Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Newmark.)
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to have secured this debate at such a momentous time, so soon after the succession of Kim Jong-un, the new leader of North Korea, following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, last month. It was even more gratifying to hear, only yesterday, of the North Korean Government’s announcement that they will grant an amnesty for prisoners to mark the birthdays of those two leaders. We look forward to hearing more news about the prisoners to be released.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that very important case, on which a number of my colleague parliamentarians have made representations. I believe that the Minister is aware of that case, and I look forward to hearing his comments. I also hope that further representations can be made to the North Korean Government about the release of Dr Oh’s family as part of the amnesty.
The amnesty announcement emphasises what many see as a fresh opportunity, at the start of a new era, to forge further relationships with the people of North Korea. That is the hope of many people in Britain who have worked often for years to develop relationships, and indeed friendships, with people in North Korea to share knowledge, understanding and support. Several of my parliamentary colleagues from the all-party group on North Korea have visited the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—the DPRK—in recent years, as have many other delegations from the UK. Interestingly, in 2010, that included the Middlesbrough Ladies football team, who apparently attracted a 20,000-strong crowd of spectators.
On a more modest level, but no less importantly, the Speaker of the House of Commons has met the Speaker of the North Korean Assembly, Choe Thae-bok. Mr Speaker was able to raise human rights concerns with his DPRK counterpart in a very constructive discussion. Most recently, the DPRK authorities extended an invitation to the Archbishop of Canterbury to visit their country soon, and I hope that he accepts.
The most recent visit of the all-party parliamentary group was in autumn 2010, after which it produced a report, “Building Bridges Not Walls: the Case for Constructive, Critical Engagement with North Korea”. The report describes a welcome commitment from DPRK officials to dialogue, with particular reference to negotiating a peaceful resolution as regards the relationship between North and South Korea. “Building Bridges Not Walls” also states that the APPG had
“the opportunity to see some encouraging developments, including the establishment of a Russian Orthodox Church in which Russian diplomats freely worship; a Protestant seminary; the work of British Council teachers; English-language teaching at Kim il-Sung University…a newly opened e-Library at Kim il-Sung University; and the establishment of the impressive Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), with a faculty of teachers from the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. These are welcome developments which we hope will…contribute towards the establishment of a more open and prosperous society for all the people of North Korea.”
I believe that I speak on behalf of many people in this country who fervently hope that the accession to leadership of Kim Jong-un will further pave the way for that.
The APPG delegation also voiced concerns that cannot be batted away with diplomatic niceties about the need to discuss grave human rights issues in North Korea through a process of constructive critical engagement. That should be done in the same way that President Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher established the Helsinki process with the Soviet Union. The APPG reports says:
“It is time for peace, and ‘it is time for Helsinki with a Korean face’.”
In other words, as the human rights researcher David Hawk says, a process is to be encouraged that would
“pursue peace, engagement, and reconciliation in association with the promotion and protection of human rights”.
That sums up more eloquently than I ever could the process that many in Britain desire to see develop in this new era. I would appreciate the Minister’s comments on how the British Government can help to facilitate dialogue to that end.
I turn to the protection of human rights, on which it has to be said that North Korea has, by any international standard, a deplorable record. I was stirred to call for this debate by a visit two months ago to the UK Parliament by a remarkable young man who is now in his late 20s, Shin Dong-hyuk. I understand that he is the only person ever to have escaped from a North Korean prison camp. On hearing Shin’s story, I was moved, by compassion for the North Korean people, to highlight their dignified suffering in order to encourage support for them in their plight. May I record that I called for this debate holding no hatred of the people of North Korea? I am motivated by a deep love for the North Korean people, and by concern for their needs and their deep suffering over decades.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. May I reinforce her remarks about the evidence of Shin Dong-hyuk, which was not only moving but informative? He taught us that life in the prison camps was very often the only way of life that families who had been born into captivity knew. When he came to the west, he learned for the first time about the Nazi holocaust, and it instantly reminded him of some of his experiences in North Korea. Is that not very powerful testimony of the depth of deprivation of human rights from which the people of North Korea are suffering?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. If you will indulge me, Mr Davies, I shall shortly go into further details of Shin Dong-hyuk’s testimony to us.
It was in meetings with the Conservative party human rights commission, and at an event that I chaired on behalf of the Henry Jackson Society, that Shin Dong-hyuk told his life story. It is the personal testimony of someone who was born into a North Korean prison camp, lived there for 23 years and then escaped. As my hon. Friend says, his story was authoritative, valuable and deeply moving.
Shin Dong-hyuk was born in camp 14 in 1982. Shin described the conditions he endured for the first 23 years of his life. When he was 14 years old, his mother and brother were executed in front of him because they tried to escape. He was held for seven months in solitary confinement. The torture he faced was unimaginably inhumane. With extraordinary dignity and lack of bitterness, he described to us how he was hung upside down by his legs and hands from the ceiling, and on one occasion his body was burned over a fire. His torturers pierced his groin with a steel hook; he lost consciousness.
On another occasion, Shin was assigned to work in a garment factory. Severe hard labour is a common feature of North Korea’s prison camps. He accidentally dropped a sewing machine, and as a punishment the prison guards chopped off his middle finger. According to Shin, couples perceived by the authorities to be good workers are arbitrarily selected by prison guards and permitted, even forced, to get married, with a view to producing children who could, in turn, become model workers. Children born in the prison camp are, like Shin, treated as prisoners from birth. As a child in the prison school, Shin recalled the teacher, who was also a prison guard, telling the children that they were animals whose parents should have been killed. He told them that, by contrast, he, the teacher, was a human, and that they should be grateful to be alive.
Shin also recalled seeing, while at school, a seven-year-old girl in his class being severely beaten because she was discovered to have picked up a few grains of wheat on the way to school. The beating continued for two hours, and her classmates had to carry her home. She died the next day.
In 2004, at the age of 22, Shin met a fellow prisoner who had seen life outside the camp. This prisoner described the wider world to Shin. Initially, Shin did not believe him. His entire life until then had been spent behind the barbed wire of the prison camp, and he thought that this was the extent of life. Eventually, the other prisoner convinced him, and Shin’s curiosity developed. Together, they decided to try to escape, and in 2005 they put their plan into action. What then followed is a story of agony and ecstasy. In a written testimony available on the internet, Shin recalls:
“I had no fear of being shot at or electrified; I knew I had to get out and nothing else mattered at that moment. I ran to the barbed wire. Suddenly, I felt a great pain as though someone was stabbing the sole of my foot when I passed through the wire. I almost fainted but, by instinct, I pushed myself forward through the fence. I looked around to find the barbed wire behind me but Park”—
“was motionless hanging over the wire fence! At that desperate moment I could afford little thought of my poor friend and I was just overwhelmed by joy. The feeling of ecstasy to be out of the camp was beyond description. I ran down the mountain quite a way when I felt something wet on my legs. I was in fact bleeding from the wound inflicted by the barbed wire. I had no time to stop but sometime later found a locked house in the mountain. I broke into the house and found some food that I ate, then I left with a small supply of rice I found in the house. I sold the rice at the first mining village I found and bribed the border guards to let me through the North Korean border with China with the money from that rice.”
