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North Korea Nuclear Test

Volume 450: debated on Tuesday 10 October 2006

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to make a full statement on the implications of and proposed response to North Korea’s first test of a nuclear device.

On 9 October, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Foreign Ministry announced that it had conducted an underground nuclear test at 02.36 United Kingdom time. That an explosion of sufficient magnitude occurred is not in question, but the exact nature of the explosion has not yet been independently verified by the identification of radioactive particles. However, given North Korea’s stated intention last week to conduct such a test, the international community is proceeding on the basis that this was indeed a nuclear test, as the DPRK has said.

The world has been united in its condemnation of North Korea’s action, which was carried out in direct defiance of the will of the international community. Comments made by world leaders, nuclear experts and international organisations have highlighted North Korea’s isolation. North Korea’s nuclear test jeopardises regional stability in north-east Asia and poses a clear threat to international peace and security. It contravenes North Korea’s commitments under the non-proliferation treaty, breaches the 1991 joint declaration of South Korea and North Korea on the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, and ignores United Nations Security Council resolution 1695.

The Security Council is continuing its discussions today on how to respond to the North Korean nuclear test. As I have said, the international community has been unanimous in its condemnation of the DPRK’s actions. The United Kingdom will be pushing for a robust response, given the clear threat posed to international peace and security by the test. The Security Council is considering a sanctions package covering a range of measures, including measures designed to impact on the areas of most immediate concern to the international community: the DPRK’s nuclear and missile capabilities.

Immediately following the test, the Prime Minister and I both issued statements making it clear that North Korea’s actions were highly irresponsible and provocative. We have also called the DPRK’s ambassador in London to the Foreign Office to make clear our views. Since then, I have discussed the situation with various Foreign Ministers, including the Chinese Foreign Minister Li, the Japanese Foreign Minister Aso and the Secretary of State of the United States, Condoleezza Rice. Those contacts are continuing, and will continue in the hours and days ahead.

May I express to the Foreign Secretary the strong support of the Opposition for the declared policy of the Government to seek a robust response under chapter VII of the United Nations charter, including the imposition of legally binding sanctions? Is it not worth reminding the House and the nation of the generous offers made to North Korea during the six-party talks, including on power generation and security guarantees?

I have three broad questions for the Foreign Secretary. The first is on sanctions. Last night, the United States proposed sanctions that would include a trade ban on military and luxury items, the power to inspect all cargo entering or leaving North Korea, and freezing assets connected with its weapons programmes. Japan appears to have proposed, in addition, that North Korean ships and planes should be banned from foreign ports and airports. Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House whether the Government support all those proposals, or whether there are any that they do not support? Will the Government be calling for any further measures not mentioned by the United States and Japan? Can she say when she expects the Security Council to reach a decision? If a decision is made under Chapter VII and ignored by North Korea, does she expect further steps to follow?

The second set of questions concerns proliferation. Given that we must bear in mind the fact that this is a country that has never developed a weapons system that it has not eventually sold to the highest bidder, what is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the danger that nuclear technology originating from North Korea could find its way into the hands of transnational terrorists, or states supporting them? What assessment has been made of North Korea’s ability to arm its missiles with a nuclear warhead, and to which of its missiles would that apply? Does the Foreign Secretary agree that that means we must expand the proliferation security initiative with the aim of identifying and stopping sources of nuclear trafficking? Would the sanctions being proposed at the United Nations change in any way the powers to search ships under the initiative? How will the efforts to intercept illicit cargoes from North Korea be made more effective?

The third set of questions concerns the unity of the Security Council. There is clearly a growing perception in the world that the price of stealing one’s way into the nuclear club is bearable. That is a perception that we cannot afford to allow to continue. Is it not the case that the Security Council members who have been united in their condemnation of North Korea must now be united in their actions? Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is of the utmost importance to preserve the unity of the UN in the coming days—I am sure that she does—but that if sanctions are to be effective, they will obviously require the full support of North Korea’s neighbours? Can she say any more about any assurances that she has received during her discussions with the Chinese Foreign Minister about China’s approach to the issue? What contacts has she had with her counterparts in Russia and South Korea regarding sanctions, and has this any implications for South Korea’s development of the industrial complex at Kaesong, over the North Korean border?

