Question for Short Debate
My Lords, 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the division of the Korean peninsula. That division was the prelude to the 1950-53 war, which led to the deaths of about 3 million people, including 1,000 British servicemen.
Throughout the intervening seven decades, the danger of a repetition of that carnage has hung like a pall over the region. For more than 10 years, during which I have chaired the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, that group has tried to shine a light on security threats and the day-to-day egregious violations of human rights. These are themes of the Question before your Lordships today. I am particularly indebted to all noble Lords who will participate.
North Korea’s failure to make constructive moves on these questions was thrown into sharp relief by the unverifiable claim in North Korean state media on 6 January that it had conducted its first hydrogen bomb—thermonuclear weapon—test. Ban Ki-moon described these actions—this fourth nuclear test—as “a grave contravention”.
When the Minister replies, I hope that she will give us her own assessment of the test which has taken place, and perhaps say how long she thinks it will be before we know whether this was fusion rather than fission and whether hydrogen isotopes were used in the nuclear chain reaction. Also, how far away do we think North Korea is from miniaturising a nuclear weapon and from utilising its submarines to launch nuclear attacks? These have obvious security implications for the United States of America and Europe, as well, of course, as for North Korea’s regional neighbours.
What we do know is that Chinese citizens living in the neighbouring Jilin province, which I visited, felt the buildings shake and residents feared an earthquake. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban-Treaty Organization reported seismic signatures with a magnitude of 4.85, consistent with previous North Korean nuclear tests. Whether a hydrogen bomb or not, this action is yet another road block in securing a lasting peace and it represents a serious international security threat and destabilises the region. In addition, it is in flagrant violation of the United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1718, 1874, 2087 and 2094. I should be interested to know from the noble Baroness what more the Security Council will be saying about this.
I hope that she will tell us what response the Foreign and Commonwealth Office received from the North Korean ambassador when he was summoned to the Foreign Office on 7 January, and what the Foreign Secretary had in mind when he told the House of Commons that North Korea will,
“face increasing isolation and further action by the international community”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/1/16; col. 22WS.]
I wonder whether the Foreign Office sees this test as an act of defiance by Kim Jong-un and an attempt to bolster his authority. What does it make of the continuing systematic executions, including members of his family? In 2013 his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who was seen as reform-minded and close to China, was executed. Jang had questioned an ideology which has paralysed economic development and incarcerated hundreds of thousands of citizens, and which has conferred pariah status on the country. He was close to China and admiring of its reform programme. His death was followed by the execution of around 70 officials in the last year. North Korea’s Defence Minister, Hyon Yong-chol, was shot with an anti-aircraft gun from close range in April. It was then reported that North Korea’s vice-premier Choe Yong-gon was executed by firing squad this year, after showing discontent with Kim Jong-un’s policies.
Kim Jong-un knew these men well, but this did not save their lives. In this reign of terror, killing those who are not part of your circle is even less of an issue. The purges, the reign of terror, the falsifying of history, the show trials, the network of gulags—where an estimated 200,000 people are incarcerated—the 400,000 said to have died in the prison camps in the last 30 years, and the attempts to obliterate religious belief and all political dissent bear all the hallmarks of a regime that has carefully studied, admires and imitates the visceral brutality of Joseph Stalin. The authoritarian dynastic regime in North Korea ruthlessly crushes dissent, and through its policy of guilt by association, collective punishment and the execution of men like Jang is trying to ensure that there is no Kim Dae-jung, Lech Walesa or Dow Aung San Suu Kyi able to become a focal point for opposition.
We can see these killings either as a display of strength or the actions of a weak regime, paranoically trying to cling to power at all costs. Of course, the creation of mass fear is a time-honoured technique of dictators from Nero and Caligula to Ceausescu and Stalin. But China’s role in all this is surely crucial. I wonder how the Minister evaluates the extent of China’s influence on the regime. It previously described North Korea’s actions as “brazen”, but notwithstanding the presence of a senior Chinese emissary at last year’s Workers’ Party anniversary celebrations, what do we make of China’s relationship with North Korea today? Will China’s irritation be reflected in energy assistance to North Korea, or will it be dissuaded through fear of regime collapse and the flow of refugees across its 800-mile border with North Korea?
