Christmas is Coming – but Not to Chang Song-Thaek’s North Korea – A Christmas Reflection
The irony wasn’t lost on me or my travelling companions as our Air China plane touched down at Pyongyang airport and the cabin was filled with the usual end-of-flight piped music to calm passengers’ nerves. Usual, except that the State-owned Chinese aircraft arriving in North Korea was belting out Isaac Watts’ Christmas carol, written in 1791, and based on Psalm 98, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King.”
It’s been a very long time since Christmas was celebrated in a city which was once known as the Jerusalem of the East; a very long time since its people experienced the joy celebrated in Isaac Watts’ carol. North Korea’s leaders might reflect that, in his original manuscript, Watts not only celebrates Christ’s first coming but also wrote of His triumphant second coming – His return when He will judge and hold all to account for their deeds. Also see: https://davidalton.net/2013/05/28/building-bridges-war-cry-interviewradio-merseyside-interview-on-north-korea-and-links-to-north-korea-freedom-week/ and
I chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea and with Baroness (Caroline) Cox and Benedict Rogers of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission we were in North Korea to raise human rights issues.
We saw firsthand the artefacts of a State which cruelly and barbarously crushes its own people and in four token, hollow and, largely fake, Potemkin-style official churches, we saw the attempts to fool visitors into believing that the regime permits belief in something other than its own dynastic ideology.
The recent execution of the reform-minded Chang Song-thaek; the purges; the reign of terror; the falsifying of history; the show trials; the network of gulags which incarcerate 300,000 people; and the attempt to obliterate religious belief and all political dissent, bear all the hallmarks of a regime which has carefully studied, admires and imitates the visceral brutality of Joseph Stalin. Not for nothing are visitors shown the bullet proof railway carriage which Stalin gave as a gift to Kim Il Sung.
Chang Song-thaek’s execution was not a one-off event.
In the month preceding the execution of Chang – Kim Jong-un’s uncle – The Times reported that in seven cities on one day the regime carried out 80 public executions for the “crime” of watching South Korean television dramas or owning Bibles. The Times described the victims being tied to stakes, hooded and killed by machine gun.
Amnesty International launched a report on recent satellite images of political prison camps in North Korea. You can find it in the following link: http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/ASA24/010/2013/en/d9d754b7-8fd3-4eaf-bb6b-a533f67bb450/asa240102013en.pdf
In harrowing evidence given to my Westminster committee, Jeon Young-Ok, an escapee from one of the gulags, underlined the fate of anyone found to harbour religious beliefs: “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.”
In a State shorn of religious belief – and the voluntary out-pouring for the common good which is a characteristic of Christianity, not least in the vibrant democracy of South Korea – North Koreans suffer unbelievable hardship.
In a famine which recalls the excesses and the indifference of Stalin and Mao Zedong (who between them let over 50 million people die of famine), two million North Koreans died during the 1990s. Earlier this year, The Sunday Times reported that in two provinces, North Hwanghae and South Hwanghae, as many as 10,000 people had died of starvation and that the starving had resorted to cannibalism.
The Korean people – north and south – who have suffered so much during the course of the last century are some of the finest people in the world and they deserve much much better than this.
On December 10th we commemorated the 65th anniversary of the promulgation of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
It was crafted in the aftermath of events in Europe: comparable with those which torment North Korea today.
The Declaration speaks across generations and continents rebuking and reminding us that “disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind”. It called on political leaders to uphold the very right to life itself and to create “a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want”.
Christmas is a timely moment to consider how well we safeguard that right to belief – contained in Article 18 – and largely honoured in its breech.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom or Belief, chaired by Baroness (Elizabeth) Berridge has accurately dubbed Article 18 an “orphaned right”.
Not just orphaned, but as the Foreign Office Minister, Baroness (Sayeeda) Warsi recently warned, in large parts of the world, extinguished. In many countries she said Christians “face extinction” and that senior politicians in countries like Pakistan have a “duty” to denounce persecution and to set a standard for tolerance.
Growing restrictions on freedom of conscience range from the suffering of the Ahmadiyya Muslim communities in Pakistan and Indonesia (which also imprisons atheists) to the plight of the Baha’is in Iran and Egypt; from the Rohingyas and other Muslims in Burma to Falun Gong, Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims in China and, of course, Christians in all of these countries as well as in countries as diverse as Egypt, Syria, Nigeria, Sudan, India, Eritrea and Cuba. Every year thousands of Christians die for their faith.