Shin described to us first seeing the country of North Korea outside the prison camps, and said that, to him, it looked like paradise.
Shin’s story will be published in March this year, in a book called “Escape from Camp 14”. I hope that many of us will read it. I am aware that the Minister met Shin, and I look forward to hearing his reflections on their discussions. The Archbishop of Canterbury and Mr Speaker also met Shin, and expressed what an impact that encounter had on them. Shin, however, is by no means the only North Korean defector to have spoken in Parliament; earlier this year, Kim Hye-sook addressed a meeting organised by the APPG. She spent 28 years in the North Korean prison camps, and was first jailed at the age of 13. Kim was forced to work in coal mines even as a child, and witnessed public executions.
What Shin Dong-hyuk and Kim Hye-sook have in common is that they were victims of North Korea’s appalling “guilt by association” policy, which punishes people for three generations for the alleged crimes of a family member. Kim’s grandfather had gone to South Korea during the Korean war, and for that reason her family were regarded as hostile elements by the regime, and jailed. According to lists of detainees, which I have been sent, many others in the camps are jailed for being Christian.
It is estimated that there are approximately 200,000 prisoners in such camps, and over the years human rights reports by organisations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Christian Solidarity Worldwide have catalogued stories from survivors of the camps, who testify to the widespread use of forced labour, executions, torture, rape, sexual violence, forced abortions, infanticide and religious persecution. One, Kim Wu-yeong, told CSW:
“Christianity is public enemy number one in North Korea. If someone is a Christian in North Korea they are a political enemy and will be either executed or sent away to a political prison camp.”
Further information can be found in the book “North Korea: a Case to Answer, a Call to Act”, published by CSW in 2007 and available on the internet.
One of the most remarkable books I have ever read is “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick. If hon. Members read just one book on North Korea, I would recommend this one. It is available from the Library and tells the life stories of several escapees from North Korea to South Korea—people who have not lived in prison camps, but who have none the less suffered greatly over the past several decades in many ways, in a country where freedom of speech and movement is minimal and malnutrition is commonplace. I remember reading and being so saddened by one mother’s story; I identified with her. In the 1990s, when there was a severe famine in the country, she was forced to search the countryside for grass and bark, which she would mash up and feed her family. Both her husband and her loved son died during that famine.
Despite the passing of that terrible famine, malnutrition still affects many millions of people who live in North Korea. The current humanitarian situation is dire and food aid is desperately needed. The World Food Programme and UNICEF conducted an assessment last year that shows that food needs are acute. The problem has continued over many years with such serious implications for growth that the North Korean army has, I understand, now reduced its height requirement for men from 4 feet 8 inches to 4 feet 3 inches. Our fellow men and women are living at this time, in the 21st century, when there is so much plenty in so many other countries, but they live in another part of the world with such shortages in a country that, as the book “Nothing to Envy” describes, was once a developing nation but is now going backwards. Compassion should surely move us to do all that we can to provide food aid and to support international aid agencies that are willing to help.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She is moving on to one of the most important issues on this subject—humanitarian assistance. As well as making it very clear to the new regime in North Korea that the brutality and the other matters that we are all very deeply concerned about need to stop, we need to ensure that humanitarian assistance gets to the people of North Korea, as opposed to the Government and the regime, which could well be entering a new, dangerous phase.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. One of the issues that I will ask the Minister to address is the monitoring of humanitarian food aid across the country. Currently, food rations are distributed by the DPRK under the North Korean Government’s food distribution programme, on which millions of people are dependent, but it meets less than half the daily calorific needs of most recipients.
To underline the urgent need for food, I will relate some of the descriptions given to the APPG at a meeting here in Parliament, just a few weeks ago, by Baroness Amos, the UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator, after she visited the country late last year. I hope to report what Baroness Amos said accurately. She stated that the background to her visit was that in 2011, for the first time in 16 years, the North Korean Government made an international appeal for assistance—welcome news. By a UN assessment, she said that 16 million people in the DPRK are now in need of food aid and that the number is increasing because of the growth rate, especially in women and children.
Baroness Amos recounted that during her visit she was at pains to stress to the North Korean Government that humanitarian aid is impartial. She visited a hospital, a market, a biscuit factory, a Government food distribution point and a co-operative farm. She reported a situation of chronic poverty and underdevelopment, with an annual gap of about a million metric tons in the amount of food needed, according to the DPRK’s own targets. People live mainly off maize, cabbage and occasionally rice. There is no oil, although if people live near the sea, there is occasionally fish, but no meat. She asked some mothers when they last had an egg: no one could tell her. So there is virtually no protein for people in need of food aid. In fact, there are hardly any animals to be seen.
The nutritional deficit in children is acute, and there are major structural problems with food production, with severely low production from land and an almost total lack of mechanisation. Indeed, another visitor to North Korea, who went last month, told me this week that she had seen only three tractors over several days of travelling across the countryside.
Transport is a major problem. Baroness Amos reported seeing steam lorries—something she had never seen anywhere else in the world—where coal is burnt on the back of lorries to create steam and three out of four of them appeared to be broken down.
Food for much of the population comes from the public food distribution system and is obtained on production of ration cards. People receive about 200 grams of food a day, on average, although the DPRK’s own target is about 600 grams. Needs are particularly acute outside the capital Pyongyang. People living in Pyongyang rarely travel out of it, and vice versa, so the desperate needs of those outside the capital are perhaps not as well understood as they could be.
Will the Minister advise us about the endeavours of the British Government to facilitate the provision of food aid to North Korea, either directly or through international aid agencies? Will he press for unrestricted access for humanitarian aid organisations to all parts of the country and inform us what the British Government are doing, by themselves or through the European Union or United Nations, to address the crisis? What efforts have been made to ensure monitoring of aid and what assessment have the Government made of the effectiveness of international aid and the ability of international humanitarian organisations to reach North Korean people in need?
I want to highlight two other concerns: the situation of abductees and the plight of refugees. The Minister will, I hope, be familiar with the case of Dr Oh, who has been mentioned. There are many other cases. Will the Minister tell us what the latest position is regarding Dr Oh’s family and what efforts the British Government are making to press the North Korean authorities to account for the large number of foreign abductees, believed to run into several thousand, and to release them? What steps can the British Government take to work with Governments of countries whose citizens have been abducted and with international organisations such as the UN to secure their release?