If North Korea is in total contempt of its obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and by its refusal to permit full access by the International Atomic Energy Agency, its contempt for human rights puts it in a league of its own. The publication of the United Nation’s Commission of Inquiry report into human rights violations in North Korea, described by the commission as “without parallel”, was a defining moment. In that 400-page report, it said that North Korea’s crimes against humanity are sui generis. It stated:
“The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”.
It is in breach of pretty well all of the 30 articles in the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
Hea Woo, a Christian who escaped from one of the camps, gave graphic and powerful evidence at one of our Westminster hearings. She described routine torture and beatings and how prisoners were so hungry that they were reduced to eating rats and snakes or even searching for grains in cow dung.
I ask the noble Baroness: how have we taken forward the Commission of Inquiry report and its call for the prosecution of those responsible? Why, of the 2016-17 FCO fund for human rights and democracy, which has been doubled to £10.6 million, has just £4,261 been spent in Pyongyang in nearly two and a half years? Can she also say what we have done to raise the plight of the more than 50,000 North Korean workers sent overseas to around 20 nations, where they are treated as virtual slave labour but earn the regime $300 million annually? What action are we taking on companies, third-party banks and countries which are breaking sanctions and providing revenues to this regime? Crucial to transforming North Korea will be the breaking of the information blockade. I applaud the decision of the BBC to commence broadcasts to the peninsula and hope that we will be given an update on this important development.
Does the Minister accept that hand-outs can bolster this regime? Although food should never be used as a weapon of war, it is worth saying that North Korea’s food gap could be closed for something in the order of $8 million to $19 million. That is less than 0.2% of its national income, most of which is currently being used on military programmes.
Last year, following an influx of food aid, the regime sent groups of students around to destroy private agricultural plots. The regime’s opposition to reform has led to starvation and death. People suffer while the regime spent more than $1 billion on the launching of two rockets in 2012 and 2013, $200 million on Kim family celebrations, and $300 million on luxury facilities, including ski resorts and riding grounds.
North Korea is surrounded by three of the world’s largest economies, yet close to 70% of the population suffer from malnourishment. It persists with its vast and brutal network of concentration camps, and millions of women are subjected to unimaginable levels of sexual and other violence while children are indoctrinated and forced to endure manual labour.
Since 2000 we have had diplomatic relations with the DPRK and in that time the regime has conducted four nuclear tests, launched unprovoked military attacks on South Korean targets, has bolstered its standing army—one of the largest in the world—and has been condemned for the worst human rights record in the world. It is not unreasonable to ask how and in what ways we think we are making some kind of difference. I look forward to the debate that will follow and to the Minister’s reply.
My Lords, thankfully North Korea is the only closed country and I think this should give us hope, as many who grew up in or in the era of Eastern Europe and the USSR thought that freedom would never come, but it did. Kim Jong-un’s leadership will end, and through the work of people like the noble Lord, Lord Alton, awareness of the plight of North Koreans has risen dramatically over the last decade.
These unparalleled systematic human rights abuses in North Korea are indeed well documented by the commission of inquiry of Michael Kirby, and in relation to religious freedom violations by the inquiry of the all-party parliamentary group, which was chaired by the noble Lord and published its report last year. The only detail that I can add to that report that moved me recently was to hear that teachers in schools in North Korea are asking pupils to tell them whether their mum and dad have a hidden little black book at home. Unwittingly these children come forward, and of course, what is hidden is a Bible and their parents are arrested and disappear. These reports have shown the need to break the information blockade. There is also a need to prepare the leadership of the future. There may be more that can be done to prepare, and I wish to focus this afternoon on practical solutions and things within our power here in the United Kingdom.
The decision, referenced by the noble Lord, of the BBC to begin a daily short-wave news service is a step forward in breaking this information blockade. It would be helpful to know the detail from my noble friend the Minister. When does the Foreign Secretary expect to be asked to agree to this service and what is the current Foreign and Commonwealth Office position on whether it can extend beyond news to other broadcasts?
There are many interesting studies on the growing cultural, linguistic and religious differences between North Korea and South Korea. In the 70 years since the division of the peninsula, North Koreans have been taught to worship their political leader like a god, but South Korean society is pluralistic and has recently seen a huge growth in the Christian faith in particular. In 1945, only 2% of South Koreans were Christian; now 30% are. Those growing differences mean that the 26,000 or so North Korean refugees in South Korea often find it hard to integrate, and feel like second-class citizens. According to a BBC report late last year, 14% of defectors from North Korea in South Korea who have died committed suicide. I would be grateful if my noble friend the Minister could confirm whether Her Majesty’s Government had spoken to South Korea outlining our concerns around the integration of those refugees into its society. Until the South Koreans address this problem, the push factor forcing North Koreans to flee South Korea will mean that some will continue to arrive here in the United Kingdom, applying for asylum. Australia and Canada, among others, face a similar issue.
