North Korea


24 Feb 2009 : Column 175

Extracts from Short Debate

7.55 pm

Tabled By Baroness Cox

    To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the persecution of religious believers in contravention of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Baroness Cox: My Lords, 60 years after the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, millions of people around the world still suffer because of their beliefs and the expression of those beliefs. Article 18 is often half-heartedly supported by national Governments, and, at the United Nations, it is one of the least-developed freedoms in terms of international human rights mechanisms, and is currently being contested through anti-defamation resolutions……..

…..In North Korea, given the obligatory personality cult of the political leadership, there has been harsh repression of religion. Buddhist temples and other places of worship have been eliminated and defectors testify to public executions of Christians and their harsh treatment in prison camps, where many perish. Three weeks ago, my noble friend Lord Alton and I visited North Korea. We concluded that it is better to build bridges than walls and recommended, inter alia, that the time has come for the United States to normalise relations with North Korea. We welcomed educational exchanges with Britain. However, we also emphasised concerns over human rights violations, including religious persecution.

We visited the Roman Catholic church in Pyongyang and expressed our concern that there is still no Catholic priest in North Korea. We were slightly more encouraged by the beautiful new Russian Orthodox cathedral, with two priests who had studied in Moscow. We were pleased to see that the Protestant church at Bongsu has been enlarged since I worshipped there five years ago and that there is now a seminary with 10 students, which has academic links to Kim Il-sung University and the Academy of Social Sciences, allowing academic exchange between secular and theological institutions.

8.34 pm

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, as my noble friend Lady Cox mentioned in her opening speech, three weeks ago we travelled together to North Korea. I declare a non-pecuniary interest as chairman of the All-Party British-North Korea Parliamentary Group. In supporting the many specific points that she has made today, especially the desirability of the appointment of a special envoy with a mandate to uphold the right to freedom of belief enshrined in Article 18 of the UN declaration of human rights, I want to use my time today to reinforce her observations about North Korea.

Five years ago, after our first visit, my noble friend and I established the all-party group. Since then we have held numerous witness sessions, where we have heard first-hand accounts from escapees. We initiated what we described as a process of constructive critical engagement, and argued that the six-party talks aimed at resolving security questions also needed simultaneously to engage North Korea on human rights and humanitarian issues. It is a country where, the UN special rapporteur, Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, estimates, 400,000 people have been killed by the regime and 200,000 people are currently detained in prison camps, many because of their religious beliefs.

Critical engagement in confronting human rights abuses was the approach used in eastern Europe after the passing of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975. That led, in turn, to the creation of Andrei Sakharov’s Moscow Helsinki Group. Anatoly Dobrynin said:

“The Helsinki Accords gradually became a manifesto of the dissident and liberal movement … people who lived under these systems—at least the more courageous—could claim official permission to say what they thought”.

In the report of our most recent visit, Carpe Diem—Seizing the Moment for Change in North Korea, which will be published on Thursday and a copy of which I will place in the Library, my noble friend and I argue that we now need “Helsinki with a Korean face” and that there is an historic opportunity to end the technical state of war that still exists between North Korea and the United States. That, in turn, could usher in an era of more fundamental change, especially the promotion of religious and political freedom.

Our visit was timely because there has been a recent deterioration in relations between South Korea and North Korea. The north has been threatening to launch a new Taepodong-2 missile, which is said to have the ability to reach the coast of the United States. Some analysts believe that the north might do this to assess the resolve of President Barack Obama. There are, perhaps, echoes here of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which tested another new American president, John F. Kennedy.

Although Hillary Clinton did not go to North Korea last week, America’s new Secretary of State visited the region to assess the situation for herself. In advance of Mrs Clinton’s regional sweep, North Korea’s ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong Nam—whom my noble friend and I met when we first visited North Korea five years ago—said that North Korea is ready to,

    “develop relations with countries that are friendly toward us”.

This view was confirmed to us throughout our visit by senior officials in the DPRK. The American State Department would do well to recognise the significance of these remarks. A decade ago Her Majesty’s Government established a diplomatic mission in Pyongyang. I pay particular tribute to our ambassador Peter Hughes and his admirable staff, who do a magnificent job. It is time for the Americans to do the same. William Perry, a former US Secretary of State for Defence, said in 2003:

“We should never negotiate from fear, but we should never fear to negotiate”.

I first became interested in North Korea after I met Yoo Sang-joon, a North Korean Christian who had escaped from the DPRK and whom I met here at Westminster. His story was harrowing and disturbing. He described how he had seen his wife and all but one of his children shot dead by Kim Jong-Il’s militia. He subsequently escaped across the border to China with his one remaining son. The boy died en route. Yoo Sang-joon became an Asian Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Yoo Sang-joon bravely re-entered North Korea and helped many people to flee across the border. This led to his arrest in China in 2007. As a result of international pressure, the Chinese, I am glad to say, agreed to repatriate him to Seoul, rather than to the north where he would have been executed.

