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North Korea

Volume 750: debated on Wednesday 18 December 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the impact of events in North Korea on security and human rights.

My Lords, North Korea continues to have one of the worst human rights records in the world. The recent execution of Chang Song-thaek provides further evidence of its disregard for even the most basic human rights. We are closely monitoring the situation, and we are consulting allies in order to understand the implications of recent events.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that even before last week’s execution of Chang Song-thaek, the Times reported that there had been 80 public executions in seven cities on one day alone, the victims tied to stakes, hooded and killed by machine-gun fire? The United Nations estimates that there are some 300,000 people in the gulag network in North Korea—a network which, according to Amnesty International, is being expanded. Will the Minister read the report An Unmet Need, launched this morning at Westminster, which calls for the extension of BBC World Service broadcasts to North Korea as a way of breaking the information blockade, of exercising soft power—as we have done so successfully in places such as Burma—of promoting democratic values and of challenging a regime that relies on Stalinist purges, show trials, the obliteration of opposition and a cruel reign of terror?

I will of course read that report, and will ensure that it is brought to the attention of the Minister with responsibility for North Korea. I understand the noble Lord’s position in relation to the BBC; indeed, he has asked questions on this subject in the past. I also understand that the BBC has recently conducted a feasibility study of, for example, radio broadcasting in North Korea, but has concluded that because of the North Korean Government’s ability to jam broadcasts, the reach that would result from such broadcasting would not provide sufficient value for money. The noble Lord will know that the BBC has full editorial, operational and managerial independence on such issues, and we understand that it is not currently persuaded that a Korean language service would be an effective use of its funds. However, I will look at the report.

My Lords, the whole House is of course united in its condemnation of recent shocking events. The Opposition are at one with Her Majesty’s Government in their concern about the impact of this unpredictable regime on regional stability. Given China’s important role, both now and in the future, did the Prime Minister discuss North Korea with his Chinese hosts during his recent visit? In any event, is it the Government’s intention to have some discussion now, as a matter of some urgency?

The noble Lord may well be aware that Chang Song-thaek was closely involved with China. At the time of the execution, China issued a statement but said that it was an internal matter for North Korea to deal with. The noble Lord is right that this is an incredibly unpredictable regime. We engage with human rights in North Korea in so far as we can, but he will also be aware that North Korea has refused to engage in any form of meaningful dialogue on human rights.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, has regularly and rightly brought our attention to this matter in terms of the internal implications within North Korea. However, I think that the situation is now coming to the point where the whole Korean peninsula is at risk and there are wider elements. Did the Prime Minister in his engagement with the Chinese raise this wider question of whether the problems within North Korea are now in danger of spilling into the wider peninsula and perhaps even beyond?

My noble friend will be aware that there are six-party talks which deal with the issue of the wider peninsula, which involve China, South Korea, Japan, Russia, the US and North Korea. We are not a party to those talks but we feel that that is the best forum to take some of these discussions forward.

My Lords, what specific measures are Her Majesty’s Government taking to pursue a twin-track approach with the DPRK regarding accountability for crimes against humanity, which we have been hearing about this morning, alongside robust, critical, constructive engagement, in an attempt to open up that most closed nation and alleviate the suffering of the peoples of North Korea who have suffered at the hands of that regime, which acts with impunity, for so long?

We are taking exactly that approach. The noble Baroness will be aware of the UN commission of inquiry, which we co-sponsored, which began in March this year and I think is due to report to the Human Rights Council session in March 2014. Human rights, including the issue of prison camps, will be dealt with as part of that report. We also engage with North Korea bilaterally. As I said earlier, North Korea does not engage in any form of meaningful dialogue on human rights, but it must be remembered that we are only one of 24 countries that have an embassy in North Korea. We have had a diplomatic relationship with it for the past 30 years, which provides us with some opportunity to engage with it.

My Lords, for clarification, did the Prime Minister raise the issue of North Korea at all in the course of his lengthy conversations with senior members of the regime in the People’s Republic of China during his recent visit?

I do not have details of that in my brief, but if I have any further information I will certainly write to the noble Lord.

As we approach the end of Questions, I take this opportunity to wish all noble Lords a very merry Christmas and a peaceful new year.