Even highly qualified doctors from the north struggle to make the transition to the south. Surely the international community can help with specific plans to skill up professionals for the future of North Korea, and not see those valuable skills go to waste. I can fully understand the comments in the Security Council last November that the international community had struggled to agree a plan of action in relation to the Kirby report. However, a plan to ensure that North Koreans can remain in the region and that those abroad are trained up, ready for reunification, is in the doable category, which is often sparsely populated with solutions to many of the tragic situations that we discuss in your Lordships’ House.
I turn briefly to the leadership of the future. Even if the South Koreans solved the integration problem tomorrow, there would still be approximately 1,000 North Koreans who have been granted refugee status here in the United Kingdom. If North Korea became free tomorrow many might travel there, hoping to be part of the future of the country. Then the Westminster Foundation for Democracy would ask MPs and Peers, via our political parties, to go out there to train up the future politicians. As North Korea is a unique case—we have no access to train people in North Korea—could the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the human rights and democracy fund merely ask the WFD specifically to see if half a dozen folk among our 1,000 refugees had the potential skills and competence to be future leaders and invest in them here? I am sure that many in your Lordships’ House would respond to the persuasive power of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and be happy to help. That would really cost very little—definitely cheaper than flying us out there, and so much better value for money for the UK taxpayer in the long term. If your Lordships were involved, we could make requests of the royal colleges, Bupa or AXA to train up one North Korean doctor; we would not be requesting them to do something that we had not started doing here ourselves. More things could be done to prepare for reunification than we at first think, and many of our allies—particularly Germany—may have other relevant experience to offer.
I hope that there is a plan for the future under the leadership of South Korea, as well as a plan to bring to justice those who have committed human rights abuses. When nations change, there is often a symbolic moment. In Iraq in 2003, that was the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein. In North Korea when that moment comes, many statues of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un will be toppled. I believe that that will happen in my lifetime, and I hope that we are ready for that moment.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Alton for securing this short debate. The DPRK—the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—is in itself a name that would not qualify under any trade descriptions Act. It is not democratic; it does not represent the people; neither is “Korea” correct, for that implies the whole peninsula. However, that is but a comprehensive illustration of the nightmare that this world has to confront and face.
Unlike my noble friends Lady Cox and Lord Alton, I have never had the opportunity to visit, although I have certainly viewed the 38th parallel closely on my many business trips to the south over the past 20 or so years. I speak therefore from second-hand knowledge, by study, by observation, by discussions with people from the south and—all-importantly—from encounters with refugees living in or visiting the United Kingdom.
I wish to use these few minutes to highlight one thing: the importance of breaking the blockade of information, as was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Alton. Why have we not seen a popular uprising against the regime, or perhaps acts of mass civil disobedience? It is due partly to the physical brutality of the regime but, significantly, also to the indoctrination of the North Korean people, whose Government wish to ensure complete psychological control over the entire population. It is therefore forbidden to access foreign media. All North Koreans are exposed to state-controlled media in their homes, work and public spaces. As well, all television and radio—state information—is broadcast through fixed-line speakers in every household. Those speakers are inspected frequently to ensure that they function and cannot be turned off. One refugee stated to a United Nations commission of inquiry:
“You are brainwashed from the time you know how to talk … North Korea is … a fenced world … They want the people to be blind, deaf to the outside world”.
The United Kingdom Government had been unconvinced that radio broadcasts would reach sufficient numbers of North Koreans due to a lack of radios. However, after persistent lobbying discussions—if I may use that word—by members of the all-party group, at last, in 2015, our noble friend Lord Hall, director-general of the BBC, declared that the World Service would reach out to North Koreans through a daily news programme on short wave. The BBC is of course aware of the consequences for those caught consuming foreign media, but should it not broadcast into North Korea for fear that citizens, if caught, are tried and perhaps executed for listening? I believe the answer to be emphatically no. Although the risks are high, there are even greater consequences of inaction. Pyongyang will of course attempt to answer, censor and jam the broadcasts. No doubt it will lodge formal protests to our embassy and open, yet again, the bag of threats. However, in an age of global interconnectivity, it is my belief that such actions will be diminished in their harm.