I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether we raised the continued repatriation of North Koreans in the recent UK-Chinese dialogue on human rights. If we continue to repatriate, we should be clear about the consequences for those who are returned to North Korea. Among the witnesses who have given evidence at our sessions in the Moses Room over the last few years was Jeon Young-Ok, who was 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 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 into it”.

During our visit to North Korea, my noble friend and I continually raised the case of 26-year-old Shin Dong-Hyok, who spent the first 23 years of his life in North Korea’s political prison camp 14, where he was born. In his Moses Room evidence, he described how he saw his mother and brother executed, and was himself tortured. Twelve days ago, I felt privileged to share a platform with him at South Korea’s National Assembly. Cases such as these should be raised at every opportunity and should not be eclipsed by security issues.

Although, as my noble friend has said, we saw some glimmers of hope during our visit, there is still a long way to travel in permitting freedom of expression, belief and worship. What does North Korea lose as a consequence? By denying pastoral access to the Catholic Church—no priest has been allowed in for 55 years—the DPRK is preventing the Korean Church from providing help, development investment, and support for the poor and needy, which has led to phenomenal social provision in the South. Religious freedom leads to voluntary social endeavour on a huge scale. But, of course, dictatorships tend to be fearful of those institutions that they cannot control.

Last week, Korean Catholics were mourning the death of their first cardinal, Stephen Kim Sou-hwan. During the 1970s and 1980s, when South Korea was a military dictatorship, Cardinal Kim became known as an outspoken defender of human rights. He literally refused to allow troops to seize pro-democracy students sheltering in his Myeongdong Cathedral in Seoul. Former President Kim Dae-jung, a holder of the Nobel Peace Prize, said that Kim’s had been a voice in the wilderness,

    “for our people groaning under dictatorship”.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who is a South Korean national, called him,

    “the conscience of an era”.

The Korean Church has been steeped in suffering. Pope John Paul II described it as,

    “a community unique in the history of the Church”.

It is unique because the Korean Church was not founded by missionaries. In the eighteenth century, some young Korean intellectuals encountered Christianity in China and brought their faith back to Korea. As the church was planted, between 8,000 and 10,000 martyrs died, so Korean Christians are no strangers to suffering. This story is brilliantly documented by the former Anglican Bishop of Korea, Canon Richard Rutt, in his Catholic Truth Society pamphlet The Martyrs of Korea.

Cardinal Nicholas Cheong, who now leads the Korean Church, told me during talks in Seoul that he remains ready and willing to devote resources and personnel to help the north. I hope that, as a harbinger of the reunification of the Korean peninsula, which must surely come, we will see the silent dioceses of the north given voices once more. What better signal could the north give to the world that it wants peace, security and a prosperous future? It would also be a significant move in the direction of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of belief for all.

As always, all of us in this House remain indebted to my noble friend for giving us the opportunity to debate these issues today.

24 Feb 2009 : Column 188

8.59 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, let me join those of your Lordships who have spoken this evening in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, not just for bringing this subject before us, but for her lifetime commitment as an advocate of these issues—and a frequent traveller of astonishing proportions in directly

24 Feb 2009 : Column 192

going to bear personal witness to issues of religious discrimination and the oppression of religious freedom around the world. In doing that, she is very much part of a British tradition with that great concern for religious freedom that has, for many centuries, preoccupied us as a country here and abroad………

….As regards the DPRK, North Korea, there is no freedom of religion. While I am delighted to hear perhaps the first green shoot—a term that a politician uses carefully—of some freedom, when it comes to the orthodox church, our view remains that those churches are primarily limited showcases for outsiders and that nothing close to freedom of religion is operating across the country as a whole. We will work closely with NGOs, including Christian NGOs, in the run-up to the Human Rights Council review of the DPRK this year.

Let me say to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that we perhaps do not lobby as specifically on religious persecution as we should. Our main concerns have been the use of labour camps, torture, the absence of any freedom of speech and certainly the absence of any right to organise or to come together as groups of any kind in North Korea. I acknowledge that the 2008 EU-sponsored UN General Assembly resolution on human rights specifically mentioned freedom of religion. Recently, we lobbied on human rights more generally when the director of our Asia-specific department met a delegation here of the Workers’ Party of Korea. We raised religious freedoms during the visit of that delegation. On China and returnees to North Korea, we are as concerned as the noble Lord about the status of North Korean border crossers to China. We raised that issue most recently at the UK-China human rights dialogue in January of this year.