Additionally, what steps can be taken to urge China to desist from the forcible repatriation of North Korean refugees and to tackle the plight of refugees who subsequently suffer at the hands of human traffickers? The number of women affected in that way runs into tens of thousands.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her speech, which I am listening to with interest. Does she agree that there has been quite a lot of discussion in the media about nuclear and military issues and the backward economic situation, but that human rights in Korea has had little exposure? Does she agree that that needs to be remedied urgently?
I agree. I hope that this debate will raise awareness of those two key issues.
The former UN special rapporteur for human rights in North Korea, Mr Vitit Muntarbhorn, has called on the international community to
“mobilise the totality of the UN to promote and protect human rights in the country”.
Will the Minister advise us whether the British Government would consider taking a lead to seek the establishment of a UN commission of inquiry in this respect on the subjects that my hon. Friend mentioned? In particular, what steps is the Minister taking to press the new leadership to open up access to international human rights monitors, including the UN special rapporteur for human rights, who has repeatedly been refused access? Can the Minister say whether any progress has been made in negotiation and dialogue with the DPRK authorities by the new UN special rapporteur to the DPRK?
With reference to the prison camps, such as the one Shin Dong-hyuk described, I understand that the North Korean authorities regularly say that these are not prisons as described. Will the Minister, through a process of Government engagement between the two countries, endeavour to arrange access to some of the camps for British parliamentarians, such as those from the APPG, who have already sensitively endeavoured over several years to build constructive relationships with North Korean people? In this regard, I pay tribute to the chairman and founder of the APPG for North Korea, Professor Lord Alton of Liverpool and his colleague in the House of Lords, Baroness Cox.
I welcome the British Government’s improved funding support, despite their austerity programme, for the British Council’s English teaching work within North Korea. It is particularly pleasing to note that English is now being taught as the second language in the DPRK. I should particularly like to offer my congratulations on the recent acceptance of the first two scholars to study at Cambridge university, which is to the credit of our Government, the Foreign Office and those scholars.
I welcome the Minister’s thoughts on what can be done to encourage the flow of information from the outside world into North Korea, perhaps through support for radio broadcasting.
I understand that there are some 400 North Korean refugees here in the United Kingdom. The book, “Nothing to Envy”, which I have mentioned more than once already, describes how difficult modern life, with all its choices and complexities, is for North Korean refugees. What support is available for them in the UK to help them prepare for a better future for themselves and their country? Is there dialogue between the Government and those refugees to aid our country’s understanding of North Korea and in turn help build relationships with that country?
I thank the Minister for meeting Shin Dong-hyuk personally. I believe that that is an indication of his sincere concern about these issues. Will he also consider meeting Dr James Kim, a remarkable man who has founded Pyongyang university of science and technology—PUST—within the past two years, when he visits Parliament on 15 February? Perhaps after hearing of the wonderful story of hope that the establishment of that university provides, the Minister may consider making representations to the Department for International Development to give support to PUST, if not on a wider basis for North Korea.
It is encouraging that the UK Government have developed, over the past 10 years, diplomatic relations with the DPRK. I pay a particular tribute to our diplomatic staff in North Korea, especially our new ambassador, Karen Wolstenholme, who I am sure will follow in an equally exemplary manner her immediate predecessor in the British embassy in Pyongyang, Mr Peter Hughes, whose ongoing concern for the people of North Korea has been evident to me whenever I have had the pleasure of meeting him.
What a positive step it would be if the United States established diplomatic relations with the DPRK and thereby effectively formally ended the Korean war. Can the Minister advise us what steps, if any, the British Government may be taking to encourage the Americans in this respect?
Shin Dong-hyuk told me that the North Korean people cannot change their situation by themselves. They need help from the international community. I hope that the Minister gives us an indication of what we can all do to give more hope to the people of North Korea.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing this debate and on bringing this matter to Westminster Hall for consideration. I also commend her on her passion and compassion on behalf of the people of North Korea and for making some salient, pertinent points about conditions in North Korea.
I wish to focus on human rights, specifically how people with Christian beliefs are affected. Perhaps the only subject at school that I excelled at was history. I was interested in the history of the second world war and the Korean war. In my constituency there are still some Korean war veterans, who tell stories about the critical battles that they fought and how they came through. No one could fail to be horrified by the stories they told. Today, when we look at North Korea, we see things getting progressively worse, and I want to focus on that.
Yesterday, just before I left the hotel where I was staying, on one of the TV news channels there was a story about the new leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un. There was this guy on a horse galloping around, looking well fed—there is certainly no shortage of food in his house—surrounded by immense numbers of people, who were supportive, all smiles and cheering him on. They were all wearing army uniform which tells us a lot. He appeared to be a confidante of many people, and he was looked on as a leader for change, perhaps to change things for the better. That, however, was a persona for TV, a story that the North Koreans wanted to put forward. The reality in North Korea is very different for people who do not necessarily accept his leadership or the authoritarian regime that he supports.
Any number of charities working to end the persecution of Christians highlight what happens in North Korea as some of the most horrific acts of persecution anywhere in the world. Open Doors and Release International have a chart of countries in the world, giving their level of persecution. In No. 1 position, at the top of the chart—not the championship or premier league winners, but at the top of the persecution league—is North Korea, in the persecution of its people and how it affects them.
I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) not only on securing the debate but on her choice of subject. My hon. Friend has raised his concerns about rights and so on, but on 19 December, the UN passed a resolution by majority, with 51 abstentions, that expressed the Assembly’s
“very serious concern at the persistence of continuing reports of systematic, widespread and grave violations of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights”.
Is my hon. Friend concerned that there is no mention of religious rights?
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing that matter to my attention, and to the attention of everyone in the Chamber. I am concerned about that, and I hope to use this opportunity, as others in the House will do today, to highlight the issues on behalf of Christians, who need to know that their human rights and individual needs are being represented by people on the other side of the border who have not forgotten about them.
Release International has stated that North Korea has one of the most repressive regimes in the world, and the extent of that repression is unknown because the country is fiercely independent, politically isolated and closed to all countries except China and Russia. The hon. Member for Congleton suggested what our Government might be able to do on behalf of people in North Korea whose human rights have been violated, and perhaps we need to ask Russia and China to be the main players in any process.
Defectors describe a society in which human rights do not exist and freedom of association, worship, movement and even thought are denied. Such claims are credible in the light of the fact that North Korea can make use of the world’s fifth largest army, of 1.2 million soldiers and 8.3 million reservists—9.5 million people. The hon. Lady referred to the height requirement being reduced, but one thing we always see when the soldiers are marching is that they are fit, healthy and determined. North Korea has a state monopoly of the media—TV, radio and the press—that indoctrinate the population with party propaganda, and the country also has 14 concentration camps, some of which hold as many as 50,000 prisoners. One has to feel compassion for people in those prison camps who might feel that they are forgotten, so it is important to ensure that they are not forgotten.
