the South Korean vessel, the “Cheonan”, with such a terrible loss of life-keeping open lines of communication is important. Part of the “small steps” strategy we advocated after our first visit in 2003 was the establishment of the British Council in Pyongyang. This strategy does not represent any lack of concern for the suffering of the people of North Korea from violations of human rights inflicted by their rulers; rather, it reflects the policy that it is better to build bridges, not walls, and to extend a helping hand for initiatives to alleviate that suffering, as well as to convey critical concerns such as those already emphasised by my noble friend.
In 2009, my noble friend and I were again in Pyongyang, where we met the British Council teachers. At Kim ll-sung University we met students and discussed life in the UK and some North Korean students coming to the UK to learn English and see our way of life. We were able to bring the Speaker of the North Korean Assembly, Mr Chae Tae Bok, to Westminster, and to have constructive discussions with him and other key officials during our visits. At every opportunity we raised security and human rights concerns.
We also raised the issue of religious liberties and were pleased to note that, since our first visit, a very beautiful new Russian Orthodox church has been built, served by two North Korean priests who studied at a seminary in Moscow, along with a much-enlarged Protestant church and a seminary-although we are sad that still no Catholic priest is allowed. We are also acutely aware of the nature of the Potemkin-style show churches and neither of us naively believes that there is religious freedom or political pluralism in North Korea. However, any opening up of a closed society is to be welcomed. Moreover, we believe that it is important to challenge and engage. Margaret Thatcher-the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher-and President Ronald Reagan understood and implemented that policy in the case of the former Soviet Union and, in 2009, President Barack Obama said:
“No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door”.
On account of its isolation and closed borders, North Korea is often referred to as the Hermit Kingdom-George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is the only country in the world that is not connected to the internet and where cell phones are confiscated on arrival at the border, as ours were. For years, the communist leadership clamped down on the flow of information or news from the outside world. Anyone caught attempting to leave the country can expect to
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be sent back to one of the country’s prison camps or executed. The regime knew that, if ordinary Koreans were able to travel freely or to converse with visitors, they would rapidly discover that much of their misery is inflicted by their own rulers rather than by American or South Korean aggression.
However, the Peterson Institute recently reported that around two-thirds of North Koreans are now able to access information not controlled by their Government. Free North Korea Radio believes that up to one in 10 listens to its programmes, which are broadcast to North Korea for five hours daily and can be heard on transistors dropped into the country from the air.
During our last visit to Pyongyang, we were able to see two of the small markets that have been established in the capital-the first sign of free enterprise and a market economy. Illegal technology such as VCR machines, televisions, radios and cell phones, which can pick up signals from South Korea and China, were openly on sale. The regime was recently reported to have tried to close these markets, but there was popular unrest and the markets continue to trade, giving the country’s citizens some small windows through which to peer into the outside world. However, in the BBC report by Sue Lloyd-Roberts, whom my noble friend mentioned, a government adviser, Ri Kong Song, claimed that,
“when socialism is victorious, these markets will disappear”.
I am sure that your Lordships will all agree that we should never allow our dislike of a regime or ideology to deny the need for compassion and love of ordinary people. Therefore, will the Minister tell the House what calculation the World Food Programme currently makes of the level of food and humanitarian aid available in North Korea and whether the latest embargos and sanctions will result in food being used as a weapon of war? What assessment has been made of the numbers who might die as a result? Will another casualty of the current stand-off be the stopping of video reunions, which have allowed separated families in the north and south to be in touch with each other? Surely these poignant opportunities for families, separated for so long, to have some contact should not be denied because of the increase in political tensions.
The most valuable source of information and knowledge about North Korea comes from the North Korean escapees who migrate across the border into China to buy goods and return or to begin the arduous and dangerous journey to South Korea. Sarah Page of Compass Direct recently reported that non-governmental organisations say that anything between 30,000 and 250,000 refugees from North Korea are currently living in China. Will Her Majesty’s Government do more to persuade China to accept the humanitarian case for allowing escapees to have safe passage to South Korea?
Among those escapees are political dissidents, people driven to despair by poverty and hunger and religious believers, including Christians. I was very moved by the evidence given at Westminster to our all-party parliamentary group by one Christian woman, Jeon Young-Ok, aged 40. She said:
“I was put in a camp where I saw and experienced unimaginable things … The women were forced to strip. A group of us were thrown just one blanket and we were forced to pull it from one
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another as we tried to hide our shame … I didn’t want to live. They tortured the Christians the most. They were denied food and sleep. They were forced to stick out their tongues and iron was pushed in”.
