Thursday 22 June 2006
[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (Human Rights)
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Tony Cunningham.]
I should declare an interest. Mr. Benton, you employ my wife and, for the purpose of today’s debate, you are employing me. This is the first occasion in 18 years that this has happened. We have been forced apart all that time.
The United Kingdom’s dealings with North Korea are constrained by three key concerns to which I shall come in a minute. I will give a full update on the current position and on what I have been doing since I took over the portfolio. I assume that Opposition Members will then speak, after which I shall answer specific questions. At the end of the debate, I hope to have clarified what has been happening as well as my intention to make my role as effective as I possibly can to improve the situation in the country.
The three key concerns to which I referred are the threat to the security of the region posed by North Korea’s illicit nuclear weapons programme, the potential for proliferation both of nuclear weapons material and technology and missile technology, and the North Korean human rights situation, which ranks among the worst in the world.
I deeply regret that the North Korean Government have so far declined to give the world some reassurance about their intentions regarding missiles. In the current climate, to conduct a test of a long-range missile would be bound to raise tensions in the region. I hope that the North Korean Government will step back from such a provocative move and preserve the moratorium that they have honoured since 1999. The human rights and weapons issues are interlinked. The North Korean Government have made it clear that they regard respect for human rights as a risk to their national security. That, in turn, in North Korean eyes, seems to revolve around the possession of what they describe as a nuclear deterrent and the means to deliver it.
I am pleased that we have the opportunity today to discuss such concerns and commend the continued interest shown by members of the all-party parliamentary group on North Korea, which has promoted the debate. Hard information on North Korea’s human rights is difficult to come by. Human rights organisations, including the United Nations, are denied access. Nevertheless, often through the bravery of individual North Koreans risking their lives and those of their families, a picture of serious and widespread abuse has emerged over the years.
Torture and the death penalty are in regular use. There are horrifying reports of inhumane treatment, including forced abortions and infanticide. Religious persecution appears systemic. Arbitrary detention and forced labour in prison camps is common. A so-called offender may find that three generations of his or her family suffer the same fate for the alleged offence. North Korea’s penal code allows the death penalty for ill-defined crimes, such as counter-revolutionary activity. The judiciary has no independence and the legal system has no transparency.
We have seen a recent much-publicised example in Mr. Son Jong Nam, who was charged with alleged treason. The United Kingdom and its European Union partners have been pressing the North Korean Government to halt the scheduled execution of a man whose crime appears to have been to have met his brother outside North Korea. The country has ratified four of the major United Nations human rights conventions—the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights, the international covenant on civil and political rights, the convention on the rights of the child and the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. However, North Korea has yet to make any commitment in respect of slavery, trafficking in humans, refugees and migration. Although it has signed those covenants, there is no evidence of its respecting the concept and principles contained in them.
North Korean refugees impact heavily on the surrounding region. Large numbers seek refuge in China from destitution or persecution in North Korea. Estimates vary, but there may be up to 100,000 North Koreans in China’s border provinces at any one time. They risk arrest by the Chinese authorities and forcible repatriation to North Korea, where punishment for leaving without permission may include the death penalty. We regularly urge China to allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees access to the border region and to observe its obligations under the 1951 Refugee convention. South Korea, on the other hand, is ready to accept North Korean refugees. Approximately 8,000 have settled there. The numbers have increased in recent years. The North Koreans have found their way to other countries in the region, including Thailand, Burma, Mongolia, Laos and Vietnam.
The United Kingdom and the international community continue to press the North Koreans to co-operate with the United Nations and allow international monitors, human rights organisations and experts to investigate many allegations. The North Korean response has been to claim that the reports are fabricated by the west to provide us with a stick with which to beat them.
I wish to set it on record that our interest is to see improvement in human rights in North Korea. We have no hidden agenda. We believe that our concerns can be resolved. The North Korean Government simply need to seek co-operation with the international community rather than confrontation.
We have maintained an embassy in the country since 2001. Our staff are working in difficult conditions. We have been able to raise our concerns with North Korean authorities at a senior level. It took some time to persuade North Korea of the need to engage in human rights at a ministerial level.
In September 2004, the then Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), visited Pyongyang. He pressed hard, both on matters of principle and on several specific and particularly troubling cases. The North Korean Government did not refuse to contemplate the steps that my hon. Friend was urging on them. However, over time, it has become clear that they have not yet taken the decision to engage on those matters of concern to the United Kingdom and the international community.
In July 2004, Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn was appointed as the UN special rapporteur on North Korean human rights. North Korea has refused to acknowledge either him or the UN resolution that appointed him. He has nevertheless been able to compile reports which set out in detail the many allegations and reports of abuse. They make chilling reading.
On behalf of the Government and all hon. Members, I was able to thank the special rapporteur personally when I met him briefly at the opening session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday of this week. I invited him to London at his earliest convenience. I hope that his diary will permit him to take up the invitation soon. If it does, we will arrange for him to brief interested Members from both sides of the House, including those present here today, on his work as special rapporteur. We will invite him to meet and discuss his perspective on developments in North Korea with non-governmental organisations and other interested religious groups
In 2005, during the EU-led activity on North Korea by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, another resolution was adopted by an increased majority. North Korea has failed to respond. The EU therefore decided, under the UK presidency, to raise the matter in the United Nations General Assembly. A resolution was adopted here in December 2005.
The North Korean Government have so far rejected that clear criticism of its human rights record by the General Assembly. The regime continues to insist that the subject of human rights in North Korea is solely the concern of the United States and a few European countries, including the United Kingdom. The vote in the General Assembly suggests otherwise—88 voted in favour of the EU resolution and 21 against. I am amazed that 21 countries were prepared to vote against it.
Yes, I will set out what we have been doing and what we intend to do in my speech. The establishment of the new Human Rights Council this week provides an opportunity. I thank the hon. Member for that question and will come to that point in a minute.
We remain hopeful that North Korea will reflect more carefully on the significance of the General Assembly’s actions. UN resolutions, both General Assembly ones and those issued by UN human rights bodies are useful tools and have an important role to play in extreme cases of human rights violations such as we have seen in North Korea. However, our hand has been strengthened this week with the establishment of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which has succeeded the Commission for Human Rights. The council’s procedures will provide more tools for applying pressure to regimes such as that of North Korea. Countries with better relationships with the regime than ours will be able to use their influence behind the scenes more effectively. There will be more opportunities for open debate, and a fair and balanced mechanism of universal periodic review will allow council members to identify practical steps to support the human rights of the North Korean people.
This is the nub. So far, the simple, blunt instrument of resolutions, important though they are, has had two effects: first, North Korea has completely ignored the situation and secondly, some of its friends have had the opportunity to say, “We do not agree with motions and resolutions; we’ll do nothing”. Under the proposals, those who do not agree with resolutions in any circumstances now have the responsibility to follow the new principles behind the Human Rights Council and will be able to help North Korea come through the door into the international community, allow NGOs and United Nations bodies in, start working with them on the road to reconciliation with their own citizens and the international community, and develop an approach to human rights— something that it has refused to do so far.
Some of those 21 countries are very close geographically to North Korea or have had a long-term relationship with the regime for other reasons. They now have an opportunity. They no longer have the excuse simply to vote against a motion or resolution, but should be practical and hands-on and use their influence with the regime on behalf of the powerless and voiceless who suffer daily, weekly, monthly and yearly behind the doors of the state.
I agree with the Minister about the various resolutions and the importance of the Human Rights Council. He rightly flagged up the influence that some countries have with the DPRK regime. With that end in mind, what discussions has he had with the Governments of China, South Korea and Russia?
I shall come to that. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that the issue has made me rather busy since I was appointed. I am not being flippant; I have been busy, and the reason for that is plain. It is not only about the history and the responsibility of any Minister who holds this post but about the growing concern across this House and in the other place at the systematic information coming from religious and other groups about the deteriorating situation.
One aspect of North Korea’s human rights record that is of concern to us is the abduction of foreign nationals, notably the Japanese nationals abducted in the 1970s and 1980s. Some were returned to Japan after 2002, when the North Korean Government admitted to the abductions. However, the fate of others remains unclear. In my meeting with the Japanese Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs in Geneva on Tuesday, I offered to visit the families of some of those abductees when I am next in Japan, I hope in the next couple of months. The Vice-Minister was keen that I should do so—subject, of course, to the wishes of the families. In the near future, I shall also visit South Korea, which has similar concerns about abductions of its nationals.
We have done what we can to help. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West pressed the issue during his visit in 2004. Since then, we have worked with Japan and others to ensure that the issue is addressed in the international forums, in which North Korean human rights are increasingly under discussion.
For many years, the international community has provided extensive food aid to North Korea, at one point feeding perhaps a third of the country’s population. In September 2005, the North Korean Government claimed that harvests had improved so much that aid was no longer required. The United Nations and aid agencies did not share that view. Nevertheless, the World Food Programme was obliged by the North Korean Government to shut down most of its operations in December last year.
Given those circumstances, the United Kingdom also had to suspend further funding. We stand ready to resume humanitarian assistance if and when the North Korean Government are willing to accept it and the monitoring that must go with it to ensure effectiveness and accountability and that the food goes to those who require it.
Last month, the World Food Programme resumed some of its activities on a much-reduced scale. It remains to be seen how effective that will be. Concerns obviously remain that not enough food is reaching vulnerable groups, including small children and the elderly.
Relations between the United Kingdom and North Korea are bound to be constrained while such major concerns remain. Human rights are not the only concern. North Korea’s nuclear weapons programmes and missile development also stand in the way. The nuclear weapons programmes are a serious violation of its obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and its International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards agreement, as well as of commitments undertaken in agreements with the United States and South Korea.
Six-party talks, involving the US, China, South Korea, Japan, Russia and North Korea, have been under way since 2003 to try to resolve the issue, under energetic Chinese leadership. I discussed the issue of North Korea with the Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister in Geneva on Tuesday, and with the Chinese ambassador yesterday. North Korean engagement with the six-party talks has been frustratingly sporadic, and the talks are currently stalled as North Korea refuses once more to return to the table.