This latest development is clearly part of an alarming trend towards nuclear proliferation, which we must do everything possible to halt. While our immediate goal must be to confront and contain North Korea and oblige it to return to its obligations and negotiations, must we not now commit ourselves to reviving and strengthening the non-proliferation treaty as a whole, and dealing resolutely with those such as North Korea and Iran that attempt to breach it?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support. He has asked me a great many questions, which I shall do my best to deal with as briefly as I can.

The proposals made by the United States and Japan are under consideration as we speak: the Security Council has just begun its meeting. For our part, we are content to see any and all of the measures presented so far on the table. We think it extremely wise to have a full range of measures for consideration in the Security Council, so that people can assess them and decide whether they wish to adopt all or some of them, but also so that it is clear what range of measures is potentially available to the Security Council on this or, indeed, any future occasion.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me what would happen if North Korea ignored an expressed decision by the Security Council. That is exactly why I think it right to look at the full range of measures. It is not at all clear yet what decision the Security Council will make. As the right hon. Gentleman may have heard—it has been commented on in the news media—the Security Council meeting yesterday was extremely brief. That was partly because some members did not have instructions from their domestic Governments, but it is thought that there is no question about the opposition to what North Korea is doing. However, what the detail of people’s willingness to take action in the immediate future will be is not yet clear.

The right hon. Gentleman raised, quite correctly, the issue of proliferation. That is exactly why the international community as a whole is so alarmed about this development. It is not just the issue of North Korea itself; it is the fact that, as the right hon. Gentleman said, it has shown a propensity to distribute weapons in the past.

We are not in a position to answer some of the detailed questions that the right hon. Gentleman asked about arming missiles and so forth, not least because not enough is yet known about the nature and weight, for example, of a potential device. However, he is right to stress both the need for unity in the international community—which we will try to sustain—and the need to look again at the issue of the non-proliferation treaty in this light.

Conversations that I have had with the South Korean Foreign Minister indicate that that country is consulting widely and in great depth about the exact course of action that it will pursue. I cannot, therefore, answer the right hon. Gentleman’s specific question yet, but I am sure that it is one of the issues that South Korea will be considering, given the breadth of the process that it is undertaking.

I recognise that this is one of those occasions when the whole House will applaud the actions that my right hon. Friend has taken and will strongly support the efforts being made in the Security Council to secure effective additional chapter VII sanctions, involving, as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said, the authority to inspect all cargo going into and out of North Korea. Does she agree that China, as the main superpower, has a real responsibility to support sanctions for the benefits of its own people and the wider world and to make sure that they are effective?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. It is clear from the conversation that I had with the Chinese Foreign Minister that the Government of China are, as he would expect, gravely concerned. It is also clear that the Government of China are very mindful of the implications for the neighbourhood of any steps that might be taken, and are anxious, as are we all, not to do anything to make the situation worse. Balancing these issues is not likely to be easy, which is one of the reasons why I cannot answer the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) as to when the Security Council might come to a decision. At this moment it is too early to tell.

We join the unanimity across the House in condemning the nuclear test by North Korea. It is a dangerous development, not just for the region but for the world as a whole. We also firmly support the efforts in the Security Council to drive through tough sanctions against the regime. We join with others on both sides of the House in stressing the need for China and Russia to recognise their responsibilities and to support these measures. However, does the Foreign Secretary recognise that agreement will be much harder to achieve while there is even the prospect of military action by the United States, which would be absolutely catastrophic? Does she agree with the former United States Senator Sam Nunn, who said that this appalling situation represents a massive failure of United States—and, by extension, British—foreign policy, which has been disastrously sidetracked in Iraq while failing to deal with the terrible prospect of nuclear weapons in North Korea?

No, I do not agree that any stance taken up to now has in some way encouraged North Korea. It is clear that this is a course of action that North Korea has been pursuing, for its own mysterious reasons, for a long time. I do not speak in this House for the foreign policy of the United States, and I am not entirely sure that the hon. Gentleman’s quotation of Senator Nunn was 100 per cent. accurate. But I reject the notion that this is in some way a result of neglect or a foreign policy failure by this Government, the Government of the United States or anyone in the international community. This is a North Korean failure—home-grown.