In June 2009, North Korea publicly executed Ri Hyon-Ok, who had returned to Ryongchon, a city near the Chinese border, and had Bibles in his possession. One escapee said that the regime regards,
“having faith in God as an act of espionage”.
National Geographic reported that most escapees to China, who are usually not Christians, pass on the advice to “head for a cross”, knowing that the most likely source of help will be a Chinese church. However, China still refuses to give the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees access to the border areas, so a secret underground railroad has been created by Chinese Christians-like that used by the plantation slaves of America to take them to safety. When did Her Majesty’s Government last raise with the Chinese authorities their refusal to allow this access?
Chinese officials know that anyone caught and returned to North Korea is likely to face the most terrible retribution. There are reports that on 29 May 13 North Korean refugees hiding in a safe house in Dangdong in China were arrested by Chinese border area guards. Three children aged five and six years old were released. However, 10 adults were deported to North Korea on 3 June. The group consisted of two men in their 50s or 60s and eight women in their 20s or 30s. As is well known, there is a high possibility that these defectors, trying to escape to South Korea, will be taken to a prison camp accused of “betraying the mother country”. These prison camps are internationally infamous for their death rate. Survivors have said that they would rather die than live in the camps, where prisoners are beaten and tortured, pregnant women are forced to have an abortion, and new-born infants are killed in front of their mothers. Many prisoners die because they cannot bear the malnutrition and intensive labour.
The DPRK is a state signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and should therefore abide by Article 12, which states that everyone is free to leave his own country and choose a place of residence. Will Her Majesty’s Government therefore urge the DPRK immediately to release these people, proving to the international community that it is fulfilling its international obligations?
In conclusion, I ask the Minister whether Her Majesty’s Government will consider embarking on the strategy which my noble friend and I have advocated since 2003: linking aid to human rights and security issues-a strategy which we have described and to which my noble friend has already referred as “Helsinki with a Korean face”. We can begin by holding to account, through the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court, those responsible for the deaths of South Korean sailors on the “Cheonan” and the countless victims in North Korea itself. I hope that the Minister’s reply will demonstrate Her Majesty’s Government’s commitment to justice and human rights, and that that will bring some hope to those suffering from injustice and oppression in this beleaguered land and troubled region.
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Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead: My Lords, I, too, pay tribute to the dedication and commitment that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, shows in relation to North Korea and to many other issues that we debate in your Lordships’ House.
The issues that we are discussing today certainly demand a more comprehensive, more strategic, more persistent and well co-ordinated response from the European Union, the United States and the United Nations. The door must be firmly open to negotiation and to a serious dialogue that is perceived to be flexible, pragmatic and fair.
I believe that it is time to move away from what amounts to crisis management of North Korea to what has been described as the unavoidable triangle between denuclearisation, diplomatic normalisation and human rights dialogue. Our objective must be to seek agreement to country visits by the UN special rapporteur and the High Commissioner for Human Rights. That would indeed be the progress that we seek.
A decade and a half of food aid has not resulted in food security; nor has energy assistance resulted in economic growth or sustainable development. Continuing with the same approach has meant that the nuclear problem shows no sign of going away; nor does the suffering and misery inflicted on the people of North Korea by such a vindictive and callous regime.
Therefore, can the Minister say whether the Government will press for a European Union troika and/or the high representative to visit North Korea? The last visit was in March 2009, when wide-ranging discussions took place between the EU troika and representatives of the regime in North Korea. Post Lisbon, we should be pressing for more progress and for a troika to go there as urgently as possible.
Also, the European Union should ensure that refugees who seek safety in European Union diplomatic representations should be given every assistance, including transfer to European Union states or to other chosen destinations. The United Kingdom, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium and Norway have admitted hundreds of North Koreans, and now we need to ask the Government to urge that there be a stronger European commitment to a strategy to implement that as a European Union-wide policy.