In September 2005, North Korea signed up to a joint statement of the six parties to the talks, in which it undertook to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes and to return, at an early date, to the non-proliferation treaty and International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. The United Kingdom and the international community expect that undertaking to be honoured without further prevarication.
It should be obvious to North Korea that it has nothing to gain from a nuclear weapons programme. We hope that it will step back from that misguided path, and devote its energies to restoring life to a shattered economy and hope and dignity to a despairing population.
Finally, to answer the question put to me by the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), I have spoken twice to the Chinese and once to the Japanese, and will be visiting the region in the next few weeks. I have yet to speak to a Russian counterpart, but that will happen too. I have also answered a parliamentary question. That will appear on the Order Paper in the next day or so.
Is the Minister to have any discussions with the South Koreans? Times Online reports that South Korea sent 350 tonnes of fertiliser and 500 tonnes of rice last year—when North Korea had a relatively good harvest—but its spokesperson, Yang Chang-seok said that if North Korea were to test-fire a missile, that would have an impact on rice and fertiliser aid. The firing of missiles will have a real effect on the lives of the people of North Korea. Can the Minister comment on that?
I shall be visiting South Korea in the coming weeks as part of my regional engagement. Meanwhile, I have almost daily contact with departmental officials both in the countries concerned and back here, and constant contact with the Governments of all the countries that will be most affected by any missiles that are launched.
Given that quite the most egregious human rights abuses are perpetrated by this bestial regime, and that access even to the most basic services is determined by the Government on the strength of their assessment of citizens’ loyalty to the state, and that the Government of the DPRK is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court, can the Minister tell us what levers are available for the international community to pull, beyond continued passing of resolutions and very laudable and justified attempts at negotiation?
That is a fair question. The establishment this week of the United Nations Human Rights Council means that we will have the capacity over the next few weeks to obtain agreement on a range of tools not hitherto available. The only tool that we have had in the past has been resolutions. Some resolutions are won, some are lost, but in reality, in the case of the North Korea, they have little or no practical effect. What can and should have effect, if agreement is reached on the work programme of the new council, is the potential for countries that are close to it—either geographically or in terms of long-term relationships—to work with it. Such countries could pressurise North Korea to allow access to the United Nations and to a professor whom I have asked to come to the United Kingdom and who is waiting to work in North Korea. Alongside that, logistical support goes into providing a programme of work to allow the Government of North Korea to start reversing the process of attacking their own citizens and creating a climate to introduce proposals for a fair, open, accessible and independent legal system and all the panoply of a normal democratic state.
I gave the example of Nepal in my speech to the new Human Rights Council on Tuesday. Huge strides have been made in Nepal because it agreed to allow the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, other agencies and non-governmental organisations to come in and work with it. A lot remains to be done, but what has happened is dramatic; dramatic change is taking place and we now see a common approach within the country, where we can assess the move to democratic accountability, deal with issues of conflict and provide conflict resolution.
Along with the United Nations, we are now introducing a transparent process of demilitarisation involving the Maoists and the state. The Maoists are coming in from the conflict to work with the state. The state is refurbishing every democratic aspect, and addressing issues around men, women and children. All of that goes with what we needed to do in Nepal. It has now come back into the international community; indeed, it is now a member of the Human Rights Council. It is possible, working with other countries and the United Nations, and using other tools, for a country to transform itself. Things do not have to be this way in North Korea.
The big issue is that on every occasion so far, North Korea has rebuffed any access, at any level, for any United Nations agency or NGO. Even when people such as ourselves are in the country and we provide the evidence to North Korea, it rebuffs any opportunity to take action that would reduce even in a limited way the abuses against its own people. Why is that? Like most of these countries, it is afraid of its own citizens.
In the 21st century, we are talking about one of the world’s failed Governments, who are so frightened of their own citizens that their citizens are frightened of them. Until we can get the mechanisms in place, countries, some of which I have mentioned, will have an obligation to work with the United Nations to turn their friendship into more than just a friendship. They need to create a practical programme of action so that North Korea begins the process of allowing its citizens to play a full and active part, so that they can to go to bed each night and get up each morning without fear of action being taken against them, their families or their communities.
In preparation for this debate, either the Minister or his officials doubtless had discussions with our ambassador in the DPRK. Is the Minister satisfied that the Foreign Office knows the full scale of the human rights situation in North Korea, given that there is not a free and fair press? Do we in the west have the full picture of what is going on in North Korea or is even our ambassador denied knowledge of the full extent of it?
I do not think that people understand just how closed a society North Korea is. The regime is not just adamant; it takes collective steps at every level to prevent any information from coming out about what happens there. No one knows the full extent of the situation. As I said, we know things because of the undoubted bravery of men and women living in that country who get the information out and because of the flow of refugees, who travel hundreds and thousands of miles and get through. They do that in the knowledge that they will face the death penalty if they are caught and returned. As I said, that applies not just to the refugees but to the generations that are coming up. If a man of our age, Mr. Benton, is caught crossing the border, his children and grandchildren will face the same penalty. That is how brutal this regime is.
There is another aspect to the brutalisation. Not for the leadership the food queues or the malnutrition; these people live a very comfortable lifestyle, and they intend to keep it. That is why this week’s decision in Geneva was so important. For the first time in many years, I am hopeful that new tools are available. If states work with us on an international basis, we can start the process of finding out exactly what the level of abuse and human rights violations is. We can then get North Korea to agree to engage with the United Nations and other agencies in a programme to end the abuse and turn the country around.
I am listening with great interest and respect to the Minister. The Prime Minister told me on the Floor of the House that it was only the absence of television cameras that had allowed the State Peace and Development Council in Burma, as well as many other abusive regimes, to escape scrutiny for as long as they had. Might I make a suggestion, however, which is intended not as a substitute for, but as a complement to, the robust multilateral action that the Minister envisages? Given that there is an African peer review mechanism, might there not be something to be said for a similar mechanism in Asia, not instead of robust multilateral action but in addition to it? Are these characters, as we suspect they are, not only afraid of their own people, and contemptuous of the international community, but afraid of their near neighbours?
I will answer that this way. The Human Rights Council can introduce a whole range of different intervention tools, which is why the early discussions are taking place, although not about the specifics of North Korea. The council’s next two meetings in the next few weeks and months will play a critical role in turning the fine words into practical deeds. A great deal of discussion will take place about the periodic reviews and the work programme, as well as about the situation that we face in a number of states, that, prior to the creation of the human rights council, were already subject to growing concern in the United Nations and on which action has been proposed. North Korea is one of those states.
When I go to the region in the next few weeks, one of the key issues that I will talk to Governments about is what they can do collectively to make good use of the Human Rights Council’s new tools of operation. I take on board what the hon. Gentleman says about that, and he is right that we must find ways to ensure that regions take responsibility. The countries in them have economic, social, religious and friendship ties, just as we do, and they must take responsibility in an effective way. Up until now, some regions have ducked out, but there is no excuse for that now—as if there ever was in relation to North Korea. I can only try to be optimistic that we will engage in a different way—not just supporting resolutions, but trying might and main to get the key countries in the region to take steps with their friends in North Korea to make a palpable difference.
I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate. I can say from my own knowledge that the DPRK is probably the worst tyranny that the world has seen since the death of Stalin and possibly a few years before that. We in the Chamber can all condemn the tyrannical regime in the DPRK, but it is important for us to think practically about the possibilities open to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in pursuing these matters. I was intrigued by the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), who asked about the knowledge of the British embassy on the ground in Pyongyang. My impression was always that the diplomats in Pyongyang are generally the least knowledgeable people about day-to-day activities in the country, because they are so restricted in what they are able to see.
We need to be clear that we have in this country and other countries some of the brightest and bravest diplomats, men and women, who out of choice go to some of the most difficult regions and postings. We can be assured that they put great effort into building relationships with the regime and also, in difficult circumstances, into maximising information in this regard. I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman of that. That is linked with information that comes from other sources. I gather that all those countries that are interested in making a difference in North Korea talk together. The picture emerges, sadly, through NGOs, religious groups and the bravery, skill and commitment of the people of North Korea themselves.
I agree with the Minister on that point. I do not doubt the motives and ability of our staff on the ground, but my question was more one of practicality. There are practical difficulties if one is effectively locked into a compound for almost the entirety of each week, which was the situation as I understood it until recently and is probably still the case. Especially if one also has great difficulty in gaining access to Western media sources, it is difficult to be fully apprised of what is happening on the ground. That was my point. I was not doubting the professionalism of the staff on the ground.
We have seen from the Foreign Office’s own human rights report, as will be familiar to others in the debate, that the situation in the DPRK is unique. Pretty much everything and anything horrible that has ever happened to human beings—almost in the history of humanity—seems currently to be going on in the DPRK. We have stories of abductions and disappearances, arbitrary detention and imprisonment, political executions, routine use of torture, forced abortions and infanticide, political prison camps, extreme religious persecution, chemical experimentation, sanatoriums for non-conformists and so on.
I mentioned that getting information from the DPRK, especially from within, is incredibly difficult. All reports, including reports coming from aid agencies and human rights agencies, have to be welcomed, but we must bear it in mind that nobody can really be more than 50 per cent. certain of what is happening on the ground in that country. Any information that comes out of the country, as the Minister said, is routinely questioned by the DPRK authorities. For example, witness statements of escapees and underground samizdat-style documents have their authenticity questioned by the DPRK. The regime is particularly afraid of photographs and video from within the country.
A couple of years back a Japanese TV crew had a video—I cannot remember how they obtained it—of a public execution in North Korea. The video, which was unsurprisingly not of a particularly high quality, was routinely denigrated by the North Korean authorities as a forgery. That was despite the evidence being at least strongly—it is impossible to say “overwhelmingly” in any of these cases—in favour of it being genuine.
I know that many photographs, at least, are genuine, because I was the photographer for some of them. I was in the DPRK for 10 days in September 2003. I am sure that others here have been to the country as well. It is a shame that we are not allowed any visual aids in these debates, because some of the things even that I photographed were quite harrowing and frightening. That was on an orchestrated visit, when for every moment of the day, from the moment that one wakes up to the moment that one is returned to the hotel room, one is constantly accompanied by policemen of the state. I have photos of undernourished children who appear to be doing forced manual labour, emaciated farm animals and thousands of people queuing all night—one cannot actually see that on the photo, of course—for trains that seem never to arrive.
