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North Korea

Volume 572: debated on Monday 16 December 2013

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on North Korea following the execution of Jang Sung-taek.

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this issue to the House’s attention and commend her for her tireless work as vice-chair of the all-party group on North Korea.

We are deeply concerned to learn of the execution of Jang Sung-taek. It is yet another example of the horrifying and surreal brutality of the North Korean regime, which presides over what Carl Bildt, the Swedish Foreign Minister, has called an “empire of horror”. We remain deeply concerned about the impact of that unpredictable regime on regional stability.

Jang Sung-taek’s execution and the reports of executions of people associated with him reinforce our significant concerns about North Korea’s appalling human rights record, which we assess to be one of the worst, if not the worst, in the world. The United Kingdom has consistently raised concerns about the severe and systematic human rights violations carried out by the North Korean Government, including reports of executions; the lack of any sort of basic judicial process; the severe curtailment of all freedoms, including freedom of thought, movement and religion; the systematic use of torture; and the horrific stories emanating from the gulags.

The United Kingdom has been at the forefront of raising those concerns in international forums. This year we co-sponsored two human rights resolutions in the United Nations. We also supported the introduction of a UN commission of inquiry, which will report to the Human Rights Council in March 2014. In October, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office sponsored a visit to the UK by the inquiry panel. The panel heard harrowing accounts from North Korean refugees about systematic abuses of even the most basic human rights. I met the panel and confirmed the United Kingdom’s full and unequivocal support for its work. I am pleased that parliamentarians had the opportunity to meet the panel and discuss its work.

Given the opaque nature of the North Korean leadership, the implications of Jang’s execution remain unclear. Our embassy in Pyongyang reports that the situation on the ground is currently calm. We will continue to monitor the situation closely, not least during the anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s death tomorrow. We are alert to the possibility that the regime may use that as an opportunity to bolster public support for its leader.

It remains to be seen whether the execution will strengthen Kim Jong-un’s power or whether it indicates political instability and a struggle for power. We are in close contact with the United States and the Republic of Korea, and we will speak to other members of the six-party talks in the coming days.

I thank the Minister for that reply. As he said, Jang Sung-taek’s execution was just the most high-profile of many. For some six decades, the North Korean people have suffered intolerably. People are incarcerated merely for their beliefs, or for speaking a few words that the leadership objects to. Children are treated as prisoners from birth, and those who try to escape the regime risk not only imprisonment or worse for themselves but punishment for up to three generations of their family. An incalculable number of North Koreans have been, and continue to be, worked to death, frozen to death, burned to death, gassed to death or tortured in the most unimaginable ways. In short, the North Korean people are the most persecuted on earth.

Just because this terrible situation has persisted for so long—over three generations—cannot be a reason for the international community not to address it as a priority. Millions live at or near starvation while international charities say that food aid, if accompanied—and there are the means—will reach them. What more will our Government do to help them through the Department for International Development and otherwise? Food should never be used as a weapon of war.

Given that a major weapon in ending Stalin’s reign of terror was the role that this country played by broadcasting the BBC World Service and breaking the Soviet information blockade—the same has been done more recently with the Burmese information blockade—and given the Foreign Secretary’s role in setting the World Service’s strategic objectives, will the Minister consider extending the BBC World Service to the Korean peninsula?

Having read Amnesty’s recent report on the expansion of North Korean prison camps, which are incarcerating some 300,000 people, and following the recent spate of executions—including that of Jang Sung-taek—the show trials, force-fed propaganda, and an ideology that has starved 2 million to death, and bearing in mind that the UK is now home to the largest number of North Korean refugees outside South Korea, should we not do all in our power, both as a country and as a leader in the international community, to help end North Korea’s reign of terror?

My hon. Friend’s almost fantastical description of North Korea is, alas, not fantastical but only too true. To call it an Orwellian nightmare would be a cliché and would not give a clear enough indication of the horrors vested on the people of that country by its leaders.

I think the United Kingdom is playing an important part. My hon. Friend will be aware that we fully support the United Nations Human Rights Council agreement to establish a commission of inquiry. That was a unanimous vote—which is unusual on such issues—and was proposed in a resolution presented by the EU and Japan, and co-sponsored by more than 40 countries. As my hon. Friend knows, that commission will look at all those issues, particularly the prison camps as well as other matters such as human rights abuses, and report back in March 2014.