As alluded to by other noble Lords, China remains North Korea’s patron and economic lifeline. Turning a blind eye to the transgressions of such an unreliable ally has, for China, been outweighed by the fear that the regime in North Korea could collapse. The Chinese preference is for maintaining the status quo, which is a reason for the European Union and others, as a matter of course, to raise in all discussions with the Chinese our concerns about the situation in North Korea. The UN special rapporteur has described the human rights situation as both egregious and endemic. I believe we can agree with that analysis, which was made by someone who, for his six-year tenure monitoring human rights as an independent expert, has never been allowed any access to North Korea. However, he has described the effects on the people: the food shortages, the
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public executions, the torture, the arbitrary detention and much more. He has called for North Korea to stop punishing the people in that way, to stop punishing those seeking asylum elsewhere and to institute democratic processes.
Does the Minister agree that an independent, international commission of inquiry, to which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred, should be set up and should send a clear message that the international community is prepared to deal with what is occurring in North Korea? If we look at the severity of the abuses of human rights that continue with impunity-that is an important word to use-surely we should now be deducing that what is happening in North Korea amounts to crimes against humanity. We must demand accountability and justice, and we should cite the growing global consensus that perpetrators of such crimes should be held to account individually by the International Criminal Court. The victims need to know that they are not forgotten; they need to know that they are being given recognition and that they can expect justice and compensation.
I draw particular attention to the plight of North Korean women. Of those who flee to China for food, medicines and income for their families, 70 to 80 per cent are young women. Many are taken to China by traffickers, and because of their fear of repatriation they are sold to Chinese men, many of whom have no wives because of the effects of the one-child policy in China. If they are returned to North Korea and are pregnant they are forced to have an abortion. The North Korean authorities do not want half-Chinese babies. For those whose pregnancies are too far along, they are forced to witness the infanticide of their prison-born babies. They are subjected to terrible brutality and sexual humiliation.
I believe that we should focus on United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on violence against women and urge the new commissioner responsible for implementing that resolution to look very seriously at what is occurring in North Korea. In any peace and reconciliation process that is proposed, the women of North Korea, who have suffered so terribly, should be part of any initiatives undertaken between North Korea, South Korea, the United States and others.
Until and unless we do something about the challenges that we face from North Korea seriously, conscientiously and urgently, we will stand here for years to come repeating the mantras that we have repeated today about the appalling situation in that country. We have to understand that by focusing on the nuclear issue-as we rightly do-but not focusing on the human rights issue, we are in many ways putting the cart before the horse. We need to look through the paradigm of human rights. That is the only way that we can build the kind of reconciliation, peace and security which the people of North Korea so desperately need. If we do not take that audacious approach, I fear that the process that we are encouraging to bring that peace and reconciliation will continue to stutter and stall.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kinnock, has reminded
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us, is about both the security situation and human rights in North Korea. As she rightly says, the focus of the international community has been rather more often on the whole question of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the illegal trade in weaponable materials smuggled out of North Korea, but we are all also concerned about the human rights situation.
It is quite remarkable that the Government of North Korea continue to permit the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, to visit. I suppose that we should take some moderate optimism from their willingness to talk to outsiders who clearly do not share their views. We work very hard to try to open up the hermit kingdom. Her Majesty’s Government maintain an embassy in Pyongyang, as we have for 10 years. It is one of the embassies which serves the six-power talks, because neither the United States nor Japan-nor South Korea, which remains formally at war with North Korea-has representation there. That provides Britain with some limited useful opportunities to talk to people there, to influence at the margins what happens, to discover a little bit-but not enough-about what is happening outside Pyongyang and, as the noble Baroness remarked, to undertake some very limited British Council activities and a very limited aid programme. The European Union attempts to operate similarly within the very sharp confines of what any outsiders are permitted to do.
I shall report on recent developments since the tragic sinking of the South Korean naval vessel. The UN Security Council held a meeting yesterday, 14 June, with South Korean and North Korean delegations to hear their accounts of the incident. The UNSC will continue to consult members on an appropriate response. Her Majesty’s Government believe that we should work for the strongest possible response consistent with maintaining the unity of the permanent five members of the Security Council. The South Korean Government have shown remarkable restraint in their response to date, and we hope that the rhetoric is now cooling on both sides. Everyone will be aware that South Korea had formally asked the UNSC to consider a response to the sinking of the “Cheonan” on 4 June.
All of us recognise that China remains the key player in securing an appropriate UN Security Council response. China is, after all, the only outside state with direct influence over events inside North Korea. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and my honourable friend Jeremy Browne raised the question of North Korean human rights as well as other matters with Foreign Minister Yang and Vice-Minister for Europe Fu Ying respectively on 4 June.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked whether the “Cheonan” incident warranted a referral to the International Criminal Court. Her Majesty’s Government are, of course, in favour of seeing crimes against humanity investigated. However, we all have some sad awareness of the limitations of referring matters to the International Criminal Court and, in this case, South Korea has not yet asked for the International Criminal Court to investigate.