I wanted to give a flavour of the DPRK based on my visit as a private tourist. It is very difficult to go to the DPRK as a private tourist. First, it is necessary to go through an agency in Germany—at least, that was the case three years ago. One has to sign all sorts of papers and is subject to all sorts of investigations to check whether one is a journalist: they are very paranoid about journalists, and many categories of people are not allowed in. People are given a choice: they can either go for five, seven or 10 days. I strongly urge anyone thinking of going not to go for the seven or 10-day option. If people really must go, they should go solely under the five-day option. It is necessary to pay quite a lot of money to the regime for the rather dubious privilege of visiting the DPRK.
When I visited in September 2003, the country had been entirely out of bounds to western visitors for six months, due to what one might call the severe acute respiratory syndrome crisis, or scare, depending on one’s point of view. I was one of the first western visitors there for some time, other than diplomats and those from very specific aid agencies. I shall return to the question of human rights in a moment, but it is important to realise that although visitors to the country only get a limited view of it, their view might ironically be better than that gained by our ambassador or other diplomats during the 10 days they are afforded. Again, I am not denigrating the Government’s efforts.
Visitors are accompanied at all times by people loosely called interpreters or guides. It is reasonable to assume, judging from their behaviour, that they are actually intelligence officers, or closely linked to and monitored by them. Visitors have no say over their itinerary, what they are allowed to photograph, their contact with local people or even their contact with the very few other travellers or westerners who may be there. On my trip, I was one of three visitors, and we were accompanied by two interpreters and a driver. The interpreters spoke reasonably good English and, strangely, had been to quite an interesting collection of countries: Germany, Finland, Russia, China, Bulgaria, Turkey and the Seychelles. It is reasonable to assume that such travel possibilities are beyond the means, both financial and political, of normal DPRK citizens. I see the Minister nodding.
Given the defections over the years from the DPRK, it can be assumed that these people are absolute, utter loyalists. They go to extreme lengths to prevent travellers from seeing or recording anything that might give a negative impression of the DPRK. For example, it is necessary to get permission for each photograph taken. If visitors want to photograph anything relating to the general living standard or lifestyle in the country, they have to develop the most elaborate ruse for taking it. With good photography equipment, it is possible to tell the guide that one is taking a photograph of something, while taking one of something entirely different.
The guides would organise a shot by going up to the individuals whom one wanted in an otherwise benign photograph—the Juche monument in Pyongyang, for example—and removing them from the background. It was always the individuals who were shabbily dressed—I mean them no disrespect—or appeared in any way not to be in line with DPRK ideology who were removed.
Virtually everything told us by these interpreters or guides during our trip was a demonstrable lie, but appeared to be less of a lie than the propaganda fed to the ordinary citizens. When we went to what might be called a tourist site, a local guide would take us around and the interpreter would translate. The information that the locals were given was truly mind-boggling and even the stuff the interpreters told us seemed reasonable by comparison.
It was possible to get into serious trouble. A friend of mine with whom I was travelling made what he thought was a joking comment about a roadside statue of Kim Il Sung in a raincoat and hat, which was pretty much his standard garb. It happened to be raining, and my friend said, “It is lucky that he is in his raincoat when it is raining,” but that showed grave respect to Kim Il Sung, and my friend was admonished by one of our guides. It is possible to escape from the guides and have a look around, but I would not recommend doing that, as one tends not to make oneself too popular if one does.
In terms of the economy and general standard of living, North Korea is a peculiar combination of the modern and the mediaeval. Hon. Members should bear it in mind that this information is three years out of date, but I have no reason to believe that the situation has improved a great deal since then. The countryside abounds with oxen and carts only a short distance from seemingly prestigious projects such as hydroelectric dams. Next door to a hydroelectric dam, one could see a group of people seemingly building a small dam out of mud with their bare hands, and around the next corner one could see a modern 10-lane highway entirely empty of motor vehicles. It is a country of bizarre contrasts.
The Minister makes a fair point. I think it is the last country in the world that would need a congestion charge, although one might argue that Ken Livingstone could become quite popular over there with some of his other policies, but that is diverting a little into London politics.
It is interesting that virtually nothing seems to have been built in the DPRK since about the late ’80s. The Ryugyong hotel in Pyongyang—which would have been a prestigious, modern hotel for westerners—has been left uncompleted, and no work has been done on it since about 1990. It is impossible, on a tourist visa, in pretty much any country, but especially in one such as the DPRK, really to get a feel for how the regular citizen is, but one does get a few snapshots.
At times, one’s visit can take on a farcical aspect: one can be totally overfed for the 10 days one is there. One day we were given a 10-course meal, while in the next room a lecture was being given by the World Food Programme to people who appeared to be local dignitaries. Of course, we were not allowed to know what the lecture was about. On two or three occasions, we were taken to restaurants in Pyongyang, which was a surreal experience because there was nobody else in the restaurant—just us being given quite reasonable food—but one was always concerned about what ordinary people were getting, especially given the reports. At no point were we able to view a food outlet, despite numerous requests to our interpreters.
The quality of life in Pyongyang was noticeably much higher than that in other cities and in villages. When I say that, I refer to people’s general appearance and whether they looked to be well fed. There was no way that one could actually talk to any of the citizens. The reports from various western sources that only the most loyal members of the regime are allowed to live in Pyongyang seemed to be correct. If one looks around one can see that anybody like the elderly or young is ruthlessly taken out; pregnant women are taken off the streets. I heard about that before going into the country and was slightly sceptical, but in the 10 days that I was there, I did not see a single pregnant woman on the streets of Pyongyang.
All kinds of other curiosities, which we do not have time to go into, abound in the countryside, such as strange, uninhabited watchtowers above the fields. The interpreters told us that they were to prevent farmers’ crops from being stolen, which I thought might, for once, have been some honesty from them. It is a country of energy shortages and power cuts.
I thought it important to get into the debate some atmosphere about the country, because it is a most bizarre place to go to. One can drive around on uninhabited highways on land that has been turned into long, totally flat stretches to make the highways. It is quite clear that the main purpose behind anything that seems to work properly or well is purely for military purposes. It is not a particularly fortunate parallel, but the Swiss have a similar policy of turning highways into runways.
My hon. Friend said that he did not see pregnant women in the streets during his visit. Is it not part of the hypocrisy of the regime that although it has ratified the United Nations women’s convention, it does not adhere in any sense to the letter or the spirit of it? Is it not the case that women who are in detention, including pregnant and elderly women, are forced to work from early in the morning until late at night in the rice fields and in prison factories?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. That is certainly so. Ironically, despite the fact that the DPRK has signed various United Nations conventions on the treatment and equality of women, it is almost certainly the worst country in which to be a woman. It is an appalling regime in which to be a woman, but the infanticide, the forced abortions and the labour that has to be carried out make it truly horrendous.
I wish to mention a couple of other points. First, Christians are receiving harsher treatment than others; they are suffering torture and execution as a direct consequence of their faith. Secondly, returning to the subject of women, there is growing concern about the organised trafficking of women across the border into China for marriage or prostitution, a subject that was raised in an early-day motion late last year.
The Minister said that 100,000 DPRK nationals are to be found in the Chinese border provinces, and I have seen reports of 200,000, but many are essentially persona non grata. They are not wanted by the Chinese, and the DPRK would like to get hold of them again. They face a terrible fate if they ever return, and their families are already being punished.
I have information showing that although there are 200,000 such people in the border areas of China, only 6,000 have made it to South Korea. One might want to ask the Chinese about their approach to the problem. China is not unique in having to deal with a large refugee flow from a neighbouring country. It may have no particular responsibility for it, although one could argue that it has influence. Nevertheless, I wonder what the Chinese are doing with those people and why only 6,000 have reached South Korea, which is their country of ultimate choice.
I hope to make some more of this point later, but China regularly repatriates people to North Korea. It knows only too well what will happen to those people, and it picks particularly on Christians, who receive the most heinous treatment. It is not good enough for the Chinese to say that it is not their problem. It is their problem and at the very least they could allow those people to stay in China and not repatriate them to North Korea.
Okay. The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point about the attitude of the Chinese. I would be interested to hear from the Minister. I would also like to hear how he handles conversations with regimes such as China, which have a poor human rights record. Compared to the DPRK, one might say that it has an almost exemplary record, but how does one criticise China’s human record at the same time as that of the DPRK?
We have to be frank. We have to build a personal relationship. We have an excellent relationship with the Chinese at every level, and we use our growing friendships to be frank and to try to engage on such issues in a practical way. When I met the ambassador and the Vice Foreign Minister this week, I was frank and open; they quite respect having someone behave in that way with them. In answer to the hon. Gentleman, we will have to keep asking the Chinese to let the UN High Commissioner for Refugees into the border areas.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in saying that I gave an estimate. At any time, the number may be higher than that. The difficulty is that until the high commissioner is allowed access to the border area between China and North Korea, I can give only an approximation. Whatever the number, we know that those who seek to cross the border are in deadly danger.
I thank the Minister for that intervention and those reassurances, which will be helpful in all discussions with the Chinese.
Finally, I wish to discuss briefly one aspect of human rights under the DPRK regime that is peculiar and possibly unique to it, and that is the use of the food supply to deny people their basic human rights. Regrettably, everything I have said so far has probably happened before in human experience—there is no doubt that interfering with the food supply has—but the DPRK has taken barbaric means to control its population through food.
As I mentioned earlier, any visitor to the country will notice the contrast between Pyongyang and the rest of the country. Bear it in mind that even as a visitor one is allowed to go to only 10 or 20 per cent. of the rest of the country. One can only imagine what it is like, for example, in the far north around the borders with China. That area is strictly and totally out of bounds for all visitors.
