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Korean Peninsula

Volume 720: debated on Wednesday 28 July 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they are seeking to engage China in addressing the deteriorating situation on the Korean peninsula.

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

My Lords, we speak with China regularly concerning security on the Korean peninsula. The Foreign Secretary last raised this with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and State Councillor Dai Bingguo during his visit to China on 14 July. The UN Presidential Statement on the sinking of the vessel “Cheonan” was agreed with China and it conveys a clear message to North Korea that it cannot act with impunity.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that in the aftermath of the deplorable sinking of the “Cheonan”, with the shocking loss of 46 lives, the sort of display of military might that we are seeing this week by South Korea and the United States in their manoeuvres was inevitable, along with the imposition of sanctions? Does he also agree that the Cold War demonstrated that intelligent engagement was equally important, and so it is crucial to keep China engaged in drawing North Korea back into the six-party talks and working for the objective of the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula?

Yes, my Lords, I agree with both those propositions. We want to get the six-party talks going again to bring China back in. China has a different agenda in some ways from the rest of us for the Korean peninsula, but it, too, shares the broad view that the long-term aim must be the denuclearisation of the whole peninsula.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a temptation in some quarters to dismiss North Korea’s pronouncements as sabre rattling, when history has taught us that the step from sabre rattling to sabre thrusting can sometimes be very short and unexpected? Does the Minister also agree that it is the habit of unstable dictators who feel that they are not being taken seriously to act irresponsibly and unpredictably? Does he agree that talk of sabre rattling is totally out of place in this situation?

The noble Lord speaks wise words. The North Koreans are capable of really dangerous acts. They have the Taepodong missile, which in theory has an intercontinental range. They have tried one—it did not work, but it might have done—and they are prepared, under pressure, to do very dangerous things. This is a very dangerous situation and we should have no illusions that it is just a question of sabre rattling. It is right that the entire community should recognise this and that the Chinese should realise that, although North Korea is their neighbour, they should be as worried as the rest of us to have a neighbour with these inclinations.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of widespread concern over the deteriorating situation in North Korea with regard to human rights, with the recent public executions by firing squad of former Cabinet Minister Kwon Ho Ung, reportedly for failing in his negotiations with South Korea, and also of two young men in their 20s, as well as concern about the US citizen, Mr Gomes, who has recently tried to take his life in prison? Will Her Majesty's Government use the good offices of our ambassador in Pyongyang to raise these serious issues with the North Korean Government?

These are both very worrying situations. The report of the executions is unconfirmed but we have sought to establish what happened. If it is confirmed, the noble Baroness will be absolutely right that it is an extremely grim example. On the question of Mr Aijalon Mahli Gomes and his early release from prison, he is currently on hunger strike. We are aware of his case and are monitoring it closely. However, the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang is the consular protecting power for US nationals in North Korea and is handling the case, although we are keeping a close watch.

My Lords, what is the extent of the concern of Her Majesty’s Government about the treatment of North Korean refugees who fled over the border into China? Does this figure on the agenda of the human rights dialogue between China and ourselves and the European Union?

Yes, it most certainly does. I was recently in Jilin province, where a lot of refugees were coming over the border, and there is no doubt that some were put in labour camps and treated extremely badly. After allowing a lot of refugees in, the Chinese have now cracked down on them, presumably because they create some embarrassment for the Chinese Government. However, it is certainly a matter that we have raised and are worried about because there are signs of these unfortunate refugees receiving some unpleasant treatment.

My Lords, on this, the 60th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War, in which 3 million people died, including 1,000 British servicemen, do the Government agree that the serial abuse of human rights in North Korea demonstrates that the sacrifices of 60 years ago did not end the suffering of the Korean people? What are we doing to ensure that the North Korean leadership is brought to justice before the International Criminal Court and that the leaders are not allowed to get away with salting away their ill-gotten gains in foreign bank accounts?

I agree totally with the sentiments behind what the noble Lord says. As to bringing these matters before the International Criminal Court, the ICC can go against an individual in a country that is not a party to the ICC only if the action is triggered by the UN Security Council, and there we have a problem. China is a member of the UN Security Council and therefore the chances of progress there are very small. However, these matters are constantly in our minds and certainly, if the ICC chooses to make further investigations and can identify an individual rather than just generalise against a whole country, we will be very glad to see that.

My Lords, coming back to the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, does my noble friend agree that the role of China in several international disputes—not least with Iran, as well as with North Korea—is becoming similar to that with Russia during the Cold War? Do we not therefore, across the other partners in the Security Council, need to take a more robust stand, otherwise we will end up with an impasse, as was the case with Russia, for 30 or 40 years?

My noble friend is right. Of course we must be robust but I emphasised earlier that China has its own view of reform of the DPRK. It is not content with the present situation—understandably so—and has supported the sanctions movements against North Korea, which are strong in the European Union and have also recently been beefed up at the suggestion of Secretary Hillary Clinton in America. Therefore, the Chinese are supporting these sanctions and that is an advance, but I think that we have to move in the right direction through a combination of skill, diplomacy and persuasion to bring North Korea to a realisation that it must act responsibly or it will be on the path to its own self-destruction.