North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, referred to as the so-called great leader, is comparable to Joseph Stalin or Mao Tse-tung as an ideologue who controlled the masses through propaganda, revolutionary zeal, ruthless elimination of opposition and the sacrifice of large numbers of the population to starvation due to economic mismanagement. He used a philosophy known as juche—self-reliance and permanent revolutionary struggle—to achieve a national unity that has produced an isolated nation that many call the hermit kingdom. His son, Kim Jong-il, the so-called dear leader, continued his father’s policies but, if anything, more destructively. After decades of economic mismanagement and resource misallocation, North Korea has relied heavily on international aid to feed its population since the mid-1990s. Chronic food shortages and widespread malnutrition are rampant. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), in his intervention, spoke about food aid and how it could best be used. North Korea’s history of regional military provocations, the proliferation of military-related items, the development of long-range missiles, programmes for weapons of mass destruction and massive conventional armed forces, is of major concern to the international community. We in this country cannot ignore the effects of that.
As juche becomes increasingly weak and deluded, North Korea and its regime appear ever more vulnerable. We are now in a state of limbo after the death of Kim Jong-il as to the intentions of his son, Kim Jong-un, who was educated in the west but, according to The Wall Street Journal, is depicted by US intelligence as
“a volatile youth with a sadistic streak who may be even more unpredictable than his late father”.
The last and most extreme of the world’s dictatorships seems set to run as before. The dictatorship is certainly not over with the demise of his father. Citizens are obliged by law to display portraits of the late Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in their homes. It is considered highly subversive to have a religious faith and, as stated by the hon. Member for Congleton, anyone refusing to accept the Korean leader as the supreme authority is likely to be punished with imprisonment, death or simply disappearing.
The precise number of Christians in North Korea is unknown. Before the communists came to power, numbers were higher than today but, during the Korean war of 1950 to 1953, many fled to South Korea or were martyred. Those said to remain in North Korea are forced to hide their faith or face terrible consequences. The debate information pack included many press stories of those who tried to escape and who were shot and killed as a result. People have reportedly been executed merely for owning a Bible. Every one of us has a Bible in the house, probably more than one, and we have that freedom of expression. In some countries people do not, and North Korea is one of those countries. Many Christians have been sent to concentration camps as political prisoners for their beliefs—for having a belief in God—and have been subjected to brutal treatment in appalling conditions: torture, abuse, execution or simply being worked to death. There are an estimated 50,000 people in those concentration camps.
The regime still maintains the facade of religious freedom, and in 1998 opened three churches in Pyongyang. However, they are widely considered to be showcases for the benefit of foreigners and those who visit the country, demonstrating a façade of religious opportunity, and sermons contain political material supporting the regime. Christianity as we know it, and as is expressed in the Churches of the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the world, is not what happens in North Korea.
The Harsh regime and grinding poverty have forced thousands of North Koreans to try to escape to China. It is estimated that as many as 350,000 North Koreans live in China as illegal immigrants, with many more in South Korea and other countries. The Chinese authorities stubbornly uphold their policy of repatriating defectors found in their territory, even though repatriated North Koreans face notoriously harsh treatment. The North Korean authorities allegedly pay Chinese informants to denounce defectors, so defectors in China are forced into hiding and, often, into the clutches of ruthless individuals who trap them into forced labour or the sex industry. Some time ago, I watched a TV programme—again, a news item—that showed how people escaping North Korea left one set of horrific circumstances for another, and were exploited by those who take advantage of the vulnerability of such people. Pressure needs to be applied, so can the Minister, if possible, outline clearly what discussions have taken place with China and how we intend to help more? Thankfully, some of those who escape have turned to Christ after meeting missionaries who share the gospel with them. We as a nation must be ever mindful of those who are less well off and those who need help and support. The House and MPs who represent areas such as mine, and many others, have a duty to ensure that we do our best for them. We should apply any pressure we can on China and Russia to play their part in ensuring that change is brought about in North Korea.
I will continue, as will many other hon. Members, to pray daily for people in North Korea. I hope that something practical can be done, and it should be done if there is a possibility of success. I commend the hon. Lady on introducing the debate, and I look forward to the support of the House for the issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, in a debate on a subject other than Europe. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for securing the debate, and for the passionate and compassionate way in which she introduced it. Her speech was one of the most moving that I have heard this Parliament, and some of the points were very well made. The story she told of Shin Dong-hyuk was inspiring and horrifying in almost equal measure.
Many international comparisons have been made of the regime in North Korea. The hon. Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland) said that it stood comparison with the Nazis, and the re-education and prison camps do indeed bear comparison with those under Hitler. In North Korea, there are disappearances, torture and violent repression, carried out with as much ruthless efficiency as there was under any of the old Latin American military dictatorships. We see there the “duce” ideology, as totalitarian and intolerant as that of the Khmer Rouge. The cult of personality is as extreme as that of Ceausescu or Bokassa. The reckless mismanagement of the food supply has caused a self-induced famine as devastating as that experienced by China during Mao’s terrible “great leap forward”. To those traditional state crimes can be added terrorist acts that bear comparison with those of al-Qaeda, abductions like those by Somali pirates, and a nuclear programme that is as threatening as anything in Iran.
That is an extraordinary list, and in many ways it probably adds up to the most completely ruthless dictatorship in modern history. That poses a bit of a problem for those trying to focus opposition, or to support those campaigning for any sort of freedom in North Korea. In Burma, attention can be focused on a figure such as Aung San Suu Kyi; in eastern Europe, there were figures such as Walesa and Václav Havel, and there was Nelson Mandela in South Africa, but their equivalents in North Korea were annihilated long ago, or imprisoned and forgotten. That poses a problem.
To reinforce the point that the hon. Gentleman is making so eloquently, the last special rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Council classified human rights abuses in North Korea as sui generis—that is, as a completely separate category from any other abuses in the world. The hon. Gentleman has encapsulated why the rapporteur’s findings were absolutely right.
The hon. Gentleman’s point is absolutely correct.
It is important to focus on the people who have managed, extraordinarily, to escape from the regime, such as Mr Shin. I am pleased that the Minister has met Mr Shin personally, and that the Government are taking seriously the views, opinions, testimony and witness of those who manage to escape from the regime.