It is well known—the Minister referred to this—that about 1 million people, or 5 per cent. of the population, died in the famines in the DPRK in the mid to late 1990s. The estimates vary, but those are reliable estimates—it may have been fewer people or rather more. What is less well known is that the authorities used the deliberate withdrawal of food as a means of political and religious oppression.
One of the odd features about the DPRK that has attracted some comment from Human Rights Watch in particular is the way that food is distributed through the PDS, or public distribution system, which is totally a command economy way of administering food and has been nothing short of disastrous in terms of ensuring that food reaches people. During and towards the end of the famine, it seemed—as with most things to do with North Korea, one always has to preface comments with “it seemed”, as nobody can be entirely sure—that the rules of the PDS were relaxed somewhat and limited market forces were allowed to take hold. People were allowed to travel within small areas to small markets. Obviously, almost by definition, one has to travel to a market.
Regrettably, since 2005, it seems that all the market forces that were coming in have been reversed. The World Food Programme has been expelled and it seems that North Korea is going back to the old PDS. The report that WFP published just before it was expelled in 2005 showed that following the full return of the PDS, some households that it surveyed were receiving far less than the average target ration of 500 g per person per day, which is an amount that nutritional experts regard as the minimum to maintain a normal level of health. As Human Rights Watch stated:
“Hunger in North Korea has a strong state policy dimension.”
Although the environment and the general poverty of the country certainly contributed to the famine, a critical factor has been the Government’s willingness to sacrifice the rights and lives of those whom they perceive as disloyal or class enemies, such as the families of defectors, dissidents and so on. I was planning to read some eye-witness accounts from Human Rights Watch, which put out an excellent publication on the use of food in the DPRK as a means of political restriction, but time is moving on.
As I said, it has been reported that the PDS was reinstated in full on 19 August 2005. That will lead to more food disasters and repression. It appears that grain markets have been banned again since October 2005. What is important in the human rights context is that food rationing has been the single most important way of controlling the population in North Korea. Different ration levels are set according to age, but most importantly according to one’s loyalty to the regime. That must make it the most fundamentally pernicious regime today—the word “bestial” used by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) is right. If any of us had the choice of speaking out politically, or on any topic, and having our food supply cut off, we would find that very difficult.
The restrictions brought about by abolishing the small markets seem to have been a means to regain political control over the population. That is the strong feeling coming from escapees from North Korea. The small markets that were set up allowed a certain amount of social interaction across the country, which the DPRK regime strongly condemned. The regime has even made the official admission that prisoners—by which I think common criminals are meant—get a far lower daily ration of food than the regular population. I do not think that anyone in this House would say that common criminals should have the same privileges as the rest of us, but nevertheless a daily ration of 200 g of food, compared with the official ration of 700 g for regular workers, strikes me as being the thin end of the wedge of severe repression.
I expect that all the hon. Members taking part in the debate will have seen repressive and horrible regimes at first hand. I have certainly seen a few. However, none of those other regimes of the recent past or present has anything on the regime currently in full sway in North Korea, where people are deliberately starved to death because of their political views or, even more bizarrely, because of the views of a member of their family at two generations’ remove. There can be nothing in the world today as evil, bestial or beastly as the regime in North Korea, or the DPRK.
I, too, welcome the debate. For far too many people the DPRK is a far-off country of which they know little. As the Minister said, North Korea is a country where aspects of the human rights situation give rise to serious concerns. Reputable human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have documented those concerns well, as they have for other countries.
It would be regrettable and counterproductive if Her Majesty’s Government were to confine our relations with the DPRK to megaphone diplomacy, but I welcome the Minister’s remarks. It would be worse still if we were to lay ourselves open to the charge of cynically flagging up human rights as a means to put pressure on North Korea in its disputes with the United States. Whatever the reason for the debate, it is clear that if isolation, criticism, pressure and blockade by the west could achieve positive change in Korea, we have had more than 50 years to enable that policy to succeed.
On a point of information, it is the regime that has isolated itself from the international community, rather than the international community isolating the regime. The international community is desperate to end that isolation, so that we can help to restore normal rights to the citizens.
I thank my right hon. Friend for those comments, and hope that we shall continue to give that engagement a chance. I recently had a constructive exchange of views with Ambassador Ri Yong Ho of the DPRK and found him to be very concerned about the threat of war on the Korean peninsula and deeply anxious to find ways to improve his country’s relations with the United Kingdom.
For the people of North Korea the horrors and memories of war are very real. After all, combined North Korean and Chinese casualties in the conflict of 1950 to 1953 are estimated at 3.8 million. General MacArthur proposed to drop some 50 atomic bombs on North Korea and north-east China. As that was just a few years after the atomic incineration of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it could not be considered an idle threat. Indeed, the then Labour Government dispatched the Foreign Secretary to Washington urgently to dissuade the Americans from that course of action.
Since 1999, South Koreans have lodged complaints with the Seoul Government about more than 60 alleged large-scale killings of refugees by the US military in the 1950-53 conflict. The army report of 2001 acknowledged that investigators had learned of other, unspecified civilian killings, but said that they would not be investigated. No wonder Ambassador Ri said, “Nothing can be worse than a war. We know what a war is like.”
That is certainly not the case. The comments by the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) said a lot about the atrocities against women, and I notice that I am the only woman taking part in the debate. I am trying to say that I do not want the threats being made now to be replaced by another war, because it is women and children who usually suffer most in such conflicts. What are the Korean people to think when the war against Iraq was prefigured by President Bush’s characterisation of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as the “axis of evil”?
The most important remark that Ambassador Ri made to me in our conversation was, “We are not applying for membership of the nuclear club. We are not seeking a permanent nuclear power status.” That is unlike our country, the United States, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel.
As a long-time supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, I am doubtful that nuclear weapons can ever guarantee a country’s security. If the Government want to play a constructive role on the Korean peninsula—as I believe we can—we should help to find ways to end the deadlock in the six-party talks, which represent the only realistic prospect of securing a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.
The Nobel peace laureates said:
“We urge the DPRK to completely abandon its nuclear weapons policy and accept international inspections.”
In addition, they said:
“We also call for the U.S. to end financial and economic sanctions on the DPRK and offer security guarantees.”
I commend to the Government that balanced approach.
At the start of the new century, the Government took a bold step to establish diplomatic relations with North Korea. I see that as one of our positive achievements, in which we can take pride. We should build on it, not waste the opportunity that we have created. We should take further steps to enhance channels for dialogue and engagement, such as exchanging students, encouraging investment and trade, and developing dialogue between the politicians of our two countries and the two Governments on human rights and all other issues.
Let me put it like this: I understand the hon. Lady’s aversion to war; I respect her long-standing support for CND, though I do not share it; and I note her opposition to sanctions. That said, and on the premise that she is as passionately committed to respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms as I am, how, in practical terms, does she think that our Government and other Governments can persuade the Government of North Korea to stop abusing their citizens and to start respecting them?
By encouraging the six-party talks, which have fallen apart. In those talks, agreements were made between the North Koreans, but not by the US. We have to engage in that dialogue again. We should get all the parties sat down together and take it from there. That offers a better framework for resolving the issues that cause us all concern than a confrontational approach, which has singularly failed to work.
I am delighted to take part in this debate. I shall try to keep my remarks brief, partly because I need to leave slightly before the end, for which I apologise to all hon. Members, particularly to Front Benchers and to you, Mr. Benton. No discourtesy is intended, but I have to get a train.
I understand what my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) says, but it is fair to say that we are dealing with a particularly difficult regime that is not going to work by the normal rules of engagement, although I am always one for dialogue. Unlike the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), I have not had the opportunity to visit North Korea. I know that a visit is planned, but sadly it seems to be at a time when I hope to be leading a delegation to Sudan, which, as the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) knows, is a passion of mine. My knowledge of North Korea may have to remain somewhat distant, although I think that I know something about the regime.
I declare something of an interest, in that about two and a half years ago Christian Solidarity Worldwide asked me to go to Geneva to meet various individuals who had left North Korea. We gave evidence jointly with Olenka Frenkiel, who, as some Members may know, produced a televised report on North Korea, alleging, with a degree of certainty, that the regime uses chemical punishments, gas chambers and the like. That has never been refuted to our satisfaction. In Geneva, we gave evidence to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and it was good to see the number of people who came to talk and to listen.
My right hon. Friend the Minister mentioned that 21 countries voted against the EU resolution. I do not understand how any country can vote against indicting the regime and continuing to put pressure on it until it comes into the common fold of humanity. It should deal with its own people in a more legitimate way and deal with the rest of the world in a way that allows us to begin to have a proper dialogue with it. Anyone who has been reading the papers in the past few days will know that North Korea apparently has a new missile system up and ready to go; that holds some fears for me, if not anyone else in this Chamber. I have asked a parliamentary question on what the Government are doing about that, so I shall not labour the point now, but that question needs to be answered, because we have to recognise that we are dealing with a nuclear power with increasing capacity to launch weaponry. That does not bode well for the future.
Today, however, we are here to discuss human rights. As always, I draw my evidence from those who know, and those who have been there. I am particularly grateful to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which briefed me and which was responsible for me going to Geneva, but I am also grateful to the noble Lord Alton, who has done exceptional work with his team, and who has been responsible for getting a dialogue going. It was interesting; when the all-party group was set up I, for one, thought that it would just pillory the regime and use every opportunity to draw in evidence with which to attack North Korea on whatever grounds it wanted, but to be fair, a dialogue has been started. As a result, Lord Alton and Baroness Cox have been to North Korea on a number of occasions, and in return we have had North Koreans here in Parliament, through the Inter-Parliamentary Union, to talk about parliamentary courtesies. I do not know how far we got in trying to explain our regimes to one another, but we certainly did each other the courtesy of trying to engage. Although at the most superficial level, that was engagement none the less.
In the time that remains, I want simply to embellish what has already been said. Christian Solidarity Worldwide has made it clear for a long time that North Korea is the most difficult regime with which it deals. Anyone who knows anything about Christian Solidarity Worldwide will know that it goes into the most disadvantaged, dangerous and difficult parts of the world; none the less, the regime in North Korea stands out as the most difficult. Christian Solidarity Worldwide has conducted a lot of research over the years, speaking to émigrés in various countries who have escaped—I use the word “escaped” deliberately—from North Korea, and it continues to lobby on behalf of those who remain and, indeed, those who are threatened with the possibility of having to return because they are in China or another country that threatens to extradite them.