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There was a question about whether a UN commission of inquiry should be set up to investigate North Korean crimes against humanity, which raises similar issues of diplomacy as against justice. To establish a UN commission of inquiry or a referral to the International Criminal Court would require the UN Security Council unanimously to agree to that step and North Korea to recognise the jurisdiction of the ICC. Regrettably, neither of these scenarios currently looks likely. We believe that there should be no impunity for the most serious of international crimes, but the possibility of establishing a UN commission of inquiry is low, so we are left, unhappily, with our UN and EU partners to focus on activities that are more likely to produce results that will improve matters at the margin.
We are, of course, concerned with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Resolution 1874 of the UN Security Council was one of the toughest resolutions that it has accepted on sanctions against international trade. The stopping of ships outside is now very strong. We are conscious that one or two ships are still getting through, but those sanctions are biting against North Korea.
The North Korean regime’s treatment of its people is a matter of equal concern. We take every available opportunity to raise human rights abuses with the North Korean Government. We do so through our embassies in the region and the relevant embassies in London. During the UK/China human rights dialogue in March, FCO officials raised with the Chinese Government the treatment of North Korean refugees who are returned by China to North Korea. We have also expressed our active support to Japan and South Korea in their efforts to resolve the abductions carried out by North Korea in the years since the Korean War. We are active bilaterally with our partners in the EU and within the UN. We took part in the UN Universal Periodic Review of the human rights situation in North Korea in December 2009 and in March this year. We are disappointed by how little change there has been in the response from North Korea. We supported retaining the mandate of the UN special rapporteur on human rights but, as the noble Baroness remarked, he has unfortunately not yet been able to visit North Korea. Our embassy in Pyongyang tries to engage practically so far as it can. Last year, it provided assistance to a nursery, a hospital and an association for the disabled. We also invite a number of North Korean teachers of English to visit Britain each year, so we are working as far as we can.
We are unfortunately unable to discover reliable information about what is happening inside prisons in North Korea. We thus rely, as do those who have taken part in this debate, on what we are told by the very small number of people who have been through those prisons and have escaped to the outside world. We take up individual cases. Robert Park was mentioned. He has now been released. Mr Gomes is sadly still in jail. The embassy was able to provide some assistance to the two American journalists who were imprisoned last year and who have now been freed.
The European Union continues to raise human rights with the North Korean Government at every opportunity, including during the troika visit to Pyongyang
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in November last year. The EU continues to lobby for the resumption of the human rights dialogue with North Korea, which was suspended seven years ago following the decision of the EU to co-sponsor a UN resolution on the human rights situation there. The EU is fully seized of the situation in North Korea but, yet again, we have the problem of how far the North Korean Government will accept the need for an effective dialogue.
Let me say a little about food security. The noble Baroness suggested that we perhaps need an embargo strategy. We all know that food security in North Korea is of considerable concern. We are conscious that North Korea prevented external UN agencies from going in last year to get a more accurate assessment of the food situation in the country. We think that several million people are suffering from chronic malnutrition, but of course we cannot be entirely sure. We are conscious that whatever you do with food aid, you are likely to get into a highly compromised situation. If you provide a large amount of food aid, it tends to go to the elite and the military. If you cut off food, it is the poor who suffer most.
The problem with the conditional strategy suggested by the noble Baroness is that it requires a rational dialogue with a relatively rational regime. The Helsinki process worked because the Soviet Union, by the 1970s and early 1980s, was a rational partner with which one could bargain. We are not clear yet, as the North Korean regime enters a very uncertain stage of likely transition from one member of the Kim dynasty to another, that we have a rational partner with which to deal. Sadly, the same caution applies to some of the other issues raised by the noble Baroness; namely, religious liberties, separation of families and the trafficking of women.
The six-power talks therefore remain for us the key way forward. Her Majesty’s Government do not take part directly in those talks, although because we have an embassy in Pyongyang we are able to play a useful ancillary role in assisting in them. We hope that the North Korean regime may move towards a more open situation as the health of its current leader may continue to deteriorate, We recognise that on 25 June we will mark the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Korean War and we will continue to do everything that we can towards encouraging peace, stability, better human rights for all and, in time, a more open society in the northern part of the peninsula.