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Korean Peninsula: “Cheonan”

Volume 719: debated on Wednesday 2 June 2010


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the situation on the Korean peninsula; and what consideration they have given to placing the sinking of the “Cheonan” before the United Nations Security Council.

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

My Lords, we are concerned about the situation on the Korean peninsula following the sinking of the “Cheonan” vessel. The Government are in no doubt that North Korea was responsible for this callous and unacceptable act. The Prime Minister has expressed his sympathy to President Lee for the loss of life. We urge North Korea to acknowledge responsibility and to avoid escalating tensions further. We understand that South Korea will request that the UN Security Council looks at this issue next week and we are working with South Korea and other international partners to ensure the strongest possible response with a UN Security Council consensus.

My Lords, on this, his first appearance at Question Time as the Minister dealing with international and foreign affairs, and in the light of the huge contribution that he made during his time in opposition, I am sure that the whole House will want to welcome the noble Lord to his onerous duties and responsibilities.

When this matter comes before the Security Council next week, will we be pressing for a commission of inquiry or a referral to the International Criminal Court on these events, which led to the deaths of 46 people following the sinking of the “Cheonan”? Are we also engaging with the Government of China? That is crucial if we are to make progress on this matter.

I thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks. He is second to none in his expertise on North Korea and in his concern for human rights there. The problem with a commission is simply that China will not go along with it, so we would never get unity among the permanent five. Also, North Korea is not a signatory to the ICC. Although we want strong action, we want to try to keep the permanent five together and to get some kind of statement or resolution that will really have an effect and make an impact.

Have the Government had any indication of what the Chinese Prime Minister may have meant when he reportedly said in Seoul that the Chinese Government would not protect anyone responsible for this incident? Are we taking steps to bring home to the Chinese Government the proposition, with which I hope that the Minister would agree, that if they were to block an effective response in the Security Council, that would be a major contribution to insecurity in north-east Asia?

Yes, we are taking all the steps that we can to bring the Chinese along. We would obviously like their support, but there are difficulties. The statement from the Chinese leader that he would not protect those who did this raised hopes but, thereafter, the Chinese went rather ambiguous and are now not prepared to apportion blame. That is the problem and where we are now.

My Lords, I, too, add my welcome again to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, in his new role. I shall pursue the Minister on the ICC. The UN special rapporteur for North Korea has called for strong UN action. He said that a commission of inquiry should be set up on crimes against humanity in North Korea and he called for serious consideration of the need for an indictment of individual members of the regime. Does the Minister agree with that position? What action will the coalition Government take in pursuit of those objectives?

Yes, I agree. The Government would be concerned to see that any criminals, or those accused of war crimes internationally, were properly charged, where they can be reached by the jurisdiction of the ICC. There is a difficulty, given that Korea has not signed up to the ICC, which is why we feel that the commission of inquiry may be some way down the road, as it is a difficult thing to get started now.

Have the Government considered the possibility of expanding or encouraging the expansion of the jurisdiction of the ICC so that it would have a role in relation to conduct within a state that does not recognise the powers of the ICC?

We debated these matters closely in this House—I cannot remember whether the noble Lord was a Member at the time—and looked at that possibility. The Government have no plans to do so at present.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that China’s position of so-called impartiality on this question is unsustainable, because it cannot use that approach to other countries in which it also takes an interest, such as Iran? Are we pressing on China, in this case, the need for it to be clear at the UN Security Council next week about where it stands, given that the United States has offered to share with it its assessment of intelligence information, in addition to the independent commission’s report?

My noble friend is absolutely right that, if we can persuade the Chinese that their troublesome and awkward neighbour could be just as damaging to them as to the rest of us, we will be making progress. We are talking to them at a number of levels and we may make progress. However, at the moment, the Chinese are reluctant to pin blame. That is the problem.

I, too, welcome my noble friend to his duties, to which he brings enormous expertise. As well as ensuring that there is a suitably robust international response to the specific instance that we are talking about, will he ensure that some progress is made on the lingering injustice of the artificial division of the Korean peninsula along the 38th parallel? Will he ensure that the pledge that was made in Cairo nearly seven years ago to try to bring about an independent, demilitarised, democratic and free united Korean people is also progressed as a way of reducing tension?

That would, in theory, be the ideal. It is basically up to the nation states involved: North Korea and South Korea. In practice, there are, to put it mildly, a few difficulties.

My Lords, I join those who have expressed words of welcome to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, on his return to the government Front Bench. He is my old roommate from Cambridge and I think that I was almost in short trousers when he first went into government. I am delighted to see him back.

Do Her Majesty’s Government have any plans to try once again to persuade the United States to recognise the International Criminal Court? It would be helpful if the United States could overcome its shyness on this, because it would carry a great deal of weight in dealing with rogue states such as North Korea.

I thank the noble Lord—indeed, my noble friend, as he is—for his compliment, if it was a compliment. We must keep trying. The United States has deep-rooted objections, as we discovered when we debated this matter in the House some years ago. It is nervous that its troops and personnel around the world might be unfairly attacked and charged. However, we must keep at it and I agree with the noble Lord that this is a good way to go.