The headlines are precisely as we have heard. The general repression and the way in which North Korean society operates are based on fear, which cows everyone other than those in the fortuitous position of being within the regime or in its pay. What has struck me when I have met people from North Korea is their eternal optimism that things will be better one day and that they will once more be part of humanity. That is what they want. Those people live in a complicated part of the world. I have also met people from South Korean, which is not ideal model of democracy. Eventually, however, the two Koreas will have to undergo some form of realignment, so that there is respect for each other’s peoples and for the democratic principles under which both should operate.
North Korea still works under the cult of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. That makes things difficult, because people who go against the regime also go against the cult of the leadership. They might do that because of their religious inclinations or simply to express their human rights, but when pressure is put on them it is aimed very much at the personal level, and that is often the justification for the way in which they are treated. We have been talking, as the hon. Member for Buckingham says, about bestiality—physical mistreatment of the worst kind—but a lot of the pressure is psychological. People are made to feel that they do not belong and that the fact that they are in prison or in seclusion is entirely due to their inability to exist in the wider community. That, of course, is soul-destroying and completely unacceptable.
The methods of interrogation employed are well known and brutal. People are obviously asked not only to admit guilt, but, above all, to give information. That is one reason why those who are forced back from China—I make no apology for raising this again—are often useful to the regime, which can discover the methods that they used to get out of the country in the first place and try to shut down all the escape routes. That is highly dangerous, not only for the individuals who are repatriated, but for those who might be seeking to escape. As we know, torture is readily used, and that is well documented. There is also an absence of any form of trial.
Detention takes various forms. In North Korea, it may involve incarceration, but more often than not involves forcing people to what I would call hidden parts of the country, where they undertake the most physical of work and almost certainly disappear without recognition, so that we never know what has happened to them. The prisons are renowned for being overcrowded and they always operate a very strong work regime. As the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham said, the treatment of prisoners meets none of the conventions. There are forced rations and cruel treatment for those who do not behave as the regime wishes. People are pushed out of the main centres to so-called detention settlement camps, where they are kept out of mischief, so to speak, by being used in all sorts of ways including for very physical labour.
As I said, human experimentation was the basis of the Olenka Frenkiel programme of about three years ago. That was frightening because there was no way for the world to bring pressure, notwithstanding my right hon. Friend the Minister’s discussions during his visits. The most alarming thing is that we are unable to do much about the issue because North Korea is such a closed society. If it was a question of exposing the practice within the country itself and getting people to take action to stop it from happening, that would be appropriate. Sadly, that is impossible, so all our evidence is second-hand, although I have met people who say that their families have been subjected to experimentation, which is justified on the basis that it is about trying to discover new medicines and new ways of using chemicals. We all know that it is about something else.
Execution is commonplace in North Korea and used for all sorts of reasons. It is used as a threat, and people are held on death row for considerable periods. Execution is a very haphazard process, with the sentence sometimes being carried out years after the individual was convicted of an offence.
My main concern is the lack of religious freedom. As far as I am concerned, Christians are the most vulnerable group. Just as in China Falun Gong seems to be the major opponent of the regime, for some reason the DPRK has fastened on to the notion that Christians have become the major power group opposing the regime and those who are most likely to want to replace it. There is no evidence of that; no one has been able to bring to my attention attempts by Christians to mobilise in such a way that they could even demonstrate, let alone to organise more effectively to threaten the regime. It is unclear why the Christian community is so disadvantaged, but anyone who knows anything about North Korea will be able quickly to identify all sorts of ways in which Christians have been discriminated against and worse.
Will the hon. Gentleman agree, and underline, that the rights of Christians should properly concern us all, irrespective of whether we are Christians and of whether we have a religious affiliation? Should not the denial of women’s rights be a matter of concern to men, the denial of the rights of ethnic minorities be a matter of concern to those who do not belong to one, and the denial of the rights of gays be a matter of concern those who are not gay? On precisely the same principle, the denial of the rights of Christians should properly preoccupy us all. It is not a minority concern.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. As a Christian, I make no apology for taking up the cause of Christians abroad. However, to be fair to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, my dealings with the organisation have made it absolutely clear to me that it works for repressed minorities—Christian or not—which is why I am always happy to be associated with it. As an organisation, it is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it indifferent to people’s beliefs. It will take up the issue of those abroad who are being repressed.
I know that the hon. Member for Buckingham does not just speak the language; he genuinely believes that that is what we should all be doing. Debates such as this are useful because they enable us to take up such points because we have a direct belief in what we are doing, or because we are representing those who have no voice. Christian Solidarity Worldwide describes itself as the voice for the voiceless. We are discussing those who are more voiceless than any, which is why it is so important that we can argue their case.
The regime takes such a hard line on both abortion and infanticide. Sadly, it is common in the country for women to be forced to have abortions; children are also taken away. If women are forced to have an abortion or their children are taken away, those with religious beliefs suffer particular issues of conscience and loss of responsibility. I am not saying that any mother or father would be affected less, but the fact that such matters are well reported, well documented frequent events is something that needs to be highlighted and which must never be ignored.
There is little evidence that the regime is improving. There is no evidence that it is getting worse, which is something, I suppose. The fact that there is some engagement, including in this place, is a positive sign, but I fear that the wider issues relating to the potential nuclear threat will result in our attention being taken from something on which we should always spend our time. The title of today’s debate is crucial—it focuses on the human rights situation. We can talk about macro-power politics and we shall do so, but it is important that this afternoon we have talked about the human rights of people who have no voice and who have no opportunity to make the position known themselves. Some people have escaped, but they live continually in fear because of what will happen to their relatives if their whereabouts are discovered.
The debate has been useful. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister can take from the Chamber the fact that, when he meets the various different players, there is a strength of feeling that we want the regime to be put under pressure. We want it to change and we want the people to come to expect a degree of fairness in treatment that so far has always been denied them.
I am grateful to you for calling me to speak, Mr. Benton. I wish to observe a normal dictum that I have learned during the cold war: the more the country protests its credentials in its title, the more likely it is to be tyrannical. I shall not therefore during the debate refer to the country in question as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, on the basis that that is an entirely inaccurate title, whereas North Korea sums up more accurately the reality of the position—at least because it is further north than South Korea.
When I was first taking an interest in politics in my early teens, I asked my father, whom I fear the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) would have regarded as an incorrigible cold war warrior, why the German Democratic Republic was so called. My late father—as he now is—succinctly replied, “Ah, son, it is called that precisely because it isn’t.”
Indeed. That was the point that I was making. In most countries that have respect for their own citizens, that is self-evident to anybody who chooses to observe the countries that the hon. Gentleman is describing. If they must proclaim such things in their title, that tells people much more than I suspect their rulers are aware of themselves.
I want to make a couple of observations about people who spoke before me. I give great credit to the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), who is a regular attender of debates on countries in far-flung parts of the world and is extremely well informed about a great number of them. The debate was considerably enhanced by his observations and the relating of the experiences from his visit three years ago to North Korea. Throughout his fairly lengthy speech he kept protesting that he needed to speed up and that he was doing the Chamber a disservice by delaying us unduly, but he was mistaken in that assumption. I would have been more than happy to hear him talk at greater length about his experiences, because I thought his contribution was extremely enlightening and added greatly to our ability to understand the situation in North Korea.
I am, by instinct, a reasonably consensual figure in politics. I thought that today’s debate was likely to be an entirely consensual one. If I had to pick a subject on which I thought it most likely that every Member of a democratically elected House in a liberal-minded country was likely to agree, it would be human rights in North Korea. I could not envisage there being any scope for even nuanced disagreement in our willingness to condemn the situation.
I do this with a degree of reluctance, but I must say that I was genuinely shocked by some of the tone of the speech by the hon. Member for Halifax. I do not doubt her honourable intentions, but I do not think that any Member who chooses to examine these matters rationally can equate in any way the behaviour and conduct of the United States of America, which, after all, is a country that was born on respect of individual rights and on the citizen’s having a pre-eminence over the state, with the behaviour of the current regime in North Korea.
I understand that some people have grave reservations about the current Government of the United States, and I share some of them, but for what it is worth I strongly advise the hon. Lady that in this House we must be extremely cautious about giving any succour to, or seeking to excuse in any way, the conduct of North Korea, however uncomfortable we may feel with some of the other countries, such as the United States, that have a direct interest in matters in the Korean peninsula. We would send out a mixed and dangerous message from this House if that were not the case.
The other point that I wish to touch on is the nuclear weapons issue. I do so briefly because it is not strictly speaking within the subject of today’s debate.
I just want to say that I raised that issue because the North Koreans continually use the nuclear issue as an excuse not to debate human rights and as a way of deflecting from their appalling human rights record. They refuse to tackle it on the basis that the question of human rights represents an undermining of their internal security.
I am grateful to the Minister, because that was precisely the basis on which I was going to touch briefly on this subject. Although nuclear weapons are in many respects a separate issue from human rights, one cannot divorce the two completely, not least because North Korea and its regime have far more pressing concerns than developing a nuclear capacity, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham and others said.
Other hon. Members spoke at some length about the violations of human rights in North Korea. I do not wish to repeat everything that they have said, but it is worth momentarily dwelling on some of those violations. There is no freedom of the press in North Korea, which is a situation familiar to many millions of people the world over. However, as in other regards, the North Korean situation is particularly extreme. All televisions and radios are fixed so that they can show only state channels. There is an oppressive desire on the part of the regime to ensure that nobody is able to adjust his transmitter in any way to receive any other message. The point was made earlier in this debate that it is hard to know what is happening in a country. We are often frustrated here about inaccuracies in the media. In fact, however, we owe them a debt. One forgets how little one would know without the information that comes from the media. It is difficult for people in North Korea to have a sense of the regime under which they live when the only contact that they are able to have is by word of mouth with people immediately around them. Even then, they have to be extremely cautious about whom they speak to and on what terms.