This Christmas spare a thought for the continued aerial bombardment of civilian populations in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains by the Islamist Khartoum Government.https://davidalton.net/2013/12/01/house-of-lords-debate-on-sudan-genocide-and-crimes-against-humanity-in-darfur-and-south-kordofan-2/
Spare a thought for the two little girls murdered in Egypt last month as they attended a Coptic wedding – and for the Coptic communities without churches in which to celebrate the Nativity because those churches were burnt to the ground in Egypt’s Kristallnacht earlier this year. https://davidalton.net/2013/10/12/egypts-kristallnacht/
Spare a thought for the grieving families in Peshawar, still mourning the killing of 81 Anglican worshippers murdered by Taliban assassins and for the family of the Catholic, Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s Cabinet Minister, with responsibility for minorities, and whose murderers have never been brought to justice. https://davidalton.net/2012/03/02/first-anniversary-of-the-killing-of-shahbaz-bhatti-one-of-a-long-line-who-have-courageously-given-their-lives-for-their-beliefs-and-for-their-friends/
Spare a thought, too, for the 40 Nigerian students murdered by Boko Haram while asleep in their dormitory and who, in an orgy of violence, continue to terrorise Christian communities and to systematically raze churches to the ground. https://davidalton.net/2012/07/25/the-killing-of-christians-in-nigeria-proscribe-boko-haram/
Spare a thought for the terrible suffering of the people of Syria, where Christians have been targeted by the Islamist militias of al-Nusra Front and Daash – and where, in the ancient Christian settlement of Sadad, two mass graves have been discovered.
And, as we welcome the coming of the Prince of Peace, who enters the world as a child, spare a thought, and perhaps a prayer, for the children who are caught up in this terrible violence.
Whether it is the child trapped in the cross fire of a Sudanese militia; the young girl raped by a Congolese war lord; the Ugandan child murdered in a pagan ritual of child sacrifice; the child enlisted to be a child soldier or a drugs runner ; the boy or girl who is trafficked, exploited, robbed of innocence or abused; the child who each year joins the 100,000 UK runaways; or the unborn baby, like the one recently killed in Aleppo with a sniper’s bullet through his head – who had been sheltering in what should be the safest place on earth – her mother’s womb – we feel all too keenly the sixteenth century Coventry caroller’s lament, written by Robert Croo in 1534 : “Herod, the king, in his raging, Charged he hath this day His men of might, in his own sight, All young children to slay.”
It is a sobering thought that, even as those near magical and enchanted moments were being enacted in the presence of angels, shepherds and Magi around Bethlehem’s manger, Herod’s butchers were sharpening and making ready their knives.
Two thousand years may have passed but only a fool dismisses the presence of evil in our world. Only the callous can remain indifferent.
The innocent boy in the manger represents all persecuted people. His acute vulnerability must surely challenge us to take a stand against the merciless destruction of innocent life and to pit ourselves against today’s Herods and their contemporary crimes against humanity.
The Christmas narrative is an instructive story of a young man and woman caught up in a bewildering drama – who through it all remain faithful to one another and who cherish a new life. It is the story of a man who stands by a woman unexpectedly with a child that isn’t his; it’s the story of a boy born in a manger swaddled in poverty; the refugee’s story of a forced escape; the story of a tyrant with a blood lust; and it is a story lived out against the threatening drum beat of arrest, escape, vilification and persecution. It’s a story of God’s own Incarnation; a story which will end on Calvary and triumphantly in an empty tomb.
It is a mistake to let the Christmas story be muffled by the sentimentalism, rank commercialisation, and forced conviviality into which Christmas celebrations can degenerate.
It’s a moment to sing, with Isaac Watts, that this is a time to proclaim joy to the world, a moment for awe, but also a moment to confront and to hold to account those who are responsible for the depredations and egregious violations of human rights which I have described.
David Alton – Professor Lord Alton of Liverpool – has been a Crossbench Peer since 1997 and previously served for 18 years in the House of Commons. His most recent book, “Building Bridges – is there hope for North Korea?” was recently published by Lion and is available from Amazon and on Kindle.
Interviews on human rights violations in North Korea
http://www.bbc.co.uk/i/b03kl4bz/ – starts at 23:23 –BBC World At One interview about Chang Song-thaek
Forthcoming meeting which will consider human rights abuses and the situation in North Korea:
House of Lords and House of Commons – Human Rights In North Korea Raised..
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Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on North Korea following the execution of Jang Sung-taek.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr Hugo Swire): I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this issue to the House’s attention and commend her for her tireless work as vice-chair of the all-party group on North Korea.
We are deeply concerned to learn of the execution of Jang Sung-taek. It is yet another example of the horrifying and surreal brutality of the North Korean regime, which presides over what Carl Bildt, the Swedish Foreign Minister, has called an “empire of horror”. We remain deeply concerned about the impact of that unpredictable regime on regional stability.
