Almost every week parliamentary delegations arrive at Westminster: nothing unusual about that. What was unusual about the delegation which I recently hosted was that they were from North Korea, and, indeed, that North Korea is a member of the Inter Parliamentary Union – the body under whose aegis I arranged the visit.
2010 was the sixtieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, which claimed the lives of almost 3 million people – including 1,000 British servicemen: more than Afghanistan, Iraq and the Falklands combined.
I was poignantly reminded of their sacrifice by the former Labour MP and father of the House of Commons, Tam Dalyell, who, upon hearing of the visit and its aims sent me a note of encouragement, recalling that when, as a young man, he was called up for National Service he wound up in the British Army on the Rhine (BAOR) while three of his less fortunate friends went to Korea “where they perished in the mud.”
The United States and South Korea are still technically at war with North Korea. Intermittent and sometimes lethal acts of aggression – like the sinking of the South Korean corvette, The Cheonan, in March 2010, which claimed 46 lives – reminds us how shaky the 1953 armistice remains. Ten years ago Tony Blair over-ruled his Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, and created diplomatic relations with the DPRK and we have had an Ambassador in Pyongyang ever since.
In this climate – and with the ever present dread that a “Sarajevo moment” could escalate into a full blown war capable of sucking in both the US (which has 30,000 troops inn South Korea) and China , along with their respective allies – it is difficult for Governments to create opportunities for dialogue – it can too easily look like appeasement – or to embark on the sort of constructive but critical engagement which characterised the Helsinki Process of the 1980s and led to the sweeping changes in the Soviet empire. Parliamentarians are not quite so constrained and, in my view, should be doing all they can to open new lines of communication into North Korea.
Seven years ago, after raising human rights abuses in that country during a debate which I initiated in the Lords, I travelled to North Korea with Baroness (Caroline) Cox. We have been back on two other occasions and our report “Building Bridges Not Walls” may be viewed at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/40523738/Building-Bridges-Not-Walls-Final-Report
We have also organised witness sessions in Parliament to shine a light on human rights issues, humanitarian questions and security.
The recent visit by the Speaker of the DPRK Assembly, Choe Tae Bok, and four others, was accompanied by Ambassador Ja Song Nam, Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Their itinerary included meetings with our own Speakers – at which human rights were the main focus for discussion – and with the Minister of State, Jeremy Browne MP and Douglas Alexander MP, Foreign Affairs Spokesman for the Official Opposition. They met with Geoffrey (Lord) Howe, who led a discussion on “two systems one country” – recounting his experience of negotiations with Deng Xiaoping about the future on Hong Kong.
Two former Speakers of the Northern Ireland Assembly John (Lord) Alderdice and Eileen Bell joined the Minister of State, Hugo Swire MP, for a discussion about the lessons of the Northern Ireland Peace Process – especially the role of outside interlocutors and facilitators and the building of trust. Two former paramilitaries, David Hamilton and Tom Kelly, UVF and IRA men who had committed violent crimes and served prison sentences, told the North Koreans that they had separately come to the conclusion that “one day the violence would have to come to an end” and so they became involved in reconciliation and peace building work.
It was emphasised that it is a huge mistake not to resolve difficulties when there is no violence; that if you don’t deal with a difficulty when it is political, then there is a real danger that it will become violent and a whole new dynamic develops. In Northern Ireland it had proved impossible to build peace or to resolve problems without external forces becoming involved, without independent external monitoring bodies, and without creating new institutions. All of this had required patience and the process was long, complicated and expensive.
Other seminars included a discussion with Gary Streeter MP, Michael (Lord) Bates and Bruce (Lord) Grocott on the role of opposition parties and the nature of a plural democracy and a meeting with aid agencies and the Department for International Development, attended by Jim Dobbin MP, and chaired by Lady Cox, and which heard from the North Koreans about the deepening food crisis. Two million died in the 1990s famine and the failure of last year’s harvest and, according to the World Food Programme, the worst winter in sixty years has left six million people on the edge of starvation.
At a meeting for MPs and Peers, Greg Hands MP, Mark Pritchard MP, Baroness (Elizabeth) Berridge and John (Lord) Kilclooney, raised human rights questions and religious liberties. The United Nations estimate that 300,000 people languish in North Korean camps. The delegation disputed the existence of the camps but the presence of a North Korean defector at the discussion suggested otherwise.
Outside of Parliament the delegation visited Westminster Abbey where the Dean, Dr.John Hall, took them to the tomb of the unknown warrior and to Poet’s Corner. Speaker Choe has a love of Byron’s poetry and was presented with a bound copy of his works. They visited SOAS, to discuss educational exchanges; spoke at Asia House and Chatham House; and visited the cutting edge T.B. laboratories at St.Mary’s Hospital . The disease is a major killer in North Korea; and they were taken to see War Horse.
We took a Korean proverb “To Begin Is Half the Task” as the title for this visit. No-one underestimates either the nature of the regime in the DPRK or the scale of the task, but unless we are willing to begin – and to engage in constructive, critical, dialogue with them, I fear that the distance between North Korea and other nations – and hence the probability of hostility and violence – will only increase.
Asked by Lord Alton of Liverpool
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the March 2011 report of the United Nations World Food Programme on conditions in North Korea, in order to plan food aid to that country.[HL8324]
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Baroness Verma: The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is in the process of preparing a response to the joint mission report by the WFP, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the United Nations Children’s Fund. They have not launched a formal appeal for humanitarian food assistance. If such an appeal is launched, the UK Government would then consider its position in response, taking into account any response from other donors.
Asked by Lord Alton of Liverpool
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what account they and their partners have taken of (a) the reduced food provision in 2010-11 due to poor weather and funding, (b) the impact of global price rises in food and fuel in the capacity to import fuel, and (c) the recent reduction in bilateral food assistance, when planning food aid to North Korea.[HL8325]
Baroness Verma: The assessment mission carried out by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the United Nations Children’s Fund in March 2011 reported that the harvest and production of winter wheat, spring barley, potato and pickled vegetables was likely to be reduced as a result of poor weather. The report stated that higher international food and fuel prices and reduced export earnings had diminished the country’s commercial import capacity in 2010-11. It also reported that the reduction of bilateral food assistance in recent years has had a substantial impact on food and nutrition security.
The WFP is in the process of preparing a response to the mission report. If a formal appeal is launched, the UK Government would then consider its position in response, taking into account any response from other donors.
Asked by Lord Alton of Liverpool
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the government of North Korea about levels of malnutrition and food shortages there, and in particular whether they have discussed improved monitoring and reporting of food distribution in that country.[HL8326]
Baroness Verma: UK Government officials have had discussions with representatives of the Government of North Korea in London and through the British embassy in Pyongyang. We have stressed international concerns about the transparency, and in the monitoring and reporting of food distribution in the country.