My hon. Friend asked about food aid to North Korea, which is understandable given the reports emanating from that country about food shortages. There are even some alarmist reports about how people are going about eating, which, again, are too horrific to recount. The United Kingdom does not currently have a bilateral development programme in North Korea, and neither do we provide money to international organisations specifically for use in North Korea. However, some non-earmarked funds that we provide to organisations such as the World Food Programme may be used for humanitarian programmes in that country. Our embassy in Pyongyang uses some of its bilateral funding for small-scale humanitarian programmes such as nutrition for nursing mothers and greenhouses for children’s homes, although that remains under regular review.

My hon. Friend also asked about the ongoing issue of the BBC and broadcasting to North Korea, which I know is something that the North Korea all-party group has discussed and a matter that Lord Alton of Liverpool has been pushing hard. The BBC has been in touch with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about the issue—or vice-versa, I should say. It is primarily an issue for the BBC, which has, of course, full editorial, operational and managerial independence. We understand that it is not currently persuaded that a Korean language service would be an effective value-for-money use of available resources. Nevertheless, our embassy in Pyongyang is working with BBC Worldwide on an initiative to broadcast BBC drama, nature and science programmes on North Korean television. We believe that that has the potential to expose significant numbers of North Koreans to aspects of the outside world from which they are normally totally isolated.

I thank the Minister for his response and the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for raising this issue. The House is united in its condemnation of the North Korean regime, and we share the view of the Foreign Office that this execution is another shocking illustration of the brutality of the North Korean leadership. We also echo concerns about the shocking levels of hunger and poverty in North Korea, as well as the many human rights abuses.

It seems likely that the execution was intended as a show of strength by Kim Jong-un, and to the wider world it has also been taken as an indication of his insecurity and volatility. It comes after a year that has seen an even more provocative and unpredictable stance from Pyongyang, including nuclear threats to the USA, and the declaration of a state of war with South Korea. Recent satellite images published by Amnesty International indicate that the largest prison camps are continuing to expand. The international community responded calmly and—crucially—with a united front to attempts to escalate tensions earlier this year, and it is important that that consensus continues.

Given that an urgent question has been granted today, the House must turn its attention to what can be done in the immediate future to try to address the situation. Have the Government made any assessment of the possible implications of the execution for the North Korean leadership and the wider region? The Minister mentioned that discussions have already taken place with the USA and the Republic of Korea, but have any conversations been held yet with Chinese officials, or will that happen in the near future? It has been reported that Jang Sung-taek had been building trade links with China, prompting some speculation about a change in economic policy. What is the Minister’s assessment of such reports, and of the nature of North Korea’s current relationship with China? I was in the Republic of Korea earlier this year, and my understanding is that the relationship is under some strain. Was North Korea discussed during the Prime Minister’s recent visit to China?

More generally, can the Minister elaborate on what influence he thinks China can potentially exercise? Given that both the United Kingdom and China were recently elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council, what action does he think the council can take, and, most crucially, what prospect does he envisage of any response at all from North Korea? As he said, the UN commission of inquiry on human rights in North Korea is due to report in March. Will he tell us what recommendations the Government would like it to make?

Given the unanimous support for UN security resolutions, which has already been mentioned, will the Minister be taking the matter up with the UN Security Council, and what does he think could be achieved by his doing so?

I thank the hon. Lady for the spirit of consensus in which she framed her questions. We are clearly very much on the same page.

The hon. Lady made an assertion about the implications of, or the reasons for, the execution. I must pause to think about that. There is a total lack of clarity in regard to what the execution was about, and an equal lack of clarity in regard to the implications for what will happen next. I have read a number of reports this morning, and each of them is speculative, so the answer is ‘we do not know.’ Whether we will ever know is also a legitimate question, but as things stand, we simply do not know.

The hon. Lady asked whether the Prime Minister had raised the matter in China during our recent visit. The answer is yes, and, as she would imagine, it was also raised during the visit of President Park of the Republic of Korea during her recent state visit. The hon. Lady asked what more China could do. China has a 900-mile border with North Korea, it has a very real and present interest in North Korea, and we believe that it has a key role to play in the country’s future. She also asked what kind of relationship the current North Korean regime had with China. Again, we simply do not know, because we do not understand the thinking behind the leadership as it stands.