For a BBC service to become a reality today, the corporation has to put together a team to decide and deliver the content. I hope that this will include UK-based North Korean refugees. Once that is done and costed, I understand that the plan will be submitted to the Foreign Secretary, who will then be required to approve the service. Perhaps the Minister will comment on a timetable. It is my sincere hope that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office sees such broadcasts as complementary to its own efforts to improve human rights within that country.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for giving us this opportunity to debate this important issue. I will concentrate my remarks on the security aspects following the nuclear test. In doing so, I declare my interest as co-president of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament.
It is both heartening and disheartening that, in these last few weeks, we have had the great example of success of talks in Iran and then the very disheartening example of the nuclear test in Korea. It shows what the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and associated treaties are up against. It goes to the heart of our obligations under the NPT—by “our”, I mean in particular the nuclear weapons possessing states, the P5 plus.
Noble Lords will remember that the nuclear non-proliferation treaty began life in 1970. In fact, North Korea acceded to it in the mid-1980s, but it never came into compliance and it withdrew from the treaty in 2003. The treaty has an unprecedented number of countries belonging to it—191, in fact—which could make it the most successful arms-limitation and disarmament treaty that there is. Only four UN member states have never joined the NPT: India, Israel, Pakistan and South Sudan. Today’s debate is not the time to discuss the implications of that, but it is something that we need to keep in mind.
The point I make is that the situation in North Korea has been decades in developing. In nuclear terms, we knew, once it withdrew from the treaty in 2003, that we had a real problem on our hands. The question for the Minister is: who does she believe is in the best position to start that dialogue with North Korea about nuclear issues now? I noticed the comments of Mr Blinken, Deputy Secretary of State for the US, that China should take the lead. He said that the United States believes that,
“China has a special role to play”.
If China is to be the one to take the lead, there has to be a real push from all of us other countries for China to do so.
The point I would really strongly like to make is that every country concerned with nuclear material has a special role and responsibility. Being part of the so-called nuclear club may, some believe, give you added status as a world power and the added security of owning a deterrent. Personally, I do not believe that either of those is inevitably correct. However, it is indisputable that, as a member of that nuclear power club, one has a special duty to ensure the safety of non-nuclear states and the rest of the world. In this context, China has a duty to do everything it can do to denuclearise North Korea. Because it is probably closer to North Korea than anyone else, China is in the best position to do so. I have no doubt that there are incredibly complex political considerations and insecurities that will influence this, but the overwhelming danger of proliferation of nuclear weapons means that that issue has to take priority.
For our part, we—the UK, USA and France—should see nuclear material as a potential continuum from energy to material for bombs. The purpose of the various treaties—the Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty, the CTBT and the NPT—is to contain it and make it as safe as possible. Of course, the USA undermined the NPT with its civil nuclear deal with India, which, as I mentioned, is not a member of the NPT, even though it had not joined the club. Israel is allowed to remain in the position where it does not declare its nuclear weapons. In that continuum, the UK also made a decision—there may have been behind-the-scenes talks about this, I do not know—to allow the Chinese to buy into Hinkley Point. That is tacitly saying that all is satisfactory with the Chinese attitude to nuclear material in general and the treaties governing it, but clearly that is not in the case as far as North Korea is concerned.
The logic by which the P5 plus decide who shall and shall not be a nuclear state has not been historically arrived at by the logic of those that are the most responsible countries. But it is by virtue of being in the P5 that we have to exercise our responsibilities in every possible sphere, including trade, and make it quite clear to those whom we trade with and those who can influence other people—in this case, China and North Korea—that there is a continuum in nuclear material and that we have to stay within the terms of the treaty.
My Lords, I warmly congratulate my noble friend on his tireless work on North Korea, and on opening this debate with characteristic comprehensiveness. I have had the privilege of travelling to DPRK with my noble friend three times, and of meeting many refugees and escapees, whose heartbreaking accounts of horrific violations of human rights remain ingrained in my heart and conscience.