Jang Sung-taek’s execution and the reports of executions of people associated with him reinforce our significant concerns about North Korea’s appalling human rights record, which we assess to be one of the worst, if not the worst, in the world. The United Kingdom has consistently raised concerns about the severe and systematic human rights violations carried out by the North Korean Government, including reports of executions; the lack of any sort of basic judicial process; the severe curtailment of all freedoms, including freedom of thought, movement and religion; the systematic use of torture; and the horrific stories emanating from the gulags.
The United Kingdom has been at the forefront of raising those concerns in international forums. This year we co-sponsored two human rights resolutions in the United Nations. We also supported the introduction of a UN commission of inquiry, which will report to the Human Rights Council in March 2014. In October, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office sponsored a visit to the UK by the inquiry panel. The panel heard harrowing accounts from North Korean refugees about systematic abuses of even the most basic human rights. I met the panel and confirmed the United Kingdom’s full and unequivocal support for its work. I am pleased that parliamentarians had the opportunity to meet the panel and discuss its work.
Given the opaque nature of the North Korean leadership, the implications of Jang’s execution remain unclear. Our embassy in Pyongyang reports that the situation on the ground is currently calm. We will continue to monitor the situation closely, not least during the anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s death tomorrow. We are alert to the possibility that the regime may use that as an opportunity to bolster public support for its leader.
It remains to be seen whether the execution will strengthen Kim Jong-un’s power or whether it indicates political instability and a struggle for power. We are in close contact with the United States and the Republic of Korea, and we will speak to other members of the six-party talks in the coming days.
Fiona Bruce: I thank the Minister for that reply. As he said, Jang Sung-taek’s execution was just the most high-profile of many. For some six decades, the North Korean people have suffered intolerably. People are
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incarcerated merely for their beliefs, or for speaking a few words that the leadership objects to. Children are treated as prisoners from birth, and those who try to escape the regime risk not only imprisonment or worse for themselves but punishment for up to three generations of their family. An incalculable number of North Koreans have been, and continue to be, worked to death, frozen to death, burned to death, gassed to death or tortured in the most unimaginable ways. In short, the North Korean people are the most persecuted on earth.
Just because this terrible situation has persisted for so long—over three generations—that cannot be a reason for the international community not to address it as a priority. Millions live at or near starvation while international charities say that food aid, if accompanied—and there are the means—will reach them. What more will our Government do to help them through the Department for International Development and otherwise? Food should never be used as a weapon of war.
Given that a major weapon in ending Stalin’s reign of terror was the role that this country played by broadcasting the BBC World Service and breaking the Soviet information blockade—the same has been done more recently with the Burmese information blockade—and given the Foreign Secretary’s role in setting the World Service’s strategic objectives, will the Minister consider extending the BBC World Service to the Korean peninsula?
Having read Amnesty’s recent report on the expansion of North Korean prison camps, which are incarcerating some 300,000 people, and following the recent spate of executions—including that of Jang Sung-taek—the show trials, force-fed propaganda, and an ideology that has starved 2 million to death, and bearing in mind that the UK is now home to the largest number of North Korean refugees outside South Korea, should we not do all in our power, both as a country and as a leader in the international community, to help end North Korea’s reign of terror?
Mr Swire: My hon. Friend’s almost fantastical description of North Korea is, alas, not fantastical but only too true. To call it an Orwellian nightmare would be a cliché and would not give a clear enough indication of the horrors vested on the people of that country by its leaders.
I think the United Kingdom is playing an important part. My hon. Friend will be aware that we fully support the United Nations Human Rights Council agreement to establish a commission of inquiry. That was a unanimous vote—which is unusual on such issues—and was proposed in a resolution presented by the EU and Japan, and co-sponsored by more than 40 countries. As my hon. Friend knows, that commission will look at all those issues, particularly the prison camps as well as other matters such as human rights abuses, and report back in March 2014.
My hon. Friend asked about food aid to North Korea, which is understandable given the reports emanating from that country about food shortages. There are even some alarmist reports about how people are going about eating, which, again, are too horrific to recount. The United Kingdom does not currently have a bilateral development programme in North Korea, and neither do we provide money to international organisations specifically for use in North Korea. However, some non-earmarked funds that we provide to organisations
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such as the World Food Programme may be used for humanitarian programmes in that country. Our embassy in Pyongyang uses some of its bilateral funding for small-scale humanitarian programmes such as nutrition for nursing mothers and greenhouses for children’s homes, although that remains under regular review.
My hon. Friend also asked about the ongoing issue of the BBC and broadcasting to North Korea, which I know is something that the North Korea all-party group has discussed and a matter that Lord Alton of Liverpool has been pushing hard. The BBC has been in touch with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about the issue—or vice-versa, I should say. It is primarily an issue for the BBC, which has, of course, full editorial, operational and managerial independence. We understand that it is not currently persuaded that a Korean language service would be an effective value-for-money use of available resources. Nevertheless, our embassy in Pyongyang is working with BBC Worldwide on an initiative to broadcast BBC drama, nature and science programmes on North Korean television. We believe that that has the potential to expose significant numbers of North Koreans to aspects of the outside world from which they are normally totally isolated.
Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): I thank the Minister for his response and the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for raising this issue. The House is united in its condemnation of the North Korean regime, and we share the view of the Foreign Office that this execution is another shocking illustration of the brutality of the North Korean leadership. We also echo concerns about the shocking levels of hunger and poverty in North Korea, as well as the many human rights abuses.
It seems likely that the execution was intended as a show of strength by Kim Jong-un, and to the wider world it has also been taken as an indication of his insecurity and volatility. It comes after a year that has seen an even more provocative and unpredictable stance from Pyongyang, including nuclear threats to the USA, and the declaration of a state of war with South Korea. Recent satellite images published by Amnesty International indicate that the largest prison camps are continuing to expand. The international community responded calmly and—crucially—with a united front to attempts to escalate tensions earlier this year, and it is important that that consensus continues.
Given that an urgent question has been granted today, the House must turn its attention to what can be done in the immediate future to try to address the situation. Have the Government made any assessment of the possible implications of the execution for the North Korean leadership and the wider region? The Minister mentioned that discussions have already taken place with the USA and the Republic of Korea, but have any conversations been held yet with Chinese officials, or will that happen in the near future? It has been reported that Jang Sung-taek had been building trade links with China, prompting some speculation about a change in economic policy. What is the Minister’s assessment of such reports, and of the nature of North Korea’s current relationship with China? I was in the Republic of Korea earlier this year, and my understanding is that the relationship is under some strain. Was North Korea discussed during the Prime Minister’s recent visit to China?
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More generally, can the Minister elaborate on what influence he thinks China can potentially exercise? Given that both the United Kingdom and China were recently elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council, what action does he think the council can take, and, most crucially, what prospect does he envisage of any response at all from North Korea? As he said, the UN commission of inquiry on human rights in North Korea is due to report in March. Will he tell us what recommendations the Government would like it to make?
Given the unanimous support for UN security resolutions, which has already been mentioned, will the Minister be taking the matter up with the UN Security Council, and what does he think could be achieved by his doing so?
Mr Swire: I thank the hon. Lady for the spirit of consensus in which she framed her questions. We are clearly very much on the same page.
The hon. Lady made an assertion about the implications of, or the reasons for, the execution. I must pause to think about that. There is a total lack of clarity in regard to what the execution was about, and an equal lack of clarity in regard to the implications for what will happen next. I have read a number of reports this morning, and each of them is speculative. So the answer is “We do not know.” Whether we will ever know is also a legitimate question, but as things stand, we simply do not know.
The hon. Lady asked whether the Prime Minister had raised the matter in China during our recent visit. The answer is yes, and, as she would imagine, it was also raised during the visit of President Park of the republic of South Korea during her recent state visit. She asked what more China could do. China has a 900-mile border with North Korea, it has a very real and present interest in North Korea, and we believe that it has a key role to play in the country’s future. She also asked what kind of relationship the current North Korean regime had with China. Again, we simply do not know, because we do not understand the thinking behind the leadership as it stands.
The hon. Lady asked what the British Government would like from the commission of inquiry. The commission will report to the United Nations in March 2014, and, as she will understand, it would be inappropriate for us to comment on the recommendations before we have seen the full report. I believe that the unanimity shown by the United Nations Human Rights Council and its reporting will be extremely important in respect of what we do next. We would like the six-party talks to resume as soon as possible, but at this stage I cannot envisage their resuming until we see some sort of gesture of good will from the regime in Pyongyang. Such a gesture would be more than welcome; at present, as the hon. Lady and the House will know, such a gesture is very much absent.
Several hon. Members rose—
Mr Speaker: Order. A great many right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. I must emphasise that the Second Reading debate on the Care Bill, which is to follow, is very heavily subscribed. We are therefore somewhat time-constrained, which renders pithiness from Back and Front Benches alike imperative.
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Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): Given that the United Kingdom remains a member of the armistice commission which was established at the end of the Korean war, can my right hon. Friend give an unequivocal assurance that, in the event of further military provocations from the north and a military response from the south, the United Kingdom Government will use their position as a member of the commission to do their utmost to ensure that military action by both sides does not escalate out of control?
Mr Swire: My right hon. Friend talks about a military response. We are doing everything in our power to avoid any regional instability or military response by any side in the region. There are several worrying areas in that part of the world, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is contributing to the general instability. We work closely with our partners in the six-party talks and liaise closely with both the Republic of Korea and our American allies, and we shall continue to do that.
