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European Union (Definition of Treaties) (Republic of Korea Framework Agreement) Order 2012

Volume 734: debated on Tuesday 17 January 2012

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved By

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the European Union (Definition of Treaties) (Republic of Korea Framework Agreement) Order 2012

Relevant documents: 36th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

My Lords, the framework agreement itself was negotiated in parallel with the EU-Republic of Korea free trade agreement, debated in this Room yesterday, which was signed on 6 October 2010. The agreement provides a structure aimed at strengthening the co-operation of the European Union and its member states with the Republic of Korea in a number of fields. These fields include justice, freedom and security, as well as good governance and taxation. The agreement will also allow for further engagement on global issues such as climate change, security of energy supply and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The agreement gives us another tool through which to discuss and work on important issues with a key ally in the east Asia region. The Republic of Korea is the fourth largest economy in Asia, and growing fast; it will be the 10th largest driver of world growth over the next five years. The Republic of Korea is also an important international player, with troops in Afghanistan and ships in the Indian Ocean off Africa tackling piracy. It is also a fellow leader on green issues. Its partner of choice has so far been the United States, but we hope that the framework agreement will give the EU an opportunity to increase engagement in many of these fields and will therefore contribute to the better implementation of UK objectives in relation to the Republic of Korea. The EU delegation in Seoul is currently in negotiations with the Republic of Korea on what areas of co-operation to prioritise and how best to take this forward.

Her Majesty's Government fully support this agreement. We firmly believe that it will help to enhance and strengthen the relationship between the EU and the Republic of Korea. I commend the order to the Committee.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for explaining the background to this order ready for affirmative resolution and following yesterday’s proceedings on the trade agreement with the Republic of Korea. That, too, is a very important document, with its contents at an early stage; it remains to be seen how that will work out in the build-up of trade between ourselves and the Republic of Korea. This instrument is one of the accompaniments that the EU and its allies and other countries with which we are doing deals like this rightly require. The international practice now is to have agreements along these lines: a framework agreement alongside a trade agreement dealing with all the other matters that the Minister has listed, which are extremely important from the point of view of good governance and civil society being properly looked after in the countries that are parties to this agreement. In this case, that means the member states of the EU and the Republic of Korea. Obviously, right now there is bound to be a certain amount of tension, at least in the margin, because of events in North Korea and the relationship and heightened tension between the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. One hopes that will not have any deleterious effect on the trade agreement that we discussed yesterday or on this agreement.

I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who is a great expert on Korea. He is particularly knowledgeable about South Korea—and, indeed, North Korea—and I would presumptuously guess that he may want to say a number of things about these matters. I will listen with great interest, but with some trepidation. I apologise in advance in case we find our proceedings go on a bit because I am due at a Select Committee where a Minister is attending at 4.10 pm. Therefore, if I depart prematurely, which I would certainly not wish to do because it would be very discourteous on my part, I can none the less rely on my noble friend Lady Maddock to keep me abreast of the developments in the rest of the discussion, and I shall look very closely at Hansard.

On behalf of the other part of the coalition today and in support of the Minister, I express support for this agreement.

My Lords, the Minister said at the outset of his remarks that we should attach great importance to our relationship with the Republic of Korea, our key ally in east Asia; I entirely concur. The noble Lord, Lord Dykes, suggested that I am an expert on Korean issues, which is an exaggeration. So far as North Korea is concerned, the only thing predictable about it is its unpredictability. I do not claim great expertise, but I declare a non-financial interest as chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, which I founded along with my noble friend Lady Cox seven years ago following our first visit there.

I was struck by paragraph 7.2 of the memorandum to the statutory instrument, which lists “Justice, Freedom and Security” and suggests that these might involve,

“(e.g. combating organised crime and corruption, drugs and money laundering, migration, protection of personal data) as well as on good governance, and taxation”.

It goes on to talk about what the agreement will allow engagement over:

“issues such as climate change; security of energy supply; approaches to labour issues; education and other issues relating to structural change in the world economy; proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; counter terrorism; and a shared understanding on the need to prosecute the most serious crimes of concern to the international community”.

I do not take exception to any of those; indeed, I shall return to three or four examples in the list with some brief questions to the Minister in a moment or two. However, I am surprised that there is no reference to the relationship between North Korea and the European Union—and between it and ourselves. We have had diplomatic relations for over a decade now with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The lack of such a reference seems strange, as does the lack of a reference to human rights in that list.