I welcome the initiatives that my right hon. Friend has taken, particularly her contact with the Chinese Government. Does she agree that if the purpose of UN sanctions is movement from North Korea and not its isolation, it is essential that we have China on board in any UN decision? Will she pursue that course of action?

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend, who is exactly right. The purpose of sanctions being taken against North Korea is to get them to return to the six-party talks and abandon their course of action, and not in some way to punish them for what they have done.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that a failure by the Security Council to impose serious sanctions would send a green light to Iran, suggesting that it could proceed with impunity with its aspirations for nuclear weapons? Does the Secretary of State accept that if the North Korean regime is likely to collapse some time over the next few years, it might be better if it collapsed sooner rather than later, before it could threaten its neighbours with nuclear weapons? Does not this point to very effective sanctions, including oil sanctions, being imposed at this stage?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a valid point. As I said to his right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks, the international community will look at the full range of sanctions that are available. I would certainly be reluctant to agree with any proposition that there was anything to encourage the Government of Iran, which I believe has uniquely supported and encouraged North Korea down a similar route. We strongly take the view that this should not be viewed as a green light to anyone, and that the international community must act with resolve. However, it is important to preserve not only that resolve, but international unity.

North Korea is patently unwise to starve its people for this nuclear weapon, which actually puts the country more at risk rather than less. However, may I say to my right hon. Friend that she has a bit of a blind spot if she does not believe that President Bush’s “axis of evil” speech and the subsequent war against Iraq did anything to encourage North Korea to adopt this course of action? May I also say that although I do not object to sanctions, I am opposed to chapter VII actions that could lead on to military action? Cannot my right hon. Friend see that that would only make matters worse?

I am afraid that my hon. Friend is mistaken in thinking that all this followed on from or was exacerbated by anything that President Bush or anyone else in the international community has said. If I may say so, I believe that it is something of a blind spot when people fail to recognise that this is a road down which North Korea has been treading, for reasons of its own, for a very long time. I understand my hon. Friend’s concern about chapter VII, but the wording refers to a threat to “international peace and security” and I cannot think of a clearer threat to international peace and security than the one that we have just seen.

Will the Foreign Secretary send the strongest possible message of support to the South Korean Government and President Roh? I have the honour of representing the largest Korean community in the UK, and my constituents are desperate to know that the British Government will stand firm with the South Korean Government. Will the right hon. Lady tell President Roh that the UK Government—unlike some people in Washington—in no way consider his sunshine policy of engagement with North Korea to have been at fault?

We very much support the Government of South Korea and fully sympathise with the terrible anxiety that they are feeling. I am sure that it will encourage the hon. Gentleman’s constituents to know that part of the action that the South Korean Government are presently undertaking is, as I said to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, to consult on the widest possible basis and to draw all parties and all former presidents into talks in order to achieve a complete national consensus on how best to deal with what amounts to a very grave threat to South Korea in particular, as well as to others in the neighbourhood.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there have been two American policies on North Korea? The first, pursued by Madeleine Albright and President Clinton, was one of rapprochement. It included the denuclearisation of the peninsula, and was very successful. Following that came the very damaging policies of President Bush, which wrecked the policies of rapprochement and increased the tension and fears, however ill founded, of North Koreans. It is right that our policies should be robust, but should not they also be intelligent and independent?

I hear what my hon. Friend says, but I have to say that although there may be days when people in the House feel that it is time to have a go at the United States, this is not one of them. If we want to have a go at anybody, let us have a go at North Korea. This is North Korea’s policy, and that country is pursuing it wantonly. As everyone in the House well knows, in the process of spending on its nuclear weapons programme, North Korea is effectively persecuting its own people, who are undergoing terrible suffering. That is not something for which we should be seeking to find any kind of excuse or rationale. The example that I would put forward here as relevant to North Korea is that of Libya, which gave up its nuclear weapons—and quite right, too.

I was just about to ask whether Libya had any lessons for North Korea, in the way in which Britain and the US have behaved to a country that takes a more enlightened view and changes course. Instead, may I ask whether the role of the A. Q. Khan network in supplying nuclear information to North Korea has, in the view of the Department, brought forward the ability of North Korea to carry out that test at this time?