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Will the Minister have slightly more robust conversations with the BBC, encourage it to look at the issue of transmitters into North Korea and point out to it that BBC documentaries and drama, however entertaining they may be, are not really the answer? What is needed is the World Service and access.
Mr Swire: The hon. Lady will no doubt be aware that we have these discussions with the BBC. As I say, my noble Friend Lord Alton of Liverpool has been leading on this, and the BBC has taken a view and is communicating it to him. There are reasons to do it and there are reasons not to do it, but at the end of the day, the BBC has the independence to decide where and to whom to broadcast.
Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): I share the expressions of distaste, even disgust, that we have heard, but I wonder if I might be forgiven for saying that we have to keep some sense of realism. Is not the truth that for the foreseeable future the best we can hope for is to pursue successfully a policy of containment and deterrence?
Mr Swire: My right hon. and learned Friend, who speaks with considerable wisdom, is entirely right. Yes, containment is important, but equally we want the DPRK to halt its programme to develop nuclear capability in violation of every known international agreement. That is what this is about. We do not want North Korea to become a nuclear state. We cannot act unilaterally to prevent it, but we can act together with our partners in the six-party talks.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I share the Minister’s horror at the execution last week and I condemn the death penalty in any circumstances anywhere, but it has served to highlight the abuse of human rights throughout North Korea. Have the six-party talks at any stage included a discussion about human rights? When they are resumed, will he ensure that human rights are brought into the equation?
Mr Swire: It is almost impossible to conceive any discussion involving the abuses of the regime in Pyongyang not including its horrific abuse of human rights—as I said in my opening remarks, perhaps currently the worst of any regime anywhere in the world.
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Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way to start breaking down barriers in North Korea is through contact with the outside world? Will he use his position therefore to encourage contacts with South Korea in Kaesong? Furthermore, will he encourage the BBC to consider broadcasting into North Korea—it would be not a cost-effective, but a diplomatic decision—and encourage maximum contact with China through trade?
Mr Swire: Yes to the last point. I have just accompanied the Prime Minister to China on the largest ever prime ministerial-led trade delegation anywhere—it included more than 150 companies—so UK-Chinese bilateral trade is incredibly important. I believe that I have addressed the BBC issue. On my hon. Friend’s other point, I would say: that is why we have an embassy in Pyongyang. Some people say, “If you can’t penetrate the mind of the regime, why have an embassy in Pyongyang?” He has answered that question: a chink of light is better than no light at all. That we have a diplomatic presence in North Korea is welcomed by Seoul and Washington, with whom we work closely on these matters. It is important that whenever we see a chink of light, we try to widen it to expose to the people of North Korea that there is a better world out there. I do not believe that the regime can keep them downtrodden forever.
Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Minister lay out his thinking about the parallel process of the six-party talks and the other avenues the Foreign Office is pursuing in trying to resolve this issue?
Mr Swire: The correct place to resume negotiations is through the six-party talks. That is key. It brings in all the interested parties in the region and, obviously, the United States. Without those talks, I do not believe that sufficient progress could be made, and as I said earlier I do not think it is possible for those talks to resume without a gesture from the North Koreans, but obviously that gesture is sadly lacking.
Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): Given that we already send food aid to some pretty unpalatable regimes around the world, could we ask the Department for International Development to look again at the issue of North Korea?
Mr Swire: I have already said that the situation is currently under review, and I will certainly raise it again with colleagues in DFID. I think there are reasons why we do not give food aid to North Korea, not least because of the great difficulty of ensuring that it ended up in the right place. I will make a commitment to my hon. Friend, who takes a keen interest in these matters—and rightly so—that I will speak to my DFID colleagues on the issue he raised and I will get back to him.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): It is difficult to envisage any people anywhere in the world who would not benefit more greatly from the BBC World Service than the people of North Korea. The Minister said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) that there were reasons why the BBC had decided not to broadcast into North Korea. Will he now share those reasons with us?
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Mr Swire: The BBC takes a view about where its resources are best employed and about how people can best access its broadcasting abilities. At the end of the day, whatever representations we make to the BBC, it quite properly makes the final decision on where it wants to broadcast. That is how the BBC is enshrined in charter, and it is how it should remain.
Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Do not recent events in North Korea demonstrate the need for a clear, continuous and candid dialogue between the Foreign Office and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Prime Minister’s recent visit to China was extremely welcome in thickening and deepening the UK’s relations with that country?