Looking at the issue from the international perspective, one of the errors in how we have conducted relations is that we have emphasised security questions a great deal—properly so, given that North Korea embarked on the development of weapons of mass destruction—but failed to run in parallel questions of human rights. This is not a criticism of Her Majesty’s Government—quite the opposite. I was struck that Amnesty International reported on 10 January that, to mark the birthday of the two late leaders in North Korea, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, an amnesty had been declared for the release of prisoners there. If the Minister has any information on that, I would be grateful if he will let us know whether that is so, how many prisoners might be involved, and whether he sees it as a glimmer of hope in the international situation. If he does not have that information today, I would be grateful if he wrote to me in due course.

I have long argued that we have not really learnt the lesson of history that in the period of the Soviet Union, we understandably matched weapons of mass destruction—the SS-20s and SS-22s of the Soviet Union—with our cruise and Pershing missiles. Simultaneously, Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister and Ronald Reagan as President of the United States at the time embarked on support for the Helsinki Accords, promoting human rights issues alongside and in parallel with security questions. That was the reason we saw the Berlin Wall crumble, and it will be the reason—maybe not tomorrow, but in time to come—that the 38th parallel, which divides the Korean peninsula, disappears as well.

The importance of human rights in North Korea should not be underestimated. In a leader 18 months ago entitled “Slave state”, the Times said:

“The condition of the people of North Korea ranks among the great tragedies of the past century. The despotism that consigns them to that state is one of its greatest crimes”.

It was in this Room—the Moses Room—that I chaired meetings of the all-party group where we took evidence on several occasions from people who had escaped from North Korea. I will give only one example to the Committee this afternoon: a witness called Ahn Myeong-cheol, aged 37, who worked as a prison guard at four political prison camps within what is called the absolute control zone between 1987 and 1994. He movingly described in this Room how his father killed himself when he realised that he had been heard criticising the regime. His mother and brothers were sent to prison camps. Ahn was re-educated and became a prison guard in that so-called absolute control zone. He vividly and harrowingly described how he witnessed guard dogs, imported from Russia, tear three children to pieces and how the camp warden congratulated the guard who trained the dogs. He said that even when prisoners died they were punished; their corpses and remains were simply left to disintegrate and rot away on the open ground.

I also chaired a meeting for Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, who was the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and who, along with his successor Mr Darusman, the former Indonesian Attorney-General, was denied any access to North Korea. In this House, speaking to the all-party group, Vitit Muntarbhorn said that he estimated that 400,000 people had died in North Korea’s prison camps in the past 30 years. He said that its human rights record was “abysmal” due to,

“the repressive nature of the power base, at once cloistered, controlled and callous”,

and that,

“The exploitation of … ordinary people … has become the pernicious prerogative of the ruling elite”.

All eight of his reports which went to the United Nations have detailed a very grave situation in which the abuses are “both systematic and pervasive”, and “egregious and endemic”. Vitit Muntarbhorn has concluded:

“It is incumbent upon the national authorities and the international community to address the impunity factor which has enabled such violations to exist and/or persist for a very long time”.

He estimates that some 300,000 people have fled the country, many of whom are, of course, living in north-east China while others have managed to migrate to South Korea. There is a brilliant book called Nothing to Envy, written by Barbara Demick, which records many of the first-hand accounts of those who have been able to escape.

Here at Westminster, I chaired the launch of a 142-page report commissioned by the late Vaclav Havel, Elie Weisel, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and Kjell Magne Bondevik, the former Norwegian Prime Minister, entitled Failure to Protect: A Call for the UN Security Council to Act in North Korea. What they were arguing in that report was for the need for the international community to take human rights issues every bit as seriously as issues concerning security. Only a week ago in another place, in a Westminster Hall debate, the honourable Member for Congleton, Mrs Fiona Bruce, along with Mr Gary Streeter, the Member of Parliament who is the vice-chairman of the all- party parliamentary group, initiated a debate where Members from all sides spoke of their concerns about human rights and humanitarian questions. I commend the Hansard of that debate to your Lordships.