The hon. Member for Congleton asked us to focus on humanitarian and human rights issues, and rightly drew attention to Baroness Amos’s report of her visit last year, which highlighted that, on the humanitarian front, there is chronic poverty, underdevelopment, poor infrastructure, and indicators of widespread malnutrition and stunted growth in the population. Daily diets are deficient even in basic protein and essential fats. Previous UN assessments of the food supply suggested that it was very poor, with poor management of land, and as the hon. Member for Congleton suggested, there is poor access to basic mechanical farm equipment. That seems extraordinary in the 21st century. Add to that a near total breakdown in the management of public health, and vulnerability to human trafficking and perhaps even the exploitation of children, in which agents of the state may be complicit, and the picture is truly apocalyptic.
The picture is little better on the human rights front. We have heard about the widespread use of torture and possibly rape, and certainly about the regime’s use of extrajudicial beatings, imprisonment and execution in the many prisons camps. There is persecution not just of what the regime deems to be criminal acts, but of wrong thinking in a souped-up version of the Maoist red guards’ worst excesses. There is absolutely no freedom of belief, of the press, of thought or of political expression.
That poses the problem for democratic Governments of how to deal with such regimes. How can influence be exercised over a regime that is so totally beyond the pale that it is, as the hon. Member for South Swindon suggested, almost in a class of its own? There are some avenues. There is the traditional diplomatic pressure that the Government exercise through diplomatic contact with the North Korean embassy here in this country, our embassy in North Korea, and the embassies of our European Union partners. Clearly, we should continue to use those channels. We should also continue the pressure to encourage North Korea to allow access for the UN special rapporteur on human rights. We should certainly support a commission of inquiry, but there is clearly a problem in the UN Security Council, and we may not be able to obtain widespread support, which seems incredible. If China and Russia are not minded to support that, it is a damning indictment of their foreign policy. I should be grateful to hear the Minister’s latest report of any discussions that he may have had on that front with Chinese and Russian colleagues, or the UK’s representation at the UN.
There is also an issue with refugees. Some 300,000 refugees have allegedly made their way from North Korea to China. Apart from the logistical and social problems that that might cause, if they are caught, they are apparently routinely repatriated to North Korea, where they face almost certain torture and execution. A few refugees seem to reach countries such as Vietnam, Laos and Mongolia. What discussions has the Minister had with China and other regional Governments, and organisations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, on the treatment of North Korean refugees and the protection of their human rights and their right to asylum, which are extraordinarily important in the current situation?
Beyond that, there is the exercise of what is traditionally called soft power. It is difficult to make humanitarian aid relationships conditional, and that seems a brutal and inhumane approach, but some conditionality or attempt to ensure that food aid gets to the right people and is not being used as a political tool is important. I should be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts about his Department’s latest approach to that policy, and the approach taken by the Department for International Development.
The hon. Member for Congleton referred to the British Council and the language-teaching programme, which is a positive step. I should be interested to hear whether the Minister has any news about penetration of the BBC World Service or other language services into North Korea. I know that it is standard practice in North Korea to solder the tuning dial of radios, so that they can be tuned only to North Korean stations. The extraordinary levels to which the regime goes to try to repress its people are astonishing, although it does not require a mechanical or electrical genius to undo solder, so perhaps messages are getting through.
There are limits to soft power when a regime is totally unresponsive to that approach. We must try to find a means of exerting pressure. We could hope that a new regime and a new leader might lead to some change, but I think that may be as futile as the hope that Saif al-Islam Gaddafi or Bashar al-Assad would be a new influence on their countries. The likelihood is that, in reality, Kim Jong-un is much less influential in the exercise of power than even his father, and certainly his grandfather.
The key relationship in the region, and the only one that could make a material difference, is that between North Korea and China. China’s tacit tolerance of the appalling regime in North Korea is allowing it to survive, and it is crucial to emphasise to the Chinese that if they are to be players in international relations and participate responsibly as part of the international community, they cannot be seen to be complicit in the survival of such an appalling regime.
The kind of instability that I am sure the Chinese fear more than anything is a possibility in North Korea. As we have seen in north Africa and all over the world, repression leads in the end to a kind of instability. In an utterly dysfunctional society, a repressive regime will fall in one way or another, and it is surely better for that to happen through a process of international action and intervention than in a chaotic way that may cause instability on China’s doorstep. I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about any discussions he has had with China. As the hon. Member for Congleton has said, there is a moral case for not being tempted to forget and dismiss the situation in North Korea. Inaction is simply unacceptable in the face of such an appalling situation, and we should be grateful to the hon. Lady for pointing that out.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I assure you that I will be brief.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on obtaining this timely debate, and on the time that she has spent in this House looking at human rights issues. She has also looked, from a faith position, at the persecution of Christians across the globe, and I pay tribute to the outstanding work that she has done since becoming a Member of the House.
During my time in the House, many debates on human rights have been held in this Chamber, including on Somalia and on Burma, where some changes are taking place. North Korea probably has one of the worst regimes that the world has seen in recent years. According to recent press releases and the Financial Express of Bangladesh, North Korea has told the international community not to “expect any change”. It would seem, therefore, that we are in for more of the same persecutions and human rights violations that we have seen from that bitter regime in the past.
My hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned the persecution of those who hold a particular faith. In this great United Kingdom, we claim the privilege of civil and religious liberty for all. We may not practise that liberty too well, but we certainly claim it and state it as our position. Many years ago, people in the United Kingdom were burned at the stake because of their faith and what they believed. Thank God that day has passed, and people have the freedom to practise their faith in whatever way they desire. That is not the case, however, under North Korea’s brutal regime. As the hon. Member for Congleton said, it has been estimated that up to 200,000 people have been consigned to the prison camp system because of their faith, and that of those people, between one quarter and one third have been sentenced for religious reasons. The lower end of that estimation places the total number somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 people, the majority of whom profess Christianity.
Religious people who engage in evangelism, or who have been in contact with foreigners or missionaries, have been arrested and subjected to harsh penalties, including imprisonment or execution. There are frequent reports of the execution of Christians in North Korea, and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has stated:
“Severe religious freedom abuses occur regularly, including: discrimination and harassment of both authorized and unauthorized religious activity; the arrest, torture, and possible execution of those conducting clandestine religious activity.”
I urge the Minister to do whatever possible to help and to alleviate the difficulties experienced by those who are persecuted because of their faith under that brutal regime.
There are also issues of malnutrition, and the imprisonment of people who do not bow down and worship their leader. I believe, however, that there is a deep-rooted problem in that society, and we hope to see some changes in the not-too-distant future. I urge the Government to do what they can, and to use their influence through international development or aid. The hon. Member for Congleton mentioned that a request for aid had been made by North Korea, and that is perhaps an area in which pressure can be used to alleviate the difficulties experienced by people in that country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for securing this debate, and for the tone of her speech. She achieved the right balance between raising legitimate concerns about human rights, and reflecting a positive way forward and underlining the importance of engagement, and I warmly congratulate her.