Mr Swire: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was encouraged by the levels of access that the Prime Minister and his ministerial team were granted by the Chinese authorities. Political and diplomatic relations are now good, while bilateral trade is, of course, extremely good and inward investment is good. It is critical, as my right hon. Friend says, that China continues to play a lead role in trying to resolve what has been for many decades now an impenetrable problem of this rogue despotic regime in North Korea, treading on the lives of its people. This cannot go on indefinitely. It is up to all of us in the international community not only to prevent some of the regional instabilities created by this situation, but to do something for the people who are living there in the most horrific circumstances.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): About 20% of North Korea’s Christians are in jail. What discussions did the Prime Minister have on his recent economic visit to China about leaning on North Korea in order to gain a relaxation or easement of the persecution of Christians?
Mr Swire: The hon. Gentleman, who always speak up for Christians, is right. Alas, it is not only the Christian community in North Korea that is so downtrodden. We raised our general concerns about this issue and human rights in North Korea with officials from the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs most recently in November 2013. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman, however, that making significant progress on human rights and the protection of minorities such as Christians is difficult, because the North Korean Government refuse to enter into meaningful discussions on these matters.
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Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): What assessment does my right hon. Friend make of reports of widespread public indoctrination sessions occurring in North Korea? Does that not reinforce the point that greater outside influence must be brought to bear if we are to see change in this despicable regime and change for the people of North Korea?
Mr Swire: My hon. Friend will no doubt wish to discuss that at the meeting of the Conservative group on North Korea that I believe is taking place tomorrow. He mentions indoctrination, and I have to say that the levels of indoctrination that go on there are almost surreal—incomparable to any other regime or country in the world. It is truly horrific, with almost every aspect of the Korean people’s lives being the result of indoctrination. That is why, as I said, we maintain an embassy because any chink of light is better than no light at all, but it is a long haul and it is difficult work.
Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): The Minister will be aware that many North Koreans in touch with families in South Korea have reported not only that the number of indoctrination sessions has increased, but that targeted individuals are being forced to write letters of loyalty to the leader, Kim Jong-un. Does that not suggest that Jang’s execution is part of a wider campaign to consolidate power as the economy continues to fail?
Mr Swire: There are indeed reports that Jang has taken the blame for the desperate state of the economy, and there are also reports that this is the work of the military and not of the leader, but all these are just that: reports. We could indulge ourselves all afternoon by speculating about the reasons behind this. The answer is we do not know. The one fact of which we are certain is that the people of North Korea are suffering in a way that some of us can only guess at, and some of us would not wish that treatment to be vested on even our worst enemies.
Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): To what extent is North Korea sharing nuclear weapons technology with Iran?
Mr Swire: We remain extremely concerned about proliferation of any sort. There has been evidence in the past of trade between North Korea and Iran which is why it is so vital that everybody adheres to the sanctions regime that is currently imposed.
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United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Asked by Lord Avebury
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what was the outcome of their discussions with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, during her visit to the United Kingdom on 6 November.
The Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Warsi) (Con): My Lords, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary met Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, during her visit to London on 6 November. The High Commissioner discussed with the Foreign Secretary a range of human rights issues including Syria, Burma, Sri Lanka and Iran, and our preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative.
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Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB): My Lords, given that the visit of Navi Pillay took place just a few days after the United Nations Commission of Inquiry was here at Westminster taking evidence about the egregious violations of human rights in North Korea, and given the events of last week with the execution of Chang Song-thaek and the Amnesty International report which shows the expansion of political prison camps as part of the gulag system that incarcerates more than 300,000 people, can the Minister say whether Navi Pillay spoke to Ministers about the situation in North Korea and whether this was one of the issues we had on the agenda for that meeting?
Baroness Warsi: She did discuss that matter with the Foreign Secretary and it was one of the issues on the agenda. The noble Lord may be aware that an Urgent Question has now been granted for Wednesday specifically on North Korea. I look to the Lord Speaker to confirm that but, if that is the case, I can, I hope, answer that question in much more detail on Wednesday
On December 18th 2013, at a meeting hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, the report “An Unmet Need – BBC World Service Korea” was launched.
The report is now available at the following link: http://www.eahrnk.org/reports/
Later in the day the issue was raised in the House of Lords and in several written questions.
Subject: Questions Tabled On December 18th
Question – Wednesday December 18th 2013
Lord Alton of Liverpool
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the impact of events in North Korea on security and human rights.
The Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Warsi) (Con):
My Lords, North Korea continues to have one of the worst human rights records in the world. The recent execution of Chang Song-thaek provides further evidence of its disregard for even the most basic human rights. We are closely monitoring the situation, and we are consulting allies in order to understand the implications of recent events.
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB):
My Lords, is the Minister aware that even before last week’s execution of Chang Song-thaek, the Times reported that there had been 80 public executions in seven cities on one day alone, the victims tied to stakes, hooded and killed by machine-gun fire? The United Nations estimates that there are some 300,000 people in the gulag network in North Korea—a network which, according to Amnesty International, is being expanded. Will the Minister read the report An Unmet Need, launched this morning at Westminster, which calls for the extension of BBC World Service broadcasts to North Korea as a way of breaking the information blockade – of exercising soft power—as we have done so successfully in places such as Burma—of promoting democratic values and of challenging a regime that relies on Stalinist purges, show trials, the obliteration of opposition and a cruel reign of terror?