The hon. Lady asked what the British Government would like from the commission of inquiry. The commission will report to the United Nations in March 2014, and, as she will understand, it would be inappropriate for us to comment on the recommendations before we have seen the full report. I believe that the unanimity shown by the United Nations Human Rights Council and its reporting will be extremely important in respect of what we do next. We would like the six-party talks to resume as soon as possible, but at this stage I cannot envisage their resuming until we see some sort of gesture of good will from the regime in Pyongyang. Such a gesture would be more than welcome; at present, as the hon. Lady and the House will know, such a gesture is very much absent.

Order. A great many right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. I must emphasise that the Second Reading debate on the Care Bill, which is to follow, is very heavily subscribed. We are therefore somewhat time-constrained, which renders pithiness from Back and Front Benches alike imperative.

Given that the United Kingdom remains a member of the armistice commission which was established at the end of the Korean war, can my right hon. Friend give an unequivocal assurance that, in the event of further military provocations from the north and a military response from the south, the United Kingdom Government will use their position as a member of the commission to do their utmost to ensure that military action by both sides does not escalate out of control?

My right hon. Friend talks about a military response. We are doing everything in our power to avoid any regional instability or military response by any side in the region. There are several worrying areas in that part of the world, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is contributing to the general instability. We work closely with our partners in the six-party talks and liaise closely with both the Republic of Korea and our American allies, and we shall continue to do that.

Will the Minister have slightly more robust conversations with the BBC, encourage it to look at the issue of transmitters into North Korea and point out to it that BBC documentaries and drama, however entertaining they may be, are not really the answer? What is needed is the World Service and access.

The hon. Lady will no doubt be aware that we have these discussions with the BBC. As I say, my noble Friend Lord Alton of Liverpool has been leading on this, and the BBC has taken a view and is communicating it to him. There are reasons to do it and there are reasons not to do it, but at the end of the day, the BBC has the independence to decide where and to whom to broadcast.

I share the expressions of distaste, even disgust, that we have heard, but I wonder if I might be forgiven for saying that we have to keep some sense of realism. Is not the truth that for the foreseeable future the best we can hope for is to pursue successfully a policy of containment and deterrence?

My right hon. and learned Friend, who speaks with considerable wisdom, is entirely right. Yes, containment is important, but equally we want the DPRK to halt its programme to develop nuclear capability in violation of every known international agreement. That is what this is about. We do not want North Korea to become a nuclear state. We cannot act unilaterally to prevent it, but we can act together with our partners in the six-party talks.

I share the Minister’s horror at the execution last week and I condemn the death penalty in any circumstances anywhere, but it has served to highlight the abuse of human rights throughout North Korea. Have the six-party talks at any stage included a discussion about human rights? When they are resumed, will he ensure that human rights are brought into the equation?

It is almost impossible to conceive any discussion involving the abuses of the regime in Pyongyang not including its horrific abuse of human rights—as I said in my opening remarks, perhaps currently the worst of any regime anywhere in the world.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way to start breaking down barriers in North Korea is through contact with the outside world? Will he use his position therefore to encourage contacts with South Korea in Kaesong? Furthermore, will he encourage the BBC to consider broadcasting into North Korea—it would be not a cost-effective, but a diplomatic decision—and encourage maximum contact with China through trade?

Yes to the last point. I have just accompanied the Prime Minister to China on the largest ever prime ministerial-led trade delegation anywhere—it included more than 150 companies—so UK-Chinese bilateral trade is incredibly important. I believe that I have addressed the BBC issue. On my hon. Friend’s other point, I would say: that is why we have an embassy in Pyongyang. Some people say, “If you can’t penetrate the mind of the regime, why have an embassy in Pyongyang?” He has answered that question: a chink of light is better than no light at all. The fact that we have a diplomatic presence in North Korea is welcomed by Seoul and Washington, with whom we work closely on these matters. It is important that whenever we see a chink of light, we try to widen it to expose to the people of North Korea that there is a better world out there. I do not believe that the regime can keep them downtrodden forever.

Will the Minister lay out his thinking about the parallel process of the six-party talks and the other avenues the Foreign Office is pursuing in trying to resolve this issue?