A few weeks ago in this House, I chaired a meeting for Shin Dong-hyuk, who is aged 26 and was born in prison camp 14. He spent the first 23 years of his life in that camp. I am glad to see that the noble Lords, Lord Edmiston and Lord Grocott, who have taken a close interest in this issue, are present in the Committee. They have had the chance to meet some of those who I have referred to. Shin Dong-hyuk was forced to work for 11 years from the age of 10 and was forced to watch as his mother and brother were executed. During his visit here, he met the Lord Speaker and the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. He has a book which will be published in March, entitled Escape from Camp 14. It is precisely people such as Shin Dong-hyuk whom we should be investing in for the future. They are tomorrow's leaders. He does not have a hatred of the leadership of North Korea; he has a hatred of the ideology. He wants his country to change and to reform just as the Republic of Korea did. That was, after all, a military dictatorship, but under the extraordinarily brave and enlightened leadership of Kim Dae-jung it embarked on the sunshine policy and reformed itself, so I hope that we will see North Korea change as well.

In addition to asking the Minister directly about human rights, the importance that we attach to it and why it does not appear in the list of our concerns on the face of the paper, I have four brief questions for him. On energy supply, it was announced in September that Russian natural gas would be pumped into South Korea via a pipeline that would straddle the whole of North Korea. At present, the £520 billion South Korean economy imports about 96 per cent of its energy, 80 per cent from the Middle East. Clearly, it does not want—any more than this country would want—to be entirely reliant on that source. What will be the payment for that energy coming into South Korea? How will that sit with the sanctions that we have imposed on nuclear proliferation—the security questions that I know are close to the heart of the Minister?

Secondly, I would like to ask about Kaesong. One of the most hopeful developments in recent years was the development eight years ago of the Kaesong industrial zone, which is about six miles north of the demilitarised zone inside North Korea. Some 48,000 North Korean workers work there in 123 different companies. This earns, it is said, around $50 million a year for North Korea. The aim is to develop Kaesong so that one day it will have some 700,000 employees. In the context of the employment and trade implications of the order before us today, what is Her Majesty's Government's position on the exploitation of labour and the use of cheap and possibly slave labour? The average wage for a North Korean working in Kaesong is about £67 per person per month, and a lot of that money has to then be handed over to the state. Is this a question that we are pursuing in the context of the cheap labour and cheap produce that could then be exported as a result of these orders to the European Union?

Thirdly, I want to ask about education. On 15 February, an extraordinary man called Dr James Kim will be in your Lordships' House speaking at the all-party group. As a young man, James Kim fought on the side of the South Koreans. He lied about his age in order to get into the army. He was one of only 17 who survived in a unit of 800 men. At the end of the war, he said that he would one day try to do something to bring peace and reconciliation to the Korean peninsula. For his trouble, 60 years later, having gone to North Korea, he was arrested as a spy and sentenced to death. He said, “I have come here to give you everything, so you might as well have my body and use it for experimental purposes”. He wrote his last will and testament and said to the United States, where he also has citizenship, “There should be no revenge because I came here as an act of love”. He was ultimately deported and a year later was allowed to return to North Korea where he was able to embark on the building of the first ever international public-private university. I was privileged to visit it a year ago at its opening with my noble friend Lady Cox.

Dr Kim raised £18 million for this extraordinary initiative as a result of Her Majesty's Government creating diplomatic relations with North Korea 10 years ago when the then Prime Minister Tony Blair overruled his Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and decided that the war was over, which is something that the United States has still not done, merely the armistice that still stands, which was signed in 1953. We ended the war and created diplomatic relations. One of the great fruits of that has been that the English language is now the official second language of the country. It is the language used at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology to teach about 600 students. Is there more that we can do to promote education as a reforming tool? It is a transformative experience. It is the chief thing that will change North Korea in the long term, and we should be very pleased from the point of view of British trade and commerce that English is so widely taught and used there.

I also congratulate the Government on supporting the creation of the first two Chevening scholarships, which started in this academic term at Cambridge University, giving young people the chance to come to the United Kingdom to learn English-language skills on brief courses. It is impossible to come to a country such as this and not be challenged by our liberties, our freedoms and our democracy—the things that we prize. Just as we saw in the former Soviet Union, perestroika and glasnost bring about change, mainly as a result of interaction. Surely the same thing can happen in North Korea.