I would like to share a few personal reflections. Seven or eight years ago, I visited North Korea with Michael Bates, who is now in the upper House—actually, he is not there, as he is walking from Mount Olympus to London on a 3,500-mile journey to raise awareness of the Olympic truce, which again is about peace and human rights. We went to North Korea of our own volition, and it was an extraordinary experience.
What hon. Members have said in this debate is correct: I have been to many countries in the world, but nowhere is quite like North Korea. One of my most striking memories, which I will carry with me to my grave, is of being woken at 5 o’clock in the morning in the state-owned hotel in which we were staying. We were woken by military music blaring not from a radio, but from loudspeakers on street corners. It continued for about 10 minutes, after which the odd light would turn on in apartment blocks all over Pyongyang. The music started again at 6 o’clock, and as we looked out of the window, we saw people filing down in silence from their apartment blocks, walking three abreast along wide pavements. There was not a car to be seen and the roads were empty; people were walking silently to work.
One point that has perhaps not been touched on in the debate is the regimented nature of the North Korean regime, which is extraordinary. One morning, we got up and walked along the pavement with other people. It was eerie; thousands and thousands of people were walking to work in complete silence. In North Korea, people tend to work from 6 o’clock in the morning until 6 o’clock at night, and then go home and do two hours of self-improvement. How about that as a policy for the United Kingdom?
We were in North Korea shortly after its latest famine, and we saw extraordinary poverty. One day, we were taken out of Pyongyang, even though not many people are allowed to leave the capital. We were taken to see something that the North Koreans were quite proud of: a new latrine block—not a toilet block, but a latrine block—in a hospital in a city about an hour and a half north-west of Pyongyang. They showed us this extraordinary thing that we would have condemned in the 1950s. That is just an example of how far behind they are.
Sometimes people say to us that politics is not important. One of the abiding reflections that I have is that down in the South are people who are broadly free and broadly prosperous, but in the North—it is not a small country; it has a population of 25 million people—the people are very much not free and not prosperous. Many of them are in poverty, and all of them are in oppression, apart from the ruling elite. The only difference between the two—these are the same people—is the political system and structure, so we must never let anyone tell us that politics is not important. It is crucial in underpinning freedoms.
My visit to North Korea was an extraordinary experience, and one that I thought hon. Members might like to hear about. I believe that it is right for the Government to engage with North Korea, despite all the problems that we have heard about today. We are all scratching our heads as to what we can do about that, and perhaps there is a glimmer of hope with a new leader coming in. As the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) suggested, we do not know the extent to which people are secretly listening to certain radio stations or hearing news from the outside world. Of course, there is no internet access for the ordinary masses. However, we do not know the extent to which there is awareness of how life is different outside North Korea, and how there might well be an opportunity in the future. My instinct is that if there is change in North Korea, it will come quickly and suddenly and from who knows where, so I think that it is right for the British Government to engage positively with North Korea in the meantime.
One thing that I did while in Pyongyang was vote in the Conservative party leadership election taking place at that time. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who is sitting beside me, had my proxy vote, which I exercised by telephone from a hotel in Pyongyang. I am probably the only person ever to have voted in Pyongyang. Whether I made the right decision, history will decide.
I just wanted to share those reflections. North Korea is an extraordinary country, and I believe that we are right to engage with it positively. I pay tribute to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which has been mentioned several times, for the excellent work that it does in banging the drum and raising awareness of human rights abuses in North Korea, but also in other countries. Whatever attitude our Government take in terms of positive engagement, it is very important that British non-governmental organisations are raising awareness, fighting for the causes and championing human rights around the world. They do a fantastic job, and long may that continue.
As for the attitude of the North Koreans to outside pressure, one thing that we have to realise is that they have lived for 50 years with hostility from outside. All over Pyongyang are billboards, and almost all of them show North Korean soldiers squeezing the life out of an American soldier or bombing the Japanese. They hate the Japanese and they hate the Americans, for all sorts of historical reasons, and there are billboards proclaiming their hatred of those countries, so in one sense external pressure simply bolsters the regime. It is already saying to its own people, “Look, it’s us against the world.”
As has been mentioned, China is the key relationship, in the way that I guess the relationship with the USA is key for Israel. I suspect that it suits China quite well to have this slightly odd regime on its doorstep, almost like a buffer zone. Is it not extraordinary that there is a country on earth that can make the Chinese human rights record look quite good? It happens to be right alongside it, in North Korea.
Does my hon. Friend agree that when our Government quite properly raise human rights issues with the Chinese authorities in relation to what is going on China, they should at the same time mention the situation in North Korea, given that it is a country of 25 million people where there is such widespread abuse of human rights?
Yes, I do agree, and I am sure that the Minister will touch on that in his response.
As we are paying tribute to the Government’s position, which I think is absolutely right, and to non-governmental organisations for raising awareness, I think that we ought not to let the opportunity pass to pay tribute to Lord Alton, who has been mentioned a couple of times. He has done an extraordinary job as chairman of the all-party group on North Korea. I am privileged to serve as one of the vice-chairs. He has done an extraordinary job in getting the balance right between entertaining people from North Korea when they come over here and organising all kinds of meeting and so on, and being robust and firm about human rights abuses. I wish him every success in the future.
I have the privilege of chairing the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and I have had a couple of meetings with members of the Korean Workers’ party when they have come over here in recent delegations. It is extraordinary to be talking about that kind of democracy with people from a one-party state, where people really have no understanding of it at all. However, it is important that those discussions continue, because all the time we are sharing our values and our pitfalls and mistakes—we always talk about our own mistakes along this journey towards democracy. Although that is a very long-term venture, it is important.
One way to get into the heart of the regime is to support education initiatives in Pyongyang and elsewhere in North Korea. The English language is increasingly valued by the North Koreans. It is now taught, I think, in all their schools as the second language. They have universities that are broadly staffed by English lecturers. They have an interest in English literature and in English culture. If I may say so to the Minister, he should work with the British Council and with his own Department to continue to build links, bridges and relationships. That is about looking forward. It may seem fruitless, but I believe that in the long term it will pay off, and I very much encourage him to continue down that road.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Davies; welcome to your position. I congratulate the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on securing the debate. As has been said—by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), I think—her concern about the plight of the people in North Korea shone through in everything that she said. It is important that we discuss this issue in terms not just of criticising the regime in North Korea, but of the compassion that I am sure we all feel for the people of North Korea.
