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North Korea: Nuclear Test

Volume 685: debated on Monday 9 October 2006

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice, namely:

What action Her Majesty’s Government have taken or propose urgently to take in response to the nuclear test conducted by North Korea.

My Lords, in response to the nuclear test, the Prime Minister issued the following Statement at 8.15 this morning:

“I condemn this completely irresponsible act by the government of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). The international community has repeatedly urged them to refrain from both missile testing and nuclear testing. This further act of defiance shows North Korea’s disregard for the concerns of its neighbours and the wider international community and contravenes DPRK’s commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and UN Security Council Resolution 1695”.

The UN Security Council will meet later today in New York to discuss the international response to the nuclear test, further to the council’s presidential statement of 6 October. We will work closely with our partners in the Security Council to ensure a swift and robust response.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for repeating that Statement and commenting on the words of his right honourable friend. Does he agree that it is extremely important for the United Nations Security Council to decide on firm and definite action? Is it not the case that there have been endless deadlines and a great many carrots—all kinds of sweeteners—offered to North Korea, all of which have been simply ignored or turned down, and that all attempts to go along that route seem to have come to a dead end? Should these new measures include not only additional sanctions, which are clearly called for on top of existing sanctions, but also the tightening up of the Proliferation Security Initiative? That would help to limit North Korea’s weapons exports more effectively, which have been all too profligate in the direction of Iran and other countries.

Finally, is it not immensely helpful that Shinzo Abe, the new Japanese Prime Minister, who is this country’s very good friend, was in Beijing this weekend and gained full Chinese support against North Korea? Have we any ideas to put forward from London about ways of turning that Chinese support into positive proposals—more than rhetoric, but firm action—to bring North Korea to its senses?

My Lords, I also welcome the new Japanese Prime Minister’s visit to Peking. It was helpful in ensuring that regional security issues rose to the top of the agenda, as in the circumstances they should. The Security Council faces a severe task. In my view, it has the following component parts: it must try to get the same unanimity as it got on the presidential statement on 6 October, because unanimity with China’s involvement is essential; it must try to get the unanimity that Security Council Resolution 1695 achieved; and it must deal with the issues robustly. That will probably require a very detailed discussion. However, I do not think that anybody could doubt the anger expressed over the past 24 hours—even more so in the past 12—by the Chinese Government, along with everyone else in the international community. That leaves me feeling that the chances of unanimity on a robust position are good.

My Lords, is it not clear that North Korea is prepared to defy international opinion and, for its own reasons, to pay a very heavy political price? In the Government’s view, are there any sanctions or pressure points that are likely to be effective, and what are the prospects of achieving an international consensus to prevent the seepage of nuclear materials to North Korea?

My Lords, as I have just said, a very stringent approach will need to be taken in the new Security Council discussion this afternoon and it is hard to prejudge all the elements in the programme on which the council will find unanimity. However, the economic sanctions introduced under Security Council Resolution 1695 had in themselves a stinging effect on the regime, not least because they affected some people personally. I expect a fuller array of sanctions on this occasion. I hope the House will forgive me if I do not try to guess what all the parties to the discussion today will bring to the table. I suspect that over the next few days we will have an opportunity to consider it specifically.

My Lords, I noted the Prime Minister’s reference to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, although I believe that North Korea is no longer a signatory to it. Will the Minister give an assurance that the British Government will be equally scrupulous in attending to the terms of the treaty when we come to consider the upgrading of Trident?

My Lords, today I shall try to focus on the affront caused by North Korea in the international community. As the House knows, a thorough review on the United Kingdom’s position on Trident is to be published later.

Article 10 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty sets out specifically how states can withdraw from it, because it is always within a state’s power to do so. We do not believe that North Korea has gone through the process at all. I know that others in the international community believe that it may have, but having looked at the papers this morning, I am clear that nothing approximating full adherence to Article 10 has taken place.

My Lords, we should all recognise that Britain cannot be a key player in any response to North Korea and that our influence must be exerted through multilateral channels, in what we hope may be a more coherent European approach to China as the key external influence, and of course through the United Nations. How satisfied is the Minister that the European relationship with China, as a key player in the region, is becoming more coherent and constructive, and is there full awareness of the political importance of that dialogue?

My Lords, I have absolutely no doubt of the political importance of that dialogue. Obviously this could become a kitchen with far too many cooks in it, and the bargaining strategy has been to try to concentrate it around six parties. However, we do a great deal of work with the European Union, which is an appropriate channel for us. There is no doubt that the Union is working seriously not only with China but also with other neighbours in the Korean peninsula to ensure that there is a regional understanding of the need for security. It is partly through those channels that I am so confident in saying today to the House that the anger of all those partners with whom both we and the European Union have been dealing is acute.

My Lords, I remind the House of my non-financial interest as chairman of the All-Party British-North Korea Group. In the 1990s some 2 million people died in North Korea as a result of the violations which took place in that excessively Stalinist regime. That should have concentrated the minds of the country’s leaders on tackling their domestic problems rather than using nuclear weapons. Does the Minister not agree that to add to the woes of the North Korean people by imposing through China, which provides 80 per cent of the country’s aid, anything that might affect the food aid programme is not the way to proceed, and that what is needed is a naval blockade around North Korea to prevent the seepage of nuclear materials to other states which might use them?

My Lords, perhaps I may take the questions in reverse order. Of course we need to take every step to ensure that nuclear materials do not get to other states or, indeed, to non-state actors—terrorist groups and others who might very well exploit them. I do not believe that Her Majesty’s Government have any intention of trying to persuade people to inflict further starvation on the people of North Korea. They are as much victims of this as anyone. We must use all our endeavours to ensure that we make progress not only on the nuclear issue, and those of missile firing and testing, but also on human rights. My right honourable friend Ian McCartney has been telling the North Korean Government, day by day, week by week, that these attacks on their own citizens are intolerable.

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that, historically, sanctions have not influenced the leaders of recalcitrant countries such as North Korea but they have had a massive impact on poor people, who then starve, as they have been doing in North Korea?

My Lords, that is a very fair point. Let me emphasise one of the sanctions which I believe has caused acute irritation to the ruling clique of what I regard as a regime bent on what amount to lunatic methods of dealing with its international neighbours: severe financial sanctions. I mention that because those sanctions have had a personal impact on a group of people who apparently live in great modesty but appear very concerned about whether their cash is found in banks overseas.