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North Korea

Volume 711: debated on Thursday 4 June 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the Governments of China and Russia to encourage a united response to the decision of the North Korean Government to conduct an underground nuclear explosion, to fire six short-range missiles, and to revoke the truce that ended the Korean War in 1953.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare a non-financial interest as chairman of the All-Party British-North Korea Parliamentary Group.

My Lords, we are working with UN Security Council partners including China and Russia to secure a robust resolution in response to the nuclear test carried out by the DPRK on 25 May. This includes action in New York as well as in capitals. What has happened is a breach of UN Security Council Resolution 1718 and we have strongly condemned the DPRK Government for their action. The DPRK’s decision to fire short-range missiles and the threat to “rip up” the 1953 armistice agreement are provocative and will further damage regional stability.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Does he recall that, when the armistice was signed in 1953 at the end of the Korean War, 3 million people had died, including 1,000 British servicemen? Did he note the figures from the report that my noble friend Lady Cox and I sent to him following our visit there in February of this year that the United Nations estimates that some 400,000 people have been executed by the regime, that 200,000 are in the camps and that 2 million Koreans died in North Korea during the 1990s as a result of the famine? Should not North Korea’s decision last week to revoke the 1953 armistice underline the urgent need for a concerted effort to prevent a repetition of a major war and the inevitable exodus of refugees into China—that is certainly disturbing the minds of Chinese diplomats at present—and for engagement in a Helsinki-style process? In the present dangerous climate, would not a declaration by the United States of a willingness to establish a diplomatic presence, as we have done in Pyongyang, and of the need to create a treaty to end the war be the first steps in a Helsinki-style process of engagement?

My Lords, the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, made an important report after they returned from North Korea, which emphasised the need, as the noble Lord has done again in his Question, to balance the sticks of sanctions against the carrots of diplomatic engagement. Fundamentally, that remains the right twin track. Obviously, in the face of such extraordinary provocation by the regime and such a direct threat to regional stability, this is perhaps not the moment to be talking about the Helsinki engagement track. There must be a firm response, but over time we must return to engagement, because this is in every sense an outlaw regime, which is doing appalling things to its citizens outside the limelight of global public opinion.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, while we are meeting here this morning, two journalists are on trial in Pyongyang, having been arrested on the border with China after reporting on the flow of refugees into China and the terrible fate awaiting those who are forcibly returned, who are regularly imprisoned and tortured? Can he inform the House whether our excellent ambassador in Pyongyang is monitoring that trial and working with other members of the international community to try to ensure that those journalists are not used as political pawns in the present confrontation over nuclear issues?

My Lords, let me reassure the noble Baroness that we certainly are monitoring the trial and have been following it closely. I think that Europe—not Britain alone—has some role as a bridge builder in the context of the DPRK, but we should not consider our influence to be more important than it is. This is a situation where the so-called contact group of six—the five outsiders being neighbours, with the exception of the US—probably has more direct influence on these issues than we do.

My Lords, we appreciate very much the expertise of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on North Korea and the point about the need for twin tracks. However, have we not now reached the point where the six-party diplomacy has been brutally rebuffed by North Korea, which clearly has no intention of abiding by it at all? On the stick side of greater pressures, we should be mobilising and helping with the responsible efforts made by China and Russia, because they are the countries that will be most hurt by North Korea continuing on its wild course. Does the noble Lord accept that now really is the time to think about far greater examination of North Korean cargos and shipping, much more effort to stop North Korean arms exports and even travel bans on North Koreans so that serious pressure is imposed on this horrid little country?

My Lords, first, China and Russia are very engaged at the moment in crafting a sanctions resolution in New York and they are very much taking the lead in advising on which sanctions steps are practical to take and which, in the eyes of China in particular, might further aggravate the situation and become a casus belli that would further escalate the situation. I think that we have to defer to China’s judgment, in particular, on some of this because, as was said earlier, it is the country that would receive the influx of refugees and be most hit by a collapse of the regime or a renewed war. Secondly, yes, we need to hit hard against this provocation, but we also need to remember that there is a pattern to this. Missile and even nuclear tests have happened repeatedly and therefore the need for engagement remains important. Even Henry Kissinger, in an article yesterday, recommended that we try to keep the diplomatic track alive.

My Lords, perhaps on this day it might be appropriate to ask the Minister whether he agrees that North Korea, together with Burma, is the most sovereign country in the world, that UKIP members would clearly be happy to move there and that other countries have compromised their sovereignty by international co-operation to a much greater level. Having said that, I ask him to explain to us how we cope with a country that clearly depends on paranoia about the outside world to maintain its sovereignty. Is there any way that we, together with other countries, can promote cultural dialogue, with visits of one sort of another, to demonstrate that the outside world is not a threat to North Koreans and that the hostile approach to the outside world that keeps them going is self-defeating for them as well as for us?

My Lords, there is a balance between trying to keep engagement going and not allowing the regime to use its provocations and our reaction to feed its political base via paranoia. Ensuring that engagement keeps the lights on in the country is key. We were continuing English language training there, for example, and we continue to support the UN in its development and technical assistance programmes, but equally we cannot allow North Korea or the world to believe that this kind of flagrant threat to international peace can be left unanswered.