In addition to echoing the serious concerns highlighted by my noble friend and other noble Lords, I wish to highlight specific concerns regarding infringements of freedom of religion and belief, including the recent arrests of two foreign nationals. First, Hyeon Soo Lim, a South Korean-born Canadian Christian, is a 60 year-old pastor. He is a Canadian citizen, but he was sentenced last December to life imprisonment with hard labour, accused of using religion to overthrow the state and harming the dignity of the supreme leadership. He had previously made many visits to DPRK and engaged in humanitarian work supporting an orphanage, a nursery and a nursing home. A CNN report emphasised:
“It is this tremendous love for the people of the DPRK that motivated Mr. Lim to travel (there)”.
Unusually, he was recently able to give an interview to CNN, in which he described being forced to work for eight hours a day digging holes. He is believed to be in poor health, but all he asks for is a Bible and letters from his family. I understand that Canadian government officials have so far been denied access to him. Secondly, a Korean-American pastor, Kim Dong Chul, has been arrested on spying charges.
The arrest and detention of these two foreigners is deeply disturbing as they illustrate the Pyongyang regime’s attitude to human rights and religious freedom. I ask the Minister: what response is the United Kingdom making to these arrests, and, particularly given our diplomatic presence in Pyongyang, what support has the UK given to the efforts of Canada and the United States regarding these two cases? More generally, what more can the United Kingdom do to address the violations of freedom of religion or belief in the DPRK?
On the same topic, I highlight serious concerns about a recent statement by the World Council of Churches. On 28 October last year, the WCC’s Forum for Peace, Reunification and Development Cooperation on the Korean Peninsula issued a Pyongyang appeal following a visit to DPRK. I entirely support efforts to pursue constructive and critical engagement with the DPRK. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Alton and I have participated in such direct engagement during our visits, so I endorse some of the WCC’s recommendations, particularly for exchanges between North and South Korean citizens, cultural and academic exchange, and engagement.
However, I and many others are deeply concerned that the WCC’s statement and an accompanying report issued by the Asia secretary of the Church of Scotland’s World Mission Council ignore the horrific human rights violations and the severe persecution of Christians, documented by the UN commission of inquiry report. Instead, the WCC’s statement calls on,
“all churches, church-related organizations and people of good will around the world”,
“the confrontational misuse of human rights”,
“the promotion of enemy images”,
and lift economic sanctions. The WCC describes North Korea as,
“a society that is visibly advancing, demonstrating great resilience and self-reliance despite the longstanding and recently strengthened international sanctions”.
In an article published on the Church of Scotland’s website, Sandy Sneddon describes visiting tourist and cultural sites in Pyongyang, including a Protestant church. My noble friend and I visited this Protestant church and three other churches in Pyongyang—another Protestant church, a Catholic church and a Russian Orthodox church. While we welcome their existence there, they are tightly controlled by the regime, and are widely believed to exist largely for the benefit of foreign visitors. In the rest of the country severe violations of freedom of religion or belief are well documented. The UN commission of inquiry concludes that,
“there is an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as the rights of freedom of opinion, expression, information and association”.
The regime, according to the UN inquiry,
“considers the spread of Christianity a particularly severe threat”,
and, as a result,
“Christians are prohibited from practising their religion and are persecuted”.
Severe punishments are inflicted on “people caught practising Christianity”.
The WCC report makes no reference to the UN inquiry. As my noble friend highlighted, it concluded that,
“the gravity, scale and nature”,
of the violations of human rights in North Korea,
“reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”.
It claims the systematic and widespread violations, described as “unspeakable atrocities”, are continuing,
“because the policies, institutions and patterns of impunity that lie at their heart remain in place”.
They amount, according to the inquiry, to,
“crimes against humanity in international law”,
and these crimes,
“clearly merit a criminal investigation”.
In conclusion, I ask the Minister for reassurance that the brutal violations of the rights and freedoms of people of DPRK, including freedom of religion and belief, will be at the centre of any engagement with Pyongyang by Her Majesty’s Government, alongside the priority concerns about the security situation.
My Lords, like others, I commend the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for obtaining this debate on a country rarely discussed in this Chamber, but one which uniquely suffers from perhaps the most oppressive regime in the world. It is no accident, perhaps, that its godfathers were Josef Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung, who did so much to bring this state into existence in the 1950s.
More than 30 years ago, I worked as the head of the Asia department of Amnesty International and one of the most remarkable documents that we published then was the testimony of a Venezuelan communist, Ali Lameda, who had worked in Pyongyang as a translator and editor and found himself caught up in its Kafkaesque workings, and was arrested and tortured for many years.