The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) spoke eloquently and passionately about the absence of religious freedom, and the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) made the excellent and strong point that we should all be concerned by the oppression of minorities, even if we are not ourselves members of those minorities. Others have also spoken at great length about systems of detention, the conditions in prisons, torture, and the use of the death penalty, including in public places.
The situation is as bad as that anywhere in the world. It should cause all of us great concern. However, some would say that, in some circumstances, one can trade off human rights for an efficient, well run state. I do not agree, but I can see the point. An interesting moral question is arising in countries such as China, where we are embarking on an experiment in economic liberalisation while there is, in many regards, an absence of political liberalisation. The improvement in the living standards of many people in China is not yet accompanied by the quality of life in other respects that we take for granted in western countries. That is not the case in North Korea. There is no trade-off. Not only is the situation, in terms of human rights and civil liberties, atrocious by anybody’s standards, but the living standards and economic well-being of the people of North Korea—I hesitate to call them citizens, on the basis that they enjoy no benefits of citizenship—are also woeful.
One can attribute the levels of hunger there partly to deliberate political malice or to incompetent administration. However, as I understand it, of the 24 million or so people who live in North Korea, roughly half do not have enough food—that is a failed state by any standards—and approximately a third are malnourished by the criteria that are used by international agencies to measure shortage of food. As the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham mentioned, in the late 1990s, approximately—we are likely never to know an exact number—1 million people died in the famine in North Korea. We are considering a country with an appalling human rights record and an appalling economic record, which ought to give us great cause for concern.
I want to touch on four matters that I hope the Minister will address. Perhaps they will point the way forward in some way. The great difficulty that we have is that we can all regret, or even express fury at, the absence of human rights, but it is always easier to talk about that than it is to do anything about it. In that respect, one has sympathy with the Minister and the officials at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The first matter is the United Nations, which the Minister mentioned in his opening remarks. It struck me, which is why I intervened at the time, as absolutely extraordinary that 21 countries were less than emphatic in their condemnation of the North Korean Government. I was not previously aware of that figure.
It seems to me that as a basic starting point we have to try to ensure that there is as much consensus, preferably unanimity, in the international community as possible. The regime should be confronted in every single way with its own despotic tendencies. If we cannot even get other countries to agree to that proposition, we have a long way to travel. It puts us in a difficult, invidious position if we are seen as western countries preaching our values to countries in Asia or elsewhere. We must be cautious to avoid that trap and to make it evident to North Koreans and others that such values are universal and not solely western European or north American.
It is encouraging that on each occasion when we have returned to the United Nations, more countries have joined the banner—not just countries with so-called western values but countries around the globe. Large countries, small countries, emerging countries, least developed and developed countries, and those with emerging economies have made a single commitment to assist North Korea into the international fold and provide its citizens with the rights that we take for granted.
I am grateful to the Minister for making that intervention and indicating to the House that progress is being made on the matter. The concept of an international community, and the ability of the international community to resolve the difficulties that confront humanity as a whole, is severely tested by such a case. If we cannot reach consensus on progress toward dealing with human rights abuses in North Korea, it is hard to see what subjects we will be able to achieve consensus on.
The hon. Member for Buckingham raised the second of my four points in an intervention. It is about peer review by Asian neighbours, and it is an extension of my first point. Although I hope and believe that Britain ought to give moral leadership in world affairs, I still think that it is probably beneficial in many parts of the world for the greatest pressure to be exerted on rogue states by their immediate neighbours—people with whom they might feel the greatest sense of compatibility. There is merit in the argument that other Asian countries should judge North Korea closely and with the high degree of scrutiny that we would wish. That might have a greater impact on the Government and people of North Korea than if the message were delivered by people from western Europe or Europe as a whole.
My third point is about China. I touched earlier on an interesting moral dilemma: to what degree do we co-operate with a country whose human rights record is far from perfect in order to engage with and improve a country whose human rights record is even worse and more atrocious? It is a difficulty that diplomats in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office face all the time, because there are very few countries, if the total number is considered, which we could say with absolute comfort and certainty that we are happy to deal with. I spoke earlier about the admiration that I have for the United States in many regards, but large numbers of states in that country still use the death penalty, of which I strongly disapprove. There are moral dilemmas and no moral certainties in diplomacy and world affairs. We must be pragmatic—try to ensure that we make progress and not make perfection the enemy of improvement.
In his closing remarks, will the Minister deal in greater length with his relations with the Chinese Government and Chinese Minister? He has already spoken on the subject, but the hon. Member for Stroud raised concerns about the actions of the Chinese Government. China is a huge power: 1.3 billion people, a growth rate of about 10 per cent. and increasing economic power. It is a country respected around the world, and it ought to be able to exercise leverage within the Asian continent. I hope that the Chinese will give a lead in improving the situation in North Korea.
My final point is that I should be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on the United States Government’s approach to North Korea. The President of the United States famously described North Korea as one of the three members of the axis of evil. The current United States Secretary of State has also identified North Korea as a country about which she is particularly concerned in the context of world affairs.
I do not think anybody is seriously—at least at this stage in the British Government—contemplating military action against North Korea, although if I am wrong in that regard I should be grateful for clarification from the Minister. None the less, the United States seems to be enthusiastic in taking a proactive part to ensure that liberal values are spread around the world, and has taken to inspecting North Korea closely and putting pressure on the regime there. I should be interested to hear the Minister’s views on the extent to which he thinks that there is compatibility of interest between the positions of Britain and the United States on North Korea, and on where he thinks that there are areas of departure in approach between the two countries.
We may all disagree on how to achieve a better world for the 6 billion or so people who live in it. There are often no perfect solutions, but there is a fair degree of consensus in the House on foreign policy subjects such as this. We regularly discuss parts of the world that are in desperate circumstances, and they are a reminder to us of how fortunate we are in the United Kingdom to live in a country where we enjoy freedom of the press, free elections, a free judiciary, free religious practice and all the other freedoms that one associates with tolerant liberalism.
Because we benefit from and enjoy such privileges, it is our duty to shine a strong searchlight on countries where the features of everyday life that we take for granted do not exist. There cannot be a better example of such a country than North Korea, and so there cannot be a worthier subject for debate in this Chamber than how to improve the circumstances of the people who live there.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton, and I welcome the Minister. I hope that the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) will not think me patronising when I say that that was the best speech that I have ever heard him make in the House. It was very thoughtful. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) gave a great account of his visit to North Korea, which also added hugely to the debate. In previous debates he described a visit to Uzbekistan. He may have ambitions to become a Foreign Office Minister, but I have to tell him that if he is not careful, given the way in which he is carrying on at the moment, he is heading for a job as a permanent rapporteur to one of these dastardly regimes.
In due course, I am sure—though other candidates are emerging by the day. I also pay tribute to my neighbour, the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) who, as always, has done his homework, and made a well-informed speech. I have never previously met the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan), and I have some regrets concerning her speech. Although the world’s biggest superpower, the United States, does not always get everything right—far from it—the world would generally be a much less safe place without its actions. The hon. Member for Taunton was right not to give such a dastardly and dreadful regime the name by which it is commonly known, and to call it North Korea instead, and it is a total travesty for the hon. Lady to try to draw the comparison that she did.
We have heard much this afternoon about human rights abuses, and I shall describe some myself. However, one aspect that has not been mentioned at all is the relationship between Seoul and Pyongyang. It is really sad that the Korean peninsula is divided in the way that it is, and any methods by which the world community can help Seoul and South Korea in its dialogue and dealings with North Korea must be a good thing. Therefore, it was a sad quote that I gave in my earlier intervention about the spurning of food aid from South Korea. The people of North Korea will suffer. Through aid and dialogue should come some understanding and improvement, we hope, in the longer term of the regime in North Korea.
I believe that the Minister is going to say something about the recent missile crisis in his reply to the debate. I hope that you will allow me a little forbearance, Mr. Benton, if I briefly describe what is going on, as I understand it from the news today. North Korea has been steadily moving towards the test launch of the Taepodong-2 missile, which intercontinental ballistic missile has a range of up to 9,000 miles, as verified by satellite photographs, enough to reach Hawaii or Alaska. Satellite intelligence has revealed that Pyongyang has loaded booster rockets on to the launch pad in Musudan-ri in North Hamkyong province, in north-east Korea, and moved fuel tanks in preparation for fuellings. These are dark times.
I agree with the sentiments of President Bush, who stated that people should be nervous when non-transparent regimes that have announced that they have nuclear warheads fire missiles. That is one of the things that we are watching closely in Iran, which has the missiles, but not yet the technology to put nuclear warheads on the missiles. When the Iranians manage to get the two together, that becomes very dangerous indeed.
In the debate we are asked to concentrate on human rights. We need to pay attention to the 22 million people who live under North Korea’s dreadful regime of extreme illiberalism and cruelty. The issue of food among the poorest North Koreans is well documented. However, I would like to explore where the British Government can do more to help through sanctions, multilateral organisations and coalitions with our partners.
The debate today is timely, not only because of the emerging missile crisis and the human rights abuses, but, as the Minister made clear, because this week was the first meeting of the new UN Human Rights Council. It would be interesting to hear a report from the Minister on that council. In the debate on human rights last week he said that he would give us a full report—perhaps not today, but maybe in a written statement to the House or a report next week.
I will give way to the Minister in a second, but I will just make one other comment that he might like, in turn, to respond to.
The hon. Member for Taunton amplified the problem of the 21 nations voting against the resolution. I wonder how many of those 21 nations are members of the Human Rights Council. It is all very well asking for verification from neighbouring states, but it is no good getting countries with bad human rights records to peer-review another country with a bad human rights record. One of the criticisms that I made of the Human Rights Council last week was that there did not seem to be tough enough controls on who could become a member. Do members of that council have to have, or should they have, good human rights records themselves?
I will be reporting appropriately to the House and to the Select Committee. There will be two stages, following this week’s proceedings. Further discussions are being carried on and there will be another two meetings of the council between now and the end of the year. We hope that, by that time, there will be a full programme of work and an agreement on how universal peer reviews will be operated in an effective way, and we hope that the council will be more effective than the organisation that it has replaced.