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman if I stole his thunder, or his line; I recognise his experience on these issues. It is hard to answer the question whether the A. Q. Khan network made an appreciable difference to the time scale of what North Korea has been able to do. I can certainly say that the issue of that network and the supplies that it was putting out lends strength to our argument that this is something in which North Korea has been engaged for a very long time.

It was rather shaming to hear that it was the fault of Britain and the United States that the nuclear test took place—the point of view of the Liberal Democrat Front Bench spokesman and some of those on our Back Benches. That really is a new axis of idiocy. We have the big advantage of an embassy in Pyongyang, put in place by the Labour Government in 1998. Will my right hon. Friend pay particular attention to the concerns of Japan and South Korea, which are only a small step away from developing their own nuclear capability unless action is taken against North Korea? May I suggest that the responsible Minister might be dispatched to the three capitals of Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo to report back to the House on these grave developments?

I recognise the point that my right hon. Friend makes about the grave concern felt, especially in South Korea and Japan. I will consider his suggestion, but we may pick up as much in New York about the concerns in those capitals as through visits to them at this point. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks referred to proliferation dangers, one of which is the concern that others in the region will begin to consider their own position. That is something that we must try to avoid at all costs.

In relation to the United Nations Security Council and the effectiveness of the UN, does the Foreign Secretary endorse the comments by John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN, that this issue would by implication be a test for the UN? Will she give every encouragement to ensure that the UN, in this instance at any rate, acts with both force and unity?

Yes, I accept that this is an issue on which the UN needs to act with unity, but also with strength. That is something that we will try to deliver. Those with many years of experience in such matters have said to me of late that the permanent members of the Security Council are going through a period of what might be described as unusual unity. That is wholly to be welcomed. It is also something to be worked with and strengthened. I may not express matters as ambassador Bolton does, but I share the view that it is important that the UN gets this right.

It would be a grave error to suggest that the six-party talks are dead. Everyone is trying to encourage North Korea back into the six-party talks, because of the belief that that is the best way to address the range of issues that have been raised for those in the neighbourhood.

How long does the Foreign Secretary think that it would take for the sanctions package that she proposes to get North Korea to give up its weapons in a way that we can verify?

We have not yet finalised the sanctions package, so it is not easy to assess how long it might take to have effect. I suspect that North Korea will not lightly relinquish the course of action that it is pursuing, which is why I said to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks that I think it right for the Security Council to discuss a substantial range of measures. It is also something to bear in mind when a decision is made about what measures are adopted now.

During the cold war the nuclear powers agreed a series of memorandums to try to prevent exactly the sort of thing that happened two days ago. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that all current members of the nuclear club are subject to those memorandums? How does she expect to exert some sort of control over North Korea?

No, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the confirmation that he seeks. Certainly there are memorandums in existence, although I cannot recall the precise network. There might be a slight misunderstanding here. We are not trying to encourage North Korea to sign memorandums and agree to be of good behaviour; rather, we are trying to encourage it back into a process of denuclearisation of the area—that is, to give up and demolish any missiles or weapons that it has developed.

I have visited the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It is probably the most repressive regime in the world, but the level of opposition there remains quite strong. That is evident in the number of people fleeing the country; in effect, they are voting with their feet. What efforts have the Government made to support opposition groups, both in the country and outside it? Does the Foreign Secretary support regime change in Pyongyang?

Perhaps this is not the right day to dwell on the issue of regime change, but the Government do what we can in North Korea, through relatively small-scale programmes of assistance and support. If the hon. Gentleman’s visit was recent, he may know that the programmes run there by our Department for International Development have been stopped or scaled down because of the difficulty of making sure that they can be monitored properly, given the restrictions on freedom faced by opposition groups, non-governmental organisations and so on. Those restrictions make matters extremely difficult in North Korea, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we continue to try to build good contacts with people of good will where we can.

Does not the nuclear test in North Korea show the strategic foresight of Japan, Australia and South Korea in developing a ballistic missile defence shield? North Korea already has effective missiles, and is trying to develop ones with a longer range. Is it not time the House had a debate about the use of a ballistic missile defence shield, as well as about the necessary diplomacy and sanctions mentioned today?

That is a very interesting question—and I am sure that my colleague the Secretary of State for Defence has heard it.