Thankfully, in today’s world there are few countries where one can say the human rights position is little better now than it was decades ago. But if one reads the reports of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the US State Department and the Foreign Office itself, it is clear that this is still the case in North Korea. In no significant manner is the human rights situation any better today than it was 30 years ago. That this is the case is abundantly clear from the report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the DPRK, referred to by several other noble Lords, and written by the Australian judge Michael Kirby and the distinguished Indonesian lawyer Marzuki Darusman, and published in February 2014. It reports:
“The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”.
For decades, it argues, North Korea has committed,
“crimes that shock the conscience of humanity”,
“raises questions about the inadequacy of the response of the international community”.
The international community must accept responsibility to protect the people of North Korea. This responsibility is a heavy one for the UK as we are one of only five countries that are permanent members of the Security Council. In that regard, can the Minister assure us that in our dialogue with China, enhanced by the state visit of President Xi Jinping last year, there are regular discussions about North Korea with Beijing? It must, and should, be part of our dialogue with China, the single most important country in terms of influence on North Korea. We also sit on the 47-member UN Human Rights Council, together with China. Can the Minister assure us that we will continue to use that forum to follow up the excellent work undertaken by Judge Kirby and Marzuki Darusman? As Michael Kirby himself stated:
“If the Human Rights Council is not the place to speak up about the atrocities … then where is the venue?”.
He went on to argue that the crimes against humanity were of such gravity that a case should in his judgment be taken to the International Criminal Court. Can the Minister tell us whether this has been considered with like-minded partners in the international community?
As the register of interests makes clear, I am a trustee of the BBC with a special interest in the World Service, where, indeed, I worked for seven years. In September 2015, the director-general, Tony Hall, declared that the BBC wished to reach out to ordinary Koreans through a new daily news programme via shortwave radio. The director-general wrote about this to the Chancellor on January 5 this year, outlining plans for a Korean service, among other World Service projects. There will also be an online presence. I am delighted that in a letter on 8 January, the Chancellor, George Osborne, agreed to provide £85 million of new funding for the World Service through a grant from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. In due course, a proposal to establish a Korean service will be placed before the Foreign Secretary, whose approval is needed for the launch of any new language services. Such funding from the Government is imperative for the establishment and continuation of the new service. Some will inevitably question its impact on North Korea, although I am sure that it will gain attention in South Korea as well as the diaspora. However, there is growing evidence that North Koreans, especially those who have worked and lived in China—and hundreds of thousands have—have access to devices that would enable access.
The regime itself has recently allowed the French news agency Agence France-Presse, as well as Associated Press, to open news bureaux in North Korea. In due course I look forward to a BBC Korean service making its contribution to the improvement of human rights and security on the Korean peninsula that we all wish to see.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating today’s debate and enabling us to focus on a country with probably the worst human rights situation in the world, with summary executions, arbitrary detentions, abductions and disappearances—a country where the tools of the state include forced labour, prison camps, torture and rape. Such flagrant human rights violations cannot go unchallenged.
Shortly after it detonated its fourth nuclear test, North Korean state media issued a lengthy statement justifying the explosion. Their primary grievance justifying it was the 2014 UN commission of inquiry report that accused the regime of grave, systematic human rights abuses against its own people. In the opinion of the North Korean leadership, the United Nations report was nothing more than a,
“conspiratorial human rights racket against the DPRK”—
the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The official North Korean rebuttal ran to 50,000 words and claimed that the,
“popular masses enjoy genuine human rights”,
and accused the West of pursuing a “false and reactionary” agenda designed to interfere with national sovereignty.
The DPRK has always been extremely sensitive about its human rights record. The fact that it focused on this issue, after such a significant military provocation, shows how central the issues have become to its battle against the world. It may be that, by bringing the diplomatic spotlight back on to itself, North Korea is hoping to prompt the international community, particularly the US, to negotiate. I have no doubt that it would like to see an end to the state of war and international sanctions, which, whether or not it admits it publicly, have led to huge deprivation and extreme poverty in the country.
The Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, quickly issued a Statement strongly condemning the nuclear test as,
“a grave breach of UN Security Council resolutions”.
Of course, as we have heard, the UN Security Council’s swift condemnation following its emergency meeting on 6 January indicated that there should be a robust response, including immediate work on “further significant measures” in a new Security Council resolution. I ask the Minister: what does she believe those “significant measures” should be, and when does she expect the new resolution to be considered?