I will of course read that report, and will ensure that it is brought to the attention of the Minister with responsibility for North Korea. I understand the noble Lord’s position in relation to the BBC; indeed, he has asked questions on this subject in the past. I also understand that the BBC has recently conducted a feasibility study of, for example, radio broadcasting in North Korea, but has concluded that because of the North Korean Government’s ability to jam broadcasts, the reach that would result from such broadcasting would not provide sufficient value for money. The noble Lord will know that the BBC has full editorial, operational and managerial independence on such issues, and we understand that it is not currently persuaded that a Korean language service would be an effective use of its funds. However, I will look at the report.
Lord Bach (Lab):
My Lords, the whole House is of course united in its condemnation of recent shocking events. The Opposition are at one with Her Majesty’s Government in their concern about the impact of this unpredictable regime on regional stability. Given China’s important role, both now and in the future, did the Prime Minister discuss North Korea with his Chinese hosts during his recent visit? In any event, is it the Government’s intention to have some discussion now, as a matter of some urgency?
The noble Lord may well be aware that Chang Song-thaek was closely involved with China. At the time of the execution, China issued a statement but said that it was an internal matter for North Korea to deal with. The noble Lord is right that this is an incredibly unpredictable regime. We engage with human rights in North Korea in so far as we can, but he will also be aware that North Korea has refused to engage in any form of meaningful dialogue on human rights.
Lord Alderdice (LD):
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, has regularly and rightly brought our attention to this matter in terms of the internal implications within North Korea. However, I think that the situation is now coming to the point where the whole Korean peninsula is at risk and there are wider elements. Did the Prime Minister in his engagement with the Chinese raise this wider question of whether the problems within North Korea are now in danger of spilling into the wider peninsula and perhaps even beyond?
My noble friend will be aware that there are six-party talks which deal with the issue of the wider peninsula, which involve China, South Korea, Japan, Russia, the US and North Korea. We are not a party to those talks but we feel that that is the best forum to take some of these discussions forward.
Baroness Cox (CB):
My Lords, what specific measures are Her Majesty’s Government taking to pursue a twin-track approach with the DPRK regarding accountability for crimes against humanity, which we have been hearing about this morning, alongside robust, critical, constructive engagement, in an attempt to open up that most closed nation and alleviate the suffering of the peoples of North Korea who have suffered at the hands of that regime, which acts with impunity, for so long?
We are taking exactly that approach. The noble Baroness will be aware of the UN commission of inquiry, which we co-sponsored, which began in March this year and I think is due to report to the Human Rights Council session in March 2014. Human rights, including the issue of prison camps, will be dealt with as part of that report. We also engage with North Korea bilaterally. As I said earlier, North Korea does not engage in any form of meaningful dialogue on human rights, but it must be remembered that we are only one of 24 countries that have an embassy in North Korea. We have had a diplomatic relationship with it for the past 30 years, which provides us with some opportunity to engage with it.
Lord Kinnock (Lab):
My Lords, for clarification, did the Prime Minister raise the issue of North Korea at all in the course of his lengthy conversations with senior members of the regime in the People’s Republic of China during his recent visit?
I do not have details of that in my brief, but if I have any further information I will certainly write to the noble Lord.
As we approach the end of Questions, I take this opportunity to wish all noble Lords a very merry Christmas and a peaceful new year.