Finally, I turn to security and weapons of mass destruction. Following the sinking of the South Korean corvette “Cheonan”, when 46 people died, and the bombing of a South Korean island, it is quite clear that there was a very serious deterioration in relations between North Korea and South Korea. Many of us fear that it will be not a deliberate act but a Sarajevo moment that will lead to a conflagration that could lead to the loss of some 3 million lives, because that is how many died in the Korean War. We often forget that in addition to the 2.5 million Koreans who died, there were 500,000 others: Chinese, Americans and 1,000 British servicemen—that is more British servicemen than died in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Falklands combined. We must do all we possibly can to ensure that there is not a repetition of history.

I wonder whether the tools in this order can be used to facilitate a Beijing peace conference because China clearly has the key role in trying to broker some way forward. I also believe that Her Majesty's Government can build on their successes in constructive critical engagement and can work with our European partners to create more constructive engagement, not least with the military. Surely with the octogenarian leadership of the Politburo, the nomenklatura and the military, there are opportunities for us to build relations with some of those who lead the military by welcoming them to the United Kingdom, taking them to places such as Sandhurst and opening dialogue to see whether we can help a country that has 1 million men under arms—it is the world’s fourth largest standing army—to put its resources into building peace instead and into doing something about the humanitarian needs of a country where 2 million people died in the famine in the 1990s and where our previous ambassador, the admirable Peter Hughes, said that he had seen examples of malnutrition reappearing on the streets.

With the news from Burma of significant change, the release of political prisoners and a coming in from the cold, surely it is not too much to hope that we might see something similar happen in North Korea. There have been changes in China. Those of us who visited China 40 years ago, as I did, and visited underground churches and saw human rights violations have seen extraordinary change and reform. China is not there yet on some of the human rights issues, but the social and economic changes make it one of the most exciting places on earth. Anyone who has the privilege of travelling to South Korea can see the possibilities for the north if only change could come.

Building on the report that my noble friend Lady Cox and I published when we returned last year Building Bridges not Walls, I commend this order, but I ask the Minister to dwell on some of the points that I have raised today and consider whether we cannot place more emphasis on the importance of raising human rights considerations as we embark on more constructive and critical engagement.

My Lords, I express the Opposition’s support for the approval of this statutory instrument. One of the real privileges of becoming a Member of the House of Lords, which I did last year, is to listen to people such as the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, who have expertise, wisdom and judgment to offer on things that one knows very little about. I hope that the points that he has raised today, although they are tangential to the thrust of the EU framework agreement, will be taken very seriously and that we will have further opportunities to debate the position in North Korea, about which he spoke so movingly. I thank him on behalf of the Opposition for his work there.

The agreement itself is what they call in EU jargon a strategic partnership, and it is one that is directly linked to the conclusion of the free trade agreement in 2010 between the EU and the Republic of Korea, which I think Europe took about a year to ratify from when it was actually signed. That was not bad when one looks at the position in relation to the United States and its free trade agreements with Korea, which are deeply enmeshed in the problems in the US Congress. Perhaps many people in Britain forget that the EU can be effective and that it still is an important pole of attraction for a very rapidly growing country like the Republic of Korea. The deal on the free trade agreement with the accompanying strategic partnership was negotiated in two years. It arose out of the global initiative that my noble friend Lord Mandelson launched when he was trade commissioner which, given the difficulties of completing the Doha round, was a switch away to bilateral trading agreements with our major trading partners.

The Republic of Korea is extremely significant for us in economic terms. It is the most important trading partner for Europe behind the United States, Japan and China. I discovered that fact when I was Googling away before the debate, but it is a remarkable fact none the less. We on this side welcome the deepening of relations with the Republic of Korea. We think it is right that a trade agreement should have a parallel political agreement, as it were, which sets out a broad range of areas for co-operation and dialogue and we very much wish that co-operation and dialogue to be effective. I am sure that this agreement will play an important role in deepening relationships between Europe and the Republic of Korea, which I hope will assist in a solution being found to the terrible problems that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, described in North Korea. I support the approval of this statutory instrument.