Issues relating to the 21 countries are varied. They claim that they are against the politics of passing condemnatory resolutions in principle. That is why what happened today and, hopefully, what will happen in the subsequent two meetings is so important. That block on doing positive, specific, practical things to deal with countries like North Korea has gone; we can now use the periodic review to put in place effective steps that everybody can co-operate with. The peer review is a review of all countries. No one is excluded from the review. It is not just a review of one or two regimes. Therefore, those 21 countries now have, if they wish to engage positively, a more proactive way of dealing with regimes that are effectively denying their citizens their human rights.
I am grateful for that intervention; it was helpful. The Minister is rapidly gaining a reputation for being a Minister who is extremely helpful to the House, and I am grateful to him for that. I would only add that I hope that none of the countries that become members of the Human Rights Council will be immune to peer review. Indeed, I hope that some of those that apply to become members of the council will be some of the first to be reviewed, especially if there is any suspicion of denial of human rights.
The reason why the periodic review is so fundamentally different is that no one will be excluded. A programme will be put in place after rigorous negotiations which will apply to all members of the council. By the way, that includes ourselves, difficult as that is. No one can argue that the council will be simply a stooge body to deal with a handful of countries. The reviews are about a sustainable, United Nations, global way of dealing, stage by stage, with the issue of human rights in both those countries that deny them and those that have been proved to have effective regimes that sustain people’s human rights. No country can argue that the periodic review is simply about them. It is about every nation, including those that are members of the council.
Again, that is a very helpful intervention, although perhaps not absolutely centred on the debate this afternoon. It is helpful to get those comments on record. I hope that a sequence of countries will be peer-reviewed, with no favouritism given to those that have good or bad human rights records, and that all countries will be reviewed on a regular basis. I am sure that that will be the case.
I was delighted to hear from the Minister that there has been an embassy in North Korea since 2001. I suppose that his answer to my question whether our ambassador and embassy know exactly what is going on in North Korea, is given by the UN publication on major countries of concern. On page 54, it reads:
“Humanitarian aid workers and diplomats in Pyongyang are subject to severe internal travel restrictions and some 20 per cent. of the counties in DPRK remain inaccessible for ‘reasons of national security’.”
It may well be that we do not know the full extent of the human rights abuses going on in that country, particularly as it is difficult for a free and fair press to get in there. This is a country with an appalling human rights mechanism.
There is no mechanism to allow a change in the leadership, according again to the UN document on major governments of concern. I am going to quote fairly extensively from one paragraph, which is headed “Particular concerns about the DPRK”, because it graphically states what is wrong with that country. It says:
“There is no freedom of expression…The state tightly controls all media. There are no foreign books or magazines available for purchase and the authorities control access to the internet on an individual ‘need-to-know’ basis.”
—only for the elite, I would imagine. The document continues:
“There is no independent human rights monitoring organisation…there is no genuine religious freedom…Defectors report that Christians receive harsher treatment than other prisoners”—
that has already been mentioned by a number of hon. Members—
“suffering torture and execution as a direct consequence of their faith. There are no workers’ rights…Women have no equal rights: the age for marriage is different for men and women and society is dominated by a male culture. There is growing concern about the organised trafficking of women across the border into China for marriage or prostitution. North Koreans are subject to arrest without trial. Depending on the offence, the authorities can detain or punish entire families”.
That seems a bizarre way of terrorising the population. Even more bizarrely, the publication reports that
“The government has fitted all apartments in Pyongyang and other cities with radios tuned to a specific station to cascade propaganda: people can turn the radios down, but not off. The judiciary has no independence and the legal system has no transparency.”
More shockingly still, the publication continues:
“The government divides all North Koreans into three political groups: a loyal core class, a suspect wavering class and a politically unreliable and hostile class. Those three groups are then sub-divided into 51 categories based on the social origins of each citizen. The government classify people to determine where they live and work, what job they do, and what benefits (if any) they receive. Only those citizens who are classified as politically loyal can hope to obtain a responsible position in North Korean society.”
That is a pretty shocking record for any country.
Hon. Members have mentioned that there are up to 200,000 North Koreans on the Sino-North Korean border. The Minister gave one figure, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham gave another, higher one.
Information gathered from defectors also indicates that a system of forced labour camps is in operation. Conditions in those camps are extremely harsh and the mortality rate is high. A further type of camp focuses on rehabilitation, and the conditions are subsequently less harsh. The DPRK does not allow any independent domestic organisations to monitor human rights, and requests for visits by international human rights organisations have been largely ignored. One visit by Amnesty International was allowed in 1996. The report was regarded as hostile and Amnesty has not been allowed to visit again. The hon. Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), when he was Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, visited the country with some journalists, but the UK and other countries then tabled hostile resolutions at the UN, and the DPRK Government regarded that, too, as interference in the sovereign right to run their country.
One of the worst aspects of North Korea is how it deals with food. A number of colleagues have explained how, but considering the famine in the 1990s, when more than 1 million people were starved to death, it is very worrying that the North Korean Government have cancelled aid from the World Food Programme. As I said in an intervention, before the aid was cancelled, the South Korean Government sent last year 350,000 tonnes of fertiliser and 500,000 tonnes of rice to North Korea. The North Korean Government originally asked for the same amount this year, but the South Korean Government’s spokesman, Yang Chang-seok, said that if North Korea test-fires a missile, it will impact on rice and fertiliser aid. That is a deeply worrying development.
North Korea has a long history of providing food on a priority basis and according to the classifications that I have read out. It has fed the elite while discriminating against the so-called hostile class. If recent history is anything to go by, the Government will distribute food to preferred citizens, and only then to the general public through the public distribution system, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham said.
The PDS provides coupons for food and consumer goods to people through their places of work. During the food crisis of the 1990s, millions of people who depended on the PDS rations died from starvation. Many more died from severe malnutrition and hunger as the system broke down, and the crisis ended with massive amounts of international food aid. The tolerance of private markets was ameliorated by recent improved harvests, but one cannot expect them to continue.
Until the famine of the 1990s, food rationing was perhaps the single most important way of controlling the population in North Korea, as people could receive rations only from their place of work or study. The system largely kept the population immobile and obedient, so that people would not risk losing their only source of food.
So, Mr. Benton, what is the way forward? It is obvious to all of us here that the North Korean Government must allow international NGOs, including the World Food Programme, to resume the necessary supply of food. More than that, they must either ensure that its distribution is fair and adequately supplied, or permit citizens to obtain food in other, direct ways through markets. It is clear from the devastating famine and pervasive hunger of the past, which was well documented by the United Nations and NGOs, that the PDS and the country’s official food industry have miserably failed the North Korean people.
My party supports the resolution of the 2003 UN Commission on Human Rights, the second resolution tabled by the EU in 2004 following a visit by the hon. Member for Harlow and the third UNCHR resolution in 2005. I note with sadness that those resolutions have never been acknowledged by the DPRK Government, and nor has the appointment of the UN special rapporteur on human rights, Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, who was mentioned by the Minister. I was particularly pleased to hear that the Minister had invited him to London, and I hope that it will be possible for the all-party group to attend a meeting with the special rapporteur, not only to hear what he has to say, but to question him as well.
The purpose of asking Professor Muntarbhorn was not just to give myself or officials the privilege of discussing his views of what we need to do internationally since the creation of the new council but to give people here open access to him. That includes hon. Members from all parties, Opposition spokespersons, Members of the House of Lords, NGOs and others with a direct interest in the matter. We want to give hon. Members, not just Ministers, access to him. It will be a privilege to meet this gentleman. I hold him in high regard, and he is very knowledgeable. He wants to discuss his ideas; he desperately wants to move things forward in North Korea.
I regard that as extremely helpful. It will be an important meeting that I much look forward to attending. I have no doubt that those who have attended this debate will be there, ready with some fairly sharp questions for the special rapporteur about how things can be moved forward.
We must make it clear to the North Koreans that we are ready to help their people, but that basic rights and needs must first be granted, either by bilateral or multilateral processes. Clearly, one of the first tests of the new United Nations Human Rights Council will be to address the appalling situation in North Korea and to challenge and engage with Pyongyang.
The missile situation inevitably has an effect on the North Korean Government’s attitude to human rights because if they are spending money on re-arming and on ever more devastating technology, that must have an effect on the amount of money available for the people of that country. The United States ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, has said:
“You don't normally engage in conversations by threatening to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles. And it’s not a way to produce a conversation because if you acquiesce in aberrant behaviour you simply encourage the repetition of it, which we’re obviously not going to do.”
The tests would spell further trouble for the stalled six-party negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and human rights. They would raise questions about the future stability and security of the region and North Korea’s enduring role as the region’s troublemaker.
The UN has made it clear that all diplomatic negotiations must take place through the six-party framework involving North Korea. I welcome that, because I think the idea behind testing this missile may well be to tempt the United States back into bilateral talks to offer further carrots to the regime, which would be totally the wrong way to go. The six-party talks, involving South Korea, Russia, Japan, China and the United States, must be allowed to proceed and I hope that they will produce some improvement in the standard of living of the dreadfully oppressed people in North Korea.
With the leave of the House, Mr. Benton. I was both encouraged and perplexed by what I have heard from hon. Members today. It is clear that there is widespread concern about the behaviour of the North Korean Government, and I was perplexed by the matter-of-fact way in which the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) explained what he found on his visit, which made his speech all the more effective. There were no frills or attempts to exaggerate: he gave a straightforward account of what, as an eye-witness, he saw and found and of what he suspected was behind some of the situations that arose. He did not grandstand in any way, and I shall come back to some of the issues that he raised in a minute.
To my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) I make the point that it was the regime that broke off the discussions in the six-party talks and which will not allow the UN special rapporteur in. The rapporteur is not from the west; he is Thai and a respected international figure in terms of discussions, negotiations and representation for his region. It is the regime that will not allow the United Nations to come in and give help and support to change the situation there. The regime restricts the role of non-governmental organisations in the country—NGOs whose members have skills, knowledge, expertise and courage. They do not take a party political stance, but have one simple interest: the development and redevelopment of the country and its citizens.