I, too, had the pleasure of meeting Shin Dong-hyuk when he was in Parliament recently. The hon. Lady spoke in detail about the account that he gave. No one who met him could fail to have been moved by his personal story. The thing that stuck with me particularly was his account of the young girl who had been caught with some grains of rice in her pocket and was eventually beaten to death—she died because of her injuries. What struck me was the fact that he said, “Actually, we regarded this as commonplace. We weren’t horrified by it, because it was so common for that sort of horrific scenario to be enacted in the prison camps.” He had no awareness of life outside his camp, or of the fact that there was an alternative, until he escaped. What he had to say made a very powerful impression on me. Christian Solidarity Worldwide is to be congratulated on its efforts to ensure that we get to hear about such examples.
Obviously, the situation in North Korea at the moment, with the death of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un’s succession, has created a great deal of uncertainty among the international community. Whether we can treat it as an opportunity to try to put the international spotlight on North Korea and highlight some of the opportunities for change is a moot point. Certainly, we would all be united in hoping that it does present an opportunity, but, as has been said, there is not just one issue to tackle in North Korea. The hon. Member for Cheltenham talked about this. There are humanitarian concerns and concerns about the repression of free speech and lack of democracy. There are the kidnappings and the prison camps. There are so many issues to be tackled, but we need to do all that we can to try to keep the focus on North Korea and to keep diplomatic efforts to engage with North Korea at the forefront of what is being done.
As the 2010 Foreign and Commonwealth Office report on human rights and democracy highlighted,
“Human rights, as understood by the rest of the world, do not exist in the DPRK.”
The former UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea described the situation as “horrific and harrowing”. As has been said, the outside world lacks reliable information about life in North Korea. The fact that we have to rely on the accounts of the few people who have managed to defect—it can take them many years to reach a safe place where they feel able to talk about their situation—shows how dire the situation is.
It is difficult to imagine the sheer scale of the restrictions on freedom of speech, freedom of information, freedom of movement and freedom of association. The hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) gave a fascinating account of his visit to North Korea and of just how different it is. I have visited many countries where there are real concerns about human rights, but the scale of what he was talking about was very different from that in any of the countries that the rest of us have visited.
As has been said, external media are prohibited, and there are indications that the restrictions are being enforced even more stringently. There is no freedom of religion, and several Members have talked particularly about the persecution of Christians. The rights of women are enshrined in the constitution, but sexual harassment and violence are reportedly widespread, while victims of human trafficking are treated as criminals. There are also reports of forced abortions and infanticide, and child labour is not uncommon.
The punishments associated with even minor transgressions against the restrictions are harsh and arbitrary. Although the numbers are not known, for the reasons that we have discussed, the death penalty, including public executions, and torture and other forms of inhumane treatment are used routinely.
Even more worryingly, Amnesty International reports that, in preparation for Kim Jong-un’s succession, officials deemed a threat to him were executed. Although it is difficult to secure completely reliable figures, Christian Solidarity Worldwide notes there was a 58% increase in reports of human rights violations between 2010 and 2011. The populations of the prison and political labour camps also seem to have increased, with estimates that 200,000 people are now held in them.
The hon. Member for Congleton did not touch only on the human rights abuse, and it is important to note that the debate is also about the humanitarian situation, which the UN special rapporteur has described as absolutely dire. As we have heard, there are severe food shortages, which, along with the lack of proper health care, are a serious danger for the people of North Korea. There is minimal medical care outside Pyongyang, and any facilities are of a poor standard. The food shortages are acute and chronic, and inefficiencies in the public distribution system are exacerbated by floods and harsh winters. It is estimated that 1 million people have died since the mid-1990s because of the lack of food, and millions are suffering from malnutrition.
Of course, the situation is exacerbated by the fact that the regime is not prepared to admit just how bad things are or to engage with the international community to the extent that it needs to on the issue of aid. China and South Korea have provided the most humanitarian aid, but with the deterioration of the bilateral relationship with South Korea since 2008, its contribution has fallen drastically. I was in China just before Christmas and took the opportunity to talk to the Chinese authorities about what more they could do to provide support for the people of North Korea.
I very much support the World Food Programme’s emergency operation, which was launched in April, but there are concerns. The UN has reported that it has received only 31% of the resources needed, and the assessment is that there is still a serious crisis.
Countries face a difficult dilemma when providing humanitarian aid to North Korea, not least because of the difficulty of ensuring that aid reaches the people who need it most. We also get into the whole debate about whether aid should be used as leverage on the human rights issue. However, the UN has warned that aid to North Korea should not be politicised when the humanitarian situation is so dire, and I subscribe to that view.
Can the Minister tell us whether longer-term plans will be in place once the World Food Programme operation ends in March? Do the Government agree with the UN’s statement that aid to North Korea should not be politicised? In that context, what can we do to support the humanitarian programme in North Korea?
Will the Minister assure us that the Government are making every effort to work with the EU and the UN to send a clear message to North Korea and to ensure that the transition to the new leadership presents an opportunity rather than a danger? What discussions have UK representatives had with international partners—particularly North Korea’s neighbours—and representatives of the North Korean regime since Kim Jong-il’s death? Does the Minister share my concern that efforts to cement the new leadership in place could lead to a deterioration in the human rights situation? If the new leader is not secure in his position, that could trigger a greater crackdown on anyone seen as a potential opponent of the regime.
Following Kim Jong-il’s death, the Foreign Secretary indicated that the UK’s priority was the resumption of the six-party talks. Any engagement between North Korea and the international community would be welcome, but will the Foreign Office seek to broaden its efforts beyond denuclearisation to include a human rights agenda?
One significant obstacle to progress is North Korea’s refusal to admit external observers, so we support continuing efforts to press for a visit by the UN special rapporteur. Can the Minister advise us on any recent diplomatic discussions on the issue?
Finally, last September, the International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea, led by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Federation for Human Rights, was launched to campaign for the establishment of a UN commission—something that the European Parliament has called for previously. The Government have indicated that they are not against a commission, but there are doubts that it would be possible to secure UN Security Council support. Will the Minister advise us whether there are any active negotiations on the issue and whether he takes a positive view of whether a commission can be achieved?
Thank you, Mr Davies, for giving me the opportunity to conclude the debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time.
Let me start—not just because it is the convention to do so, but because I want to—by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) on raising this subject and giving us an opportunity to debate it at some length. As well as having responsibility in the Foreign Office for Asia, I have a thematic responsibility for human rights policy, and, over my year and a half as a Minister, I have observed that many serious human rights causes around the world, although they certainly deserve our attention, receive far more attention in the House and among campaigning organisations in Britain than North Korea does. In my view, North Korea receives insufficient attention, considering the gravity of the situation in that country. In a small way, we have, I hope, started to address that deficit this morning. I therefore pay tribute to my hon. Friend not only for raising this subject, but for doing so with such evident decency, humanity and passion.