The Foreign Secretary has also called for concrete action by the DPRK to improve human rights. Last November, Fiona Bruce asked in a Written Question in the other place whether he would request information from the DPRK on the measures it has taken to meet the recommendations of the UN report. The Written Answer referred to a meeting last October in the United Nations and stated:
“We were informed the accepted recommendations were being discussed by the relevant domestic DPRK institutions”.
Has there been any further contact on the need for implementation plans to be shared with the world community?
Peter Wilson, the UK’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, said in the Security Council in December:
“The United Kingdom fully supports the call for the Council to consider how it can best ensure accountability”,
of this regime, which of course is so important,
“including through considering a referral to the International Criminal Court”.
In answering a Written Question from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on this issue, the Minister said that the United Kingdom,
“worked with the EU and Japan to co-author a UN resolution on the human rights situation in the DPRK which calls for accountability”.
What further progress has been made on achieving strong support for this resolution?
With South Korea assuming the chair of the United Nations Human Rights Council on 1 January, there is a chance that this could seriously raise tensions on the peninsula. If South Korea leads a global coalition in referring North Korea to the International Criminal Court, I have no doubt that that would be interpreted by the regime as an act of provocation. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, reminded us, the two countries have been technically in a state of war since 1950 to 1953. The point of raising this is that whatever the tensions and provocations, they must not stop us raising the horrendous violations of human rights in North Korea.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for calling this important debate and raising these serious issues relating to the DPRK. I, along with fellow Ministers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DfID, appreciate the invaluable work of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, of which he is a co-chair. There is a long-standing interest in North Korea, across a broad range of serious and challenging issues, which has informed today’s debate.
As noble Lords have pointed out, it is only a fortnight ago that we saw the regime’s flagrant disregard of multiple UN Security Council resolutions by conducting a fourth nuclear test. It would be inappropriate to go into the technical detail of our assessment of the capabilities of the DPRK’s military position with regard to its current and potential future development but clearly it is something we watch very carefully. Although the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others referred to the thermonuclear test, we ought to take into account the fact that North Korea also continues to develop its ballistic missile programme—also in contravention of UN sanctions. We know that it has launched missiles from submarines as recently as last year. That is something that we have to consider always.
With regard to the thermonuclear test, the UK responded swiftly and decisively to condemn this serious violation. The Foreign Secretary spoke to his counterparts in Washington, Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing and called for a robust and united international response. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, who raised these matters—absolutely rightly—that we are working within the United Nations Security Council and the EU to deliver this response, which will include a resolution on further significant measures. He asked me for a timetable. I am afraid I am not able to say when that will be achieved but technical work is under way to look at what further sanctions may be imposed that will be significant and effective. We will consider the full range of options open to us during negotiations on those new sanctions measures.
The United Kingdom has also expressed our concern directly with the North Korean regime. I was asked about this by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. My right honourable friend the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Hugo Swire, summoned the North Korean ambassador to the Foreign Office on 7 January. My right honourable friend further condemned the test and made it clear that North Korea had a choice: to reform its approach or risk facing further international isolation and sanctions. He added that amid reports of widespread hardship and human rights abuses, the priority must be the health and welfare of the North Korean people rather than the nuclear programme.
Of course, China remains vital to resolving issues related to North Korea and the Korean Peninsula. I was pleased to hear noble Lords concentrating on the importance of China’s role. The Foreign Secretary made it clear on his recent visit to China, as did the Prime Minister when he met President Xi on his recent state visit to the UK, that we share the same goals of security on the Korean Peninsula and respect for United Nations resolutions, and that we fully understand the role of China and the importance of its influence. China, like the UK, does not want a nuclear-armed North Korea. As a P5 member, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, pointed out, China has a vital role to play in the implementation of UN sanctions, and we continue to work closely with it on this. We consistently engage with China on DPRK issues, including nuclear and human rights, across the board. That involves specifically the enforcement of sanctions.
As set out in the strategic defence and security review last year, the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent remains essential to our security today and for as long as the global security situation demands. History shows us that threats can emerge without notice but the tools for defending ourselves cannot be built overnight, so the Government will not gamble with the security of future generations of British people. We judge that a minimum, credible, independent nuclear deterrent, based on continuous at-sea deterrence and assigned to the defence of NATO, remains vital to our national security to ensure that the UK is protected from extreme threats that cannot be countered in any other way.