My Lords, I happily yield to the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, as an expert in EU jargon. It is a very erudite subject with which we have both struggled for many years. I feel I am slightly in the same position as I was in last night, when being asked to defend Britain's approach to the OSCE, to which the answer is: we are not entirely sure how this works or what its potential is, but we think it is worth doing. The framework agreements are a new element in EU relations with other countries beyond the European region. They have very wide potential, including on human rights, and provide a formal structure for member states collectively to raise such issues.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for his, as always, fascinating and well-informed speech. While nothing in this framework agreement specifically refers to North Korea, relations with North Korea are of course always likely to be an important part of the agenda when we discuss political and human rights issues with our Korean colleagues. All those of us who have been to Seoul know that when you are in Seoul you feel close to the border. The sense of insecurity is not that much less than it used to be when one visited Berlin during the Cold War, so one cannot get away from the North Korean dimension in this relationship. The absence of specific reference to North Korea or to human rights in the framework agreement does not imply that these are outside its structure.

The noble Lord asked a number of specific questions, including one about information on the news of a potential North Korean amnesty for political prisoners. I will inquire further within the Foreign Office and report back. Although I am fully briefed on what is happening in southern Sudan, Kenya, Somalia and Iran, as one jumps from one country to another I have unfortunately not kept up with exactly what is happening in North Korea.

There are problems in developing among the EU 27 a common position on North Korea. Smaller EU member states see North Korea as a distant country, even further away from Europe than Burma. We are therefore talking about the larger EU member states attempting to reconcile their positions, which fits in with their relations with China and their position on nuclear proliferation. Finding common EU positions on distant problems with which not all the smaller member states are directly concerned is not always easy.

Can the Minister tell us about the position of France? As I recall, France does not even have diplomatic relations with North Korea and since it is not one of the smaller member states, getting a common position would be a pretty good start.

I will ensure that I give the noble Lord a more expert reply on the French position than I could off the cuff. As he remarked, the British took a very balanced decision to reopen relations with North Korea. The Americans and the French did not support it at the time. I think that most of us here think that it was worth doing, in spite of the intense difficulties which our representatives have often had in North Korea since then. We therefore have an advantage over some of our EU colleagues in having a more direct understanding of what is going on in the country.

I will also need to come back to the noble Lord on questions of energy supply. I thank him for the information on the proposals for a direct pipeline and I appreciate its implications. Similarly, in the case of the industrial zone, I am tempted to say that the import into Britain of goods which are partly put together in extremely poorly paid factories and then assembled in higher wage countries is, as we all know, not unique to relations between South Korea and North Korea.

On education, I have heard some fascinating stuff before from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, about the university of which he spoke. We are doing our best to provide some support there. It is a very interesting experiment and is one of the things which suggest that chinks of light are possibly opening up. At this precise moment, with a change in leadership in North Korea, it is difficult for any of us to read exactly how the situation is going to develop. We have to follow what is happening, to intervene when we think that we can make a difference—as we are beginning to do on the educational front—and to see how much more we can manage. The Government share his concerns about the possibility of a local incident moving up the escalation ladder into accidental war. We are all concerned about that, and not only between North Korea and the Republic of Korea. Although not within this framework agreement, it is absolutely part of the multilateral diplomatic process on North Korea—which includes the Chinese, the Americans and others—to try to build those contacts and confidence-building measures which will prevent such an escalation happening.

The comparisons with Burma are not exact. North Korea has remained much more closed than Burma, even through the worst points of the Burmese military Government. We can hope for similar shifts with North Korea but it will take longer and it is much more difficult, precisely because North Korea has been so much more cut off from the world. This framework agreement offers us the prospect to widen the relationship with Korea. We will be pursuing this through a whole range of activities.

Perhaps I may be allowed on a personal note to remark that some noble Lords may not be aware that the Korean parliamentary choir will be coming to sing with the British parliamentary choir and has invited the British parliamentary choir to go out and sing in Seoul in exchange. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on the language point. We are singing Mendelssohn with them and the Korean parliamentary choir has insisted that we sing it in the original German and not in English. I am glad to hear that it is particularly correct in this way.

I conclude by reassuring noble Lords that the Government believe our European partners and Europe institutionally have a role to play in strengthening co-operation between Britain and the Republic of Korea. This agreement will allow for more work to be done in expanding a long-term relationship on a number of very important issues such as the promotion of human rights, international peace and security, energy and climate change, on which the Koreans are particularly active, and global economic co-operation.

Motion agreed.