If my hon. Friend has further talks with the regime in London, will she urge the regime to: return to the talks; allow the special rapporteur to enter the country and do his work; allow the UN to work effectively with the North Koreans; and release the people there who are in jail or similar situations for simply expressing a view or not having the same view as the regime, expressed or otherwise?
I welcome hon. Members’ interest in this and other parts of my portfolio. On every occasion on which parliamentarians in this House, whatever their background, engage with Foreign Office Ministers and our staff on the ground, it gives us the capacity to discuss relevant issues with those regimes. If they did not intervene, apply pressure and speak up, it would be easier for such countries to continue to ensure that their citizens have no power or opportunity to voice their concerns, and those countries would continue to have no obligation regarding their citizens’ well-being. I ask hon. Members to maintain that pressure and assist our diplomats on the ground and NGOs and others outside this country who take just as effective an interest in this and other countries, and who want to work multilaterally with us and bilaterally with the countries concerned.
The hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) talked about our relationships with the United States and with China. This is not just a matter of bilateral relationships between us and the United States. Some 86 countries, including large countries in the region that have excellent relationships at every level with us, the US and other countries, take the same view as us and the United States about the need for a process and change. We need to take a multilateral approach: a partnership approach including countries in the region and countries outside it that have acknowledged expertise and a range of other diplomatic weapons, if that is the right word, at their disposal to work within the confines of the UN to bring about effective change.
It is also true that with the Chinese, we have very effective leadership in relation to the six-party talks, and we should recognise that. They have been enthusiastic and effective, and it is in our interests to encourage them—
I think the Minister is saying that relations with the Chinese have been particularly effective, or that the Chinese have been particularly effective, but in the spirit of genuine inquiry, what progress can the Minister point to that has come out of the six-party talks other than that talks are taking place? Has anything at all been achieved since the talks started three or four years ago?
The reason why progress has not been greater is that the North Koreans have withdrawn, but it is a process that was agreed with the North Koreans. The fact that they agreed to a process in the end was in itself progress. The fact that they decided to withdraw after some four meetings has led to stalling in a range of areas, with no outcome possible. It is important because it is the only process in which they have so far decided to participate, so they should return to it.
The hon. Member for Taunton asked about China. We have formal bilateral dialogue on human rights with China twice a year. In addition, as I said earlier, Ministers from the Foreign Office and those with other portfolios have regular opportunities to discuss United Nations initiatives on human rights and other, wider issues. We will continue to do that. From this week, we also have the opportunity to have dialogue in a more sophisticated way. There is the possibility of periodic reviews; we will have more than just one shot at the process, and more than just one approach—resolution after resolution. I am not opposed to using resolutions, but they do not give regional Governments with regional relationships the opportunity to sit down and participate effectively in a process.
I shall write to hon. Members, because the discussions on what the processes should be are at an early stage. This week, before going out to Geneva, I sat down with the NGOs and the Foreign Office, and went through with them my ideas about what the process should look like. Their views were fed in, and when I was in Geneva I spoke to representatives of a range of countries about how they could join with us to develop an effective system of periodic review, and what the principles of that system should be.
The next stage will be to ensure that that periodic review system is effective, that there is agreement about what its pillars will be, and that there is capacity for reviews to be effective and transparent and to identify accountability. The NGOs should play a role in seeing what is happening and why, and should be able to make effective, practical proposals that will help us to turn the situation around. I gave Nepal as an example. There is a lot to play for in the coming weeks and months in negotiating an approach that ensures that the Human Rights Council has effective mechanisms with which to do the job that its predecessor could not do because it lacked the capacity. I could spend 20 minutes setting out what it will do. I think that hon. Members are seeking confirmation from me, first that I have an intellectual understanding of what they are asking for and secondly that we are in the same ballpark. The answer to both is yes. Thirdly, are we enthusiastically involved in behind-the-scenes discussion and negotiation, and trying to show some leadership? The answer to that, too, is yes.
I am sure that the Minister, like me, would welcome a strong condemnation by China of the potential firing of ballistic missiles. Would he take the opportunity when he next has talks with the Chinese to condemn the practice of returning North Korean refugees who take a very hazardous path to escape to China, but are then sent back by the Chinese authorities not only to almost certain torture and death but to the torture and death of their families as well?
I have made it absolutely clear that we have done that, and will continue to do so. It is important for the Chinese Government to agree to let the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees go to the most affected border areas between China and North Korea. That is critical.
Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham, have observed, like me, that anything we say is an approximation. We need to gain access, and that is not done by megaphone diplomacy. Let me give an absolute assurance that the issue is very important to us, and to our relationship with China. China is well aware of how we would like it to co-operate and why we would like it to be proactive in relation to Human Rights Council processes. We are in the early stages of discussions on that. What is absolutely certain, in terms of the six-party talks, is that the Chinese have been as good as their word, enthusiastically, intellectually and politically doing their damnedest to use the talks to get things resolved. We need to encourage the North Koreans to come back into those talks. I hope that that gives the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) some reassurance.
Hon. Members asked about foreign presence on the ground. That is important, because it helps to undermine the regime’s propaganda effort to blame outside sanctions for its problems—a point that the hon. Member for Cotswold made. Access to areas outside Pyongyang is gained through the existing programmes. Our embassy staff go to look at the existing programmes, and that helps to secure a better picture on the ground, but it is clearly far from perfect; no one is suggesting otherwise.
It is not just our staff who are on the ground; we should recognise the role of the non-governmental organisations, and we should praise them, both individually and collectively, and their willingness and preparedness. Despite the obstacles put in front of them to make them less effective, they are willing to stick at it and stick in there, to assist change in North Korea.
I do not have a full list on me; I apologise. I will provide that information to the hon. Gentleman. There is a reason why I do not have it; hon. Members will remember that the food aid programme was stopped, and that affected the operations, but I will come back to the hon. Gentleman on that. I will ensure that every Member in this Chamber gets a copy of that detailed information. I hope that that is helpful.
In relation to Christians in North Korea, we clearly condemn all instances of persecution of individuals because of their faith or belief, whatever the religion or group concerned; that is a subject that the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) mentioned. We regularly raise the issue of human rights, which encompasses religious freedom, with the North Korean Government through our embassy and through their embassy here in London.
In Pyongyang in September 2004, my hon. Friend the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning handed a list of 18 named individuals to the vice-Foreign Minister responsible for human rights, asking for a full written response. Those individuals included two South Korean pastors who were reportedly abducted from China and taken to North Korea in 1995 and 2000 respectively, but no response was received. Incidentally, Son Jong Nam, the gentleman whom I named earlier, is also a Christian. I want to reassure colleagues once more about the issue of religious discrimination; it is one of our core issues with the North Korean Government, and we actively make it part of our discussions.
I re-emphasise to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax the need to encourage the North Koreans to return to the six-party talks. There were four complete rounds hosted by the Chinese Government in Beijing. The initial session of our fifth round of talks was planned for November last year. However, the North Koreans have since refused to attend, blaming
“the hostile policies of the United States”.
They also blame
after US authorities last year designated the Macao-based Banco Delta Asia a money laundering concern. The fact of the matter is that the North Koreans withdrew from the talks; they have not been forced out, removed or encouraged to leave. Nothing has happened, other than their becoming unwilling to see through what they agreed to see through.
I promised the hon. Member for Cotswold—and you, Mr. Benton—that I would give an update on developments as regards the Taepodong test. We are, of course, monitoring events closely and are concerned about the ongoing possibility of North Korea proceeding with a test launch of the Taepodong missile/satellite launch vehicle. The European Union has urged the North Korean Government to refrain from such a provocative act, which would add considerable tension to an already complex regional situation and be deeply regrettable.
The EU heads of mission in Pyongyang jointly delivered a démarche to the North Korean Foreign Ministry on 18 June, expressing concern that a test launch of the missile may be imminent. Several member states, including the UK, have called in North Korean ambassadors to underline the strength of their concerns. The Australian and New Zealand Governments have also made their opposition clear.
The United States has urged North Korea to abide by its past agreements and said that it would regard any test launch as a very serious matter. The Japanese Government have warned North Korea against launching a ballistic missile as it would be a violation of its 1999 moratorium and the 2002 Pyongyang declaration. China’s representative to the UN has said that the Chinese Government have a lot of concerns about any test and that it would have a very negative effect on the political atmosphere.
Speaking yesterday, at the UN conference on disarmament, the Secretary-General urged North Korea to take great care not to make the situation on the Korean peninsula even more complicated. People are keeping a close watch on this matter and keeping in contact with each other. Let us hope that the expectation does not come to pass and that we can get back to the agenda that we asked the North Koreans to operate at the six-party talks previously and the agreement in 1999.
We must all wait to see how the situation develops. We have no power to decide what happens. Hon. Members may rest assured that in waiting, everyone is trying their best publicly and behind the scenes, using every diplomatic lever possible, to ensure that the missile is not tested in the way that I suggested.
We will continue our dealings in North Korea and in the UK with the regime, and use our best endeavours to try to demonstrate that our concerns are real and not fabricated for political purposes. We want to help and to progress matters. We want North Korea to be involved once again with the work of the Human Rights Council and to give access to the special rapporteur and the United Nations. We want the North Koreans to work with NGOs, return to the six-party talks and give appropriate access to the UN.
The world wants to embrace a relationship with North Korea and its people. Embracing the relationship will lead to change, but that change will lead to something: the recognition of the universal human rights of every human being there. So many people in the world take those rights for granted. In North Korea, not only can people not take them for granted, but they are as far away from having those rights as they were when the regime commenced.
I shall finish by discussing one simple fact. In 1945, South Korea was poorer than North Korea; it was even poorer than the poorest African nations of that generation. Yet by open access, democratic accountability, public and private investment and rights, and by using the skills, knowledge and commitment to do their best of every person and community in that country, it emerged to be a major force in social and economic terms which is respected across the world. That same fate is available to North Korea and its people. All North Korea needs to do is open the door, walk through it and work with us. I ask it to do so.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Five o’clock.