Lord Alton of Liverpool to ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will ensure that schools offering the study of the Korean language have the opportunity of GCSE examinations made available to their students. HL4285
Lord Alton of Liverpool to ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the new licensing arrangements for the BBC World Service require consultation with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office over the services which will be provided. HL4286
Lord Alton of Liverpool to ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the current BBC World Service mandate to “address the enduring global gap in the provision of trusted international news” in countries where access to trusted news is not possible will remain part of its mandate from April 2014; and whether they consider that the requirement is being met on the Korean Peninsula. HL4287
Lord Alton of Liverpool to ask Her Majesty’s Government how they reconcile the remark by Hugo Swire MP, Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, on 16 December (HC Deb, col 479) that the British Embassy in Pyongyang “is working with BBC Worldwide on an initiative to broadcast BBC drama, nature and science programmes on North Korean television” with the remark by Baroness Warsi on 21 January that BBC broadcasts to North Korea are “a matter for the BBC”; and why it is desirable to broadcast drama programmes but not news or documentaries promoting human rights or democracy. HL4288
Lord Alton of Liverpool to ask Her Majesty’s Government when they last summoned the North Korean Ambassador to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to discuss the use of capital punishment in that country against those who have fallen out of favour with the regime, and its use of public executions. HL4289
Lord Alton of Liverpool to ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they made about human rights cases and issues to the United Nations Commission of Inquiry into crimes against humanity in North Korea during the recent visit of the Commissioners to London; whether they discussed the application in that country of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and whether they discussed the status of those held in that country’s network of prison camps. HL4290
Some remarks made in the House of Commons by Mrs.Fiona Bruce MP, Vice Chairman of the APPG said:
I must don the hat that I wear as vice-chair of the North Korea all-party parliamentary group to speak about BBC World Service broadcasting into that country-—or rather, again, the lack of it. I think that we would all accept the importance of the BBC’s role as a key instrument of soft power in promoting universal values—human rights, the rule of law and democracy—and would accept that, at its best, the BBC World Service is a beacon of hope and a voice of freedom for the oppressed throughout the world. Broadcasting into North Korea would enable the people there who are victims of the most egregious and repressive regime in the world to know that they are not forgotten.
I hope that Members will forgive me if I remind them for a moment of the atrocities that occur in North Korea, and of why it is so important for us to shatter the wall of communication isolation that has afflicted the North Korean people for well over three generations. There are beginning to be cracks in that wall, largely owing to the advancement of technology. I think it important for the BBC to be at the forefront of that, rather than lagging behind.
Only last week our media reported that humans were being used as guinea pigs in North Korea, and that whole families were being placed in what were effectively glass boxes so that chemical weapons could be tested. That is cruelty beyond imagination, but it is just one example of what is happening in that country. People are being steamrollered to death, children are being starved to death, and thousands more are wandering the streets without parents. The children of prisoners are being treated as prisoners from birth. Hundreds of thousands are being held in gulags, many simply because of their beliefs or for making a cursory statement against the regime. Many are literally worked to death in prison factories, sleeping at their machines. A vast number of people are starving. Aid is being misappropriated at borders, never reaching those for whom it is intended. Those who succeed in escaping—which is rare—may lose their lives in the process, and three generations of their families may be threatened with imprisonment, perhaps for life. In short, they are the most persecuted people on earth.
Surely we should use our soft power through the BBC World Service to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law, and to develop this nation into one that we would see as habitable for human beings, not the nation we know of today. The cost of that would be a fraction of the £100 million lost from the BBC through the digital media initiative, not to mention the high celebrity salaries and executive pay-offs.
The all-party group held a meeting some months ago with Peter Horrocks, director of global news, including the World Service, and he kindly agreed to look into this suggestion. I contacted the Foreign and Commonwealth Office some time later and received a letter in response in March 2013 from the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr Swire). He confirmed that Mr Horrocks had “agreed to look into the suggestions that the group made in more detail. I understand that this work is ongoing. The BBC has committed to updating the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the APPG once this work has been completed. I do not want to prejudice that update and look forward to hearing more from Mr Horrocks on this in due course.”
I should be grateful if the Minister present today updated the all-party group on that.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of State also indicated that Mr Horrocks had said “that the BBC Worldwide are currently exploring the possibility of offering BBC cultural television programmes to the North Korean state broadcaster.”
I should be grateful for an update on that, too.
We know how effective the British Council has been in North Korea in its teaching of English over very many years. I believe it has now taught English to almost 4,000 North Koreans. It has had access into North Korea, which has made a huge difference. I have spoken to several escapees and refugees who learned some of their English as a result of the work of the British Council. That and the BBC World Service are excellent examples of the use of soft power, which the UK is so good at.
We should remember that the Foreign Secretary retains his role in setting the strategic objectives of the BBC World Service. He still has oversight, and post-2014, will retain his current role of agreeing objectives, priorities and targets. I hope he will look favourably on the extension of broadcasting into North Korea and I ask the Minister to refer that point to him for a response.
I close by reminding the House of the respect in which the BBC World Service is held across the globe for the quality of its reporting. I share that respect; it is a service that I listen to frequently when I sometimes find I am unable to access the kind of slumber I would wish after a long day in this House. The quality of the BBC World Service never fails to impress me, and the public agree. The Chatham House-YouGov 2012 survey on British attitudes towards the UK’s international priorities asked people the following question:
“Which of the following do you think do most to serve Britain’s national interests around the world?”
They ranked the BBC World Service radio and TV broadcasting second only to the armed forces, with an overwhelming 68% of opinion-formers believing the BBC World Service is the UK’s most important foreign policy asset.
Let us use that asset to promote a safer world and address some of the most egregious human rights atrocities on earth today. That would be in the interests of not only North Koreans, but us all.
A Christmas Reflection…