The correct place to resume negotiations is through the six-party talks. That is key. It brings in all the interested parties in the region and, obviously, the United States. Without those talks, I do not believe that sufficient progress could be made, and as I said earlier I do not think it is possible for those talks to resume without a gesture from the North Koreans, but obviously that gesture is sadly lacking.

Given that we already send food aid to some pretty unpalatable regimes around the world, could we ask the Department for International Development to look again at the issue of North Korea?

I have already said that the situation is currently under review, and I will certainly raise it again with colleagues in DFID. I think there are reasons why we do not give food aid to North Korea, not least because of the great difficulty of ensuring that it ended up in the right place. I will make a commitment to my hon. Friend, who takes a keen interest in these matters—and rightly so—that I will speak to my DFID colleagues on the issue he raised and I will get back to him.

It is difficult to envisage any people anywhere in the world who would not benefit more greatly from the BBC World Service than the people of North Korea. The Minister said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) that there were reasons why the BBC had decided not to broadcast into North Korea. Will he now share those reasons with us?

The BBC takes a view about where its resources are best employed and about how people can best access its broadcasting abilities. At the end of the day, whatever representations we make to the BBC, it quite properly makes the final decision on where it wants to broadcast. That is how the BBC is enshrined in charter, and it is how it should remain.

Do not recent events in North Korea demonstrate the need for a clear, continuous and candid dialogue between the Foreign Office and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Prime Minister’s recent visit to China was extremely welcome in thickening and deepening the UK’s relations with that country?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was encouraged by the levels of access that the Prime Minister and his ministerial team were granted by the Chinese authorities. Political and diplomatic relations are now good, while bilateral trade is, of course, extremely good and inward investment is good. It is critical, as my right hon. Friend says, that China continues to play a lead role in trying to resolve what has been for many decades now an impenetrable problem of this rogue despotic regime in North Korea, treading on the lives of its people. This cannot go on indefinitely. It is up to all of us in the international community not only to prevent some of the regional instabilities created by this situation, but to do something for the people who are living there in the most horrific circumstances.

About 20% of North Korea’s Christians are in jail. What discussions did the Prime Minister have on his recent economic visit to China about leaning on North Korea in order to gain a relaxation or easement of the persecution of Christians?

The hon. Gentleman, who always speak up for Christians, is right. Alas, it is not only the Christian community in North Korea that is so downtrodden. We raised our general concerns about this issue and human rights in North Korea with officials from the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs most recently in November 2013. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman, however, that making significant progress on human rights and the protection of minorities such as Christians is difficult, because the North Korean Government refuse to enter into meaningful discussions on these matters.

What assessment does my right hon. Friend make of reports of widespread public indoctrination sessions occurring in North Korea? Does that not reinforce the point that greater outside influence must be brought to bear if we are to see change in this despicable regime and change for the people of North Korea?

My hon. Friend will no doubt wish to discuss that at the meeting of the Conservative group on North Korea that I believe is taking place tomorrow. He mentions indoctrination, and I have to say that the levels of indoctrination that go on there are almost surreal—incomparable with any other regime or country in the world. It is truly horrific, with almost every aspect of the Korean people’s lives being the result of indoctrination. That is why, as I said, we maintain an embassy because any chink of light is better than no light at all, but it is a long haul and it is difficult work.

The Minister will be aware that many North Koreans in touch with families in South Korea have reported not only that the number of indoctrination sessions has increased, but that targeted individuals are being forced to write letters of loyalty to the leader, Kim Jong-un. Does that not suggest that Jang’s execution is part of a wider campaign to consolidate power as the economy continues to fail?

There are indeed reports that Jang has taken the blame for the desperate state of the economy, and there are also reports that this is the work of the military and not of the leader, but all these are just that: reports. We could indulge ourselves all afternoon by speculating about the reasons behind this. The answer is we do not know. The one fact of which we are certain is that the people of North Korea are suffering in a way that some of us can only guess at, and some of us would not wish that treatment to be vested on even our worst enemies.

We remain extremely concerned about proliferation of any sort. There has been evidence in the past of trade between North Korea and Iran which is why it is so vital that everybody adheres to the sanctions regime that is currently imposed.