I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), to whom I should apologise, because I called him the Member for Shannon in a previous debate—I think I got it right this time. My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) got to the nub of many of the political questions underlying the human rights problems in North Korea. He was quite right to focus some attention on China’s role, and I will seek to come to that.
We heard a fascinating speech from my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), who was quite right to draw a stark contrast between North Korea and South Korea to illustrate the importance of politics. An amazing transformation has taken place in South Korea, which has, in my lifetime, been poorer than North Korea, but which now has the 12th largest economy in the world. It is a member of the G20; it has big companies such as Samsung, LG and Kia; it has the UN Secretary-General; and it will host the winter Olympics in a few years. You name it—South Korea has an amazing success story to tell, but it shares the peninsula with people who, although ethnically and linguistically the same, are in radically and shockingly different circumstances.
I, of course, pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy). This certainly is a cross-party issue, and I am sure that everyone wishes to treat it in that way. She was right to point to the most recent Foreign and Commonwealth Office human rights and democracy report, which lists North Korea as a “country of concern”. She gave the report’s crucial quote, which is that
“human rights, as understood by the rest of the world, do not exist in”
North Korea. The Foreign Secretary has made it clear that human rights
“are part of our national DNA and will be woven into the decision making processes of our foreign policy”.
As such, we treat human rights and the humanitarian plight in North Korea with the utmost seriousness.
North Korea is a secretive society with limited access to outsiders. Verification of the real situation in the country is difficult, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton and others rightly noted, civil liberties are severely curtailed there. Fundamental freedoms that we take for granted, such as freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of movement within a country, do not exist. Even freedom of religion, which is enshrined in the North Korean constitution, is restricted, with the state prosecuting all illegally held religious services and missionary activities. The Government also impose pervasive everyday restrictions on their population, such as the ban on listening to or watching foreign radio and TV programmes and the requirement to display portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in all homes.
The judiciary is not independent and the legal system is not transparent, so citizens have no protection from the state. Ordinary citizens are not able to get advice from defence lawyers and many endure ad hoc, onsite public trials. There are also continued reports of public executions, with some indication that their frequency is increasing. Also deeply worrying is the current estimate that there are about 150,000 to 200,000 political prisoners serving terms in prison camps. Accounts continue to emerge from defectors of torture and beatings in correctional centres, labour training camps and detention centres across the country. Inmates are believed to endure inadequate meals, hard labour and a lack of medical care.
As has been mentioned, like other hon. Members, I also had the opportunity to meet Shin Dong-hyuk during his visit to the UK in October. I greatly appreciate the efforts of Mr Shin to raise awareness throughout the world of the appalling conditions and the seemingly inhumane treatment of people in North Korean prison camps. His personal testimony brought home the human suffering in a way that statistics could never manage, but it is worth mentioning that I am afraid that a lack of transparency and independent verification means that we are unable to get a full and accurate picture of the conditions in the camps. I am unable to inform hon. Members of how widespread the maltreatment that Mr Shin experienced is, because we are unable to obtain information that it is as clear as we would wish it to be, but the situation is obviously extremely serious indeed.
As the hon. Member for Bristol East mentioned, the rights of women and children continue to be of concern. Although women’s rights are enshrined in the North Korean constitution, sexual harassment and violence—both domestic and in detention—is still widespread. Human trafficking remains one of the gravest crimes against North Korean women. Victims are often treated as criminals rather than helped by the authorities. The welfare of children is of equal concern, with many having no access to education and children under 16 routinely used as cheap labour.
We also have serious concerns about North Korea’s failure to guarantee the right to eat and their management of the food sector. The North Korean Government’s prioritisation of the military budget and their 1 million-strong army means that the state does not spend nearly enough in support of food production and imports. In recent decades, that has led to serious health issues among their population and humanitarian catastrophes, including the severe famine in the 1990s that caused up to 2 million deaths. International food aid and development aid have reduced the number of famine deaths, but North Korea still requires international assistance to feed its population.
We work bilaterally and multilaterally, in partnership with the United Nations, European Union and non-governmental organisations, to improve the situation in North Korea. Bilaterally, we take every opportunity to raise concerns on North Korea’s human rights record via its embassy in London and our embassy in Pyongyang. Most recently, our ambassador in Pyongyang raised human rights as an area on which the UK and North Korea disagree, when she called on Kim Yong-nam, the President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly—one of the most senior figures in the North Korean Government—in October 2011. Through our embassy in Pyongyang, we also contribute to a series of small-scale humanitarian projects, but it is one of the hardest countries in the world in which our diplomats serve.
On large bilateral funding, the UK does not give aid directly to North Korea, owing to the difficulty in agreeing acceptable access and monitoring controls with the Government. We therefore believe that the Department for International Development’s contribution to various multilateral organisations in North Korea represents the best way to contribute financially. Such commitments include subscriptions to various UN and Red Cross funds. Multilaterally, we continue to work through the UN and the EU to raise concerns about human rights abuses.
I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham that I have personally raised the Government’s and my concerns about the Chinese Government’s role in North Korea directly with the Chinese Government. The point has been made in the debate that the current condition of North Korea might suit China. That might or might not be the case, but for the reasons that he spelled out, I do not accept that analysis. Even if one believed that its condition was in China’s narrow political interest, the Chinese need to take account of a moral dimension, which is that the most appalling degradation of human life is taking place on their doorstep and any country that does not devote its energies to addressing such an issue needs to reconsider its political priorities and responsibilities.
At the UN, one always has to assess how one can be most effective. There is a place in politics for dramatic statements of intent and a place for trying to achieve the objectives that we all share. Our approach has sought, as much as we are able, to bring about those objectives, but we keep an open mind about how we can best achieve them in future.
The succession of Kim Jong-un brings with it an opportunity for us to push the new leadership to acknowledge the need for greater respect of their citizen’s human rights. However, that will be difficult in the next few months, as it is likely that those who have recently assumed power in Pyongyang will take some time to establish policy priorities and a modus operandi for dealing with foreign countries. On 5 January 2012, the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly issued a decree to implement an amnesty of prisoners to mark the 100th birthday of Kim Il-sung and the 70th birthday of Kim Jong-il. We will push for further details and encourage transparency, but if it goes ahead, it will be a welcome small step forward for human rights.
We will need to be mindful of the increased risk to stability on the Korean peninsula, as the new leadership in Pyongyang establishes its security credentials. To that end, we continue to be in very close contact with key allies, including South Korea, the United States, Japan and our partners in the EU. Despite that important work, we will ensure that we and international partners continue to prioritise all the justifiable human rights concerns that have been articulated in this debate.
I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton for raising the topic this morning. I assure all Members present that the situation in North Korea is as grave and as big an affront to our common humanity and decency as that in any country in the world. The British Government and Parliament will continue to work to bring about radical change.