Turning to the critical issue of human rights, we remain concerned by the continuing reports of widespread and systematic state-sanctioned human rights violations in North Korea. The regime’s actions, its lack of international engagement on human rights and its rejection of the United Nations commission of inquiry report remain of deep concern. As the Foreign Office Minister for human rights, I am indeed engaged in seeing what negotiations can take place with our like-minded partners. I was asked about this by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Baglan. It is important that we use the range of expertise and influence at the Human Rights Council as well as at the United Nations to be able to exert influence on international views of the DPRK.
Comments by the UN special rapporteur on forced expatriate labour, if accurate, appear to provide further evidence of North Korea’s lack of respect for international norms. It is important that any country around the world that is hosting North Korean workers should respect the rights of those workers. We continue to press the regime to make tangible progress on its absolutely appalling human rights record, including in the meeting that Hugo Swire had in December with senior visiting North Korean diplomats.
It is only a few weeks ago that the UN Security Council met to discuss the human rights situation in North Korea. So while we consider security as part of this debate today, crucially, we must never ever lose sight of the fact that the regime’s appalling approach to human rights denies ordinary North Koreans the rights that we, and many others across the globe, demand for ourselves. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, outlined a critical issue: it is vital that people should have the right to freedom of religion or belief. Indeed, the constitution of North Korea makes provision for it. It is about time that it took note of its own constitution.
What action are the British Government taking? We work hard in international fora to press for action that addresses North Korea’s serious human rights violations. We play a vital role through our policy of critical engagement. The British embassy in Pyongyang works to ensure that the regime is not oblivious to the condemnation of its approach to security and human rights. Our ambassador and embassy staff consistently raise human rights with the North Korean authorities, including freedom of religion or belief, and encourage their Government to implement all the recommendations of the UN’s universal periodic review. This work is valued by many of our allies, who may of course not have based an embassy within Pyongyang or North Korea and, as I told the current British ambassador before he assumed his duties recently, it is important that this engagement continues. The embassy also runs a series of projects where we engage with ordinary North Koreans. For many, this is their first encounter with a non-Korean and it is an opportunity to showcase our own values.
I was particularly asked about spending. On Monday, I launched the new Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy, in which we have doubled the FCO’s democracy fund money for this year to more than £10 million. That funding is available for bids from NGOs and others who work within North Korea but there is a much broader range of spending from government than just that fund. We have a programme spend which has covered humanitarian projects aimed at improving the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in North Korea, including helping to improve food and nutrition for people in rural areas, the funding of equipment for disabled people and support for children affected by the recent floods in Rajin. Many of our projects are about encouraging change.
My noble friend Lady Berridge asked about the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. In fact, I happened to meet its board yesterday as part of our regular engagement. I will make sure that it takes note of our debate today but it is not for me to tell it what to do. That is not the role of government, but I will invite it to take note of what Parliament wishes it to do. Although DfID does not have a bilateral aid programme with North Korea, its programmes are based on the fact that we can give contributions to multilateral agencies that are working in-country.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, asked about two consular cases. We are indeed aware of the media reports regarding US and Canadian nationals. The British embassy in Pyongyang has been in close contact with the Swedish embassy and we remain in that contact because Sweden has consular responsibility. That does not mean to say that we do not take an interest—we do.
With regard to engaging North Korean refugees, which was another question from my noble friend Lady Berridge, the British embassy in Seoul also works towards improving the future prospects of the North Korean refugee community in the Republic of Korea through its English for the Future programme. We also engage with the North Korean refugee community in the UK to share information and listen to their views on our policy towards North Korea, so that we may better address the very issues that my noble friend outlined about the needs of refugees.
I was asked particularly about the BBC World Service, which remains the world’s largest international broadcaster. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has discussed proposals for a range of new World Service programming, including for the DPRK, and he will make a decision on whether to support additional services on the basis of any formal request from the BBC Trust. I am not in a position to give a date about when that may happen but when a formal request comes forward, he will make that decision.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the most important issue—there should be no impunity for crimes such as serious human rights violations. It is not only Governments who have responsibility for this. NGOs take on that responsibility, too, and I pay tribute to the human rights defenders around the world, including those in North Korea, who carry out their work in very dangerous conditions. It is a long battle ahead for us all to achieve conditions of humanity in North Korea. We will not give up, and I know that the British public and this Parliament will not give up.