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North Korea

Volume 715: debated on Monday 23 November 2009

Question

Asked By

Lord Alton of Liverpool to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the situation in North Korea, especially in relation to food shortages and the protection of human rights.

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

My Lords, we are concerned about food shortages and strongly encourage North Korea to allow the relevant UN agencies access to undertake a full needs assessment. We continue to have grave concerns about human rights in North Korea. The upcoming UN universal periodic review offers an important opportunity to increase dialogue on international obligations. We urge North Korea to allow the UN special rapporteur to visit and assess the human rights situation.

My Lords, should the House not be wary of disinformation from North Korea about the levels of famine, given that 2 million people died there during the 1990s? Last week, the World Food Programme estimated that North Korea is 1.8 million tonnes short of the food that is necessary to feed the population and the UN rapporteur on human rights, Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, has estimated that some 300,000 people are languishing in its prison camps. Should we not do all we possibly can to encourage China, which has already promoted a helpful initiative about North Korea over the course of the summer, and Stephen Bosworth, the United States special representative on North Korea, who will be travelling there in two weeks’ time, to link these human rights and humanitarian questions with the security issues that are so important to us all?

My Lords, I commend the noble Lord on his work in this area and offer broad agreement with both the assessments he makes. As the North Koreans will not allow a food assessment to be made, we cannot accurately assess the food shortage. They optimistically say they had a better harvest than last year, but some international evidence suggests that weather conditions do not allow that to be the case. We have a requirement to look to the people of North Korea, not the Government of North Korea, to assist in humanitarian aid. There is nothing that North Korea can be proud of on its human rights record. We think China can be a key player in this area and continue to discuss with it UNHCR access to the border areas. My ministerial colleague Ivan Lewis raised it with the Chinese Government. We will continue to put pressure on all those in the area on human rights and on access to food.

My Lords, are the Government aware that international policies designed to bring defective states into line inevitably impact most seriously upon the most vulnerable in those societies, particularly children? I draw attention to the pledges in the Queen’s Speech,

“to promote equality, narrow the gap between rich and poor and tackle discrimination”,

and the Government,

“continuing to enshrine in law its commitment to abolish child poverty by 2020”.

Are the Government aware of the need for some joined-up thinking in this area?

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for the point of view he offers and am broadly in agreement with him. I do not think there is a lack of joined-up thinking. When it comes to security, nuclear weapons and the threat in certain parts of the world, we take a strong line against Governments who are in a position to ignore the human rights of, usually, their own people in pursuance of an international policy by which the world is endangered. On the other hand, we are very clear that humanitarian aid, whether to Zimbabwe or to North Korea, should continue to ensure that we do not have a situation where the poor, the young and those who are already victims of dictatorship are put to greater hardship by international activity.

My Lords, we all recognise the immense complexity of dealing with a regime that uses nuclear blackmail to try to force the rest of the world to give it things that it cannot or will not provide for its own people. Can the Government tell us which multinational framework is now most useful for dealing with the problem of North Korea? Is it the UN or the six-power group? Where are Her Majesty's Government finding it most useful to exert pressure?

My Lords, the broad answer is that the United Kingdom Government seek to put those pressures that will be most appropriate in the most appropriate areas, so clearly we put them within the UN on human rights and we urge the Government of North Korea to return to the six-party talks. We support the intended visit of Stephen Bosworth, the US special envoy to North Korea, towards the end of this year. We were encouraged by President Obama’s speeches in relation to his visit to the APEC summit. The broad answer is that we seek to influence in all the fora we can.