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Korean Peninsula

Volume 783: debated on Tuesday 5 September 2017


My Lords, I would now like to repeat a Statement made in the other place on North Korea:

“Mr Speaker, with your permission, I should like to make a Statement about the situation on the Korean peninsula.

At noon on Sunday, local time, North Korea tested the most powerful nuclear device ever detonated in the history of the regime’s quest for an illegal arsenal. The underground explosion in a testing site only 60 miles from the Chinese border triggered an earthquake measuring up to 6.3 on the Richter scale—10 times more powerful than the tremor created by the last detonation. The regime claimed to have exploded a hydrogen bomb capable of being delivered on an intercontinental ballistic missile. We should treat that claim with scepticism, but the House must be under no illusion that this latest test marks another perilous advance in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

In a country blighted by decades of communist economic failure—where, in the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of people died of starvation or were reduced to eating grass and leaves to survive—the regime has squandered its resources on building an illegal armoury of nuclear bombs. The House will wish to join me in condemning a nuclear test that poses a grave threat to the security of every country in east Asia and the wider world. Earlier today, the North Korean ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Office to receive a formal protest.

Honourable Members will recall the steady drumbeat of provocative and dangerous actions by Kim Jong-un’s regime. Last year, North Korea tested two nuclear weapons and launched 24 missiles. So far this year, the regime has fired 18 missiles, including two of intercontinental range; indeed, three tests have taken place since the House rose in July, and on Monday last week a missile flew over Japan, causing sirens to sound on Hokkaido and forcing thousands of people to take cover. The regime has threatened to launch more missiles towards the US Pacific territory of Guam, which is home to 180,000 people and two military bases.

I will commend the dignity and restraint shown by South Korea and Japan, the countries that find themselves in the firing line of Pyongyang’s reckless ambitions. The House will note that North Korea’s brazen defiance has brought universal condemnation. When the United Nations Security Council met in emergency session yesterday, every member—including China and Russia—denounced the latest nuclear test.

Britain has been at the heart of mobilising world opinion with the aim of achieving a diplomatic solution. Last week, I spoke to my Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, and the Japanese Foreign Minister, Taro Kono. A few hours after the nuclear test on Sunday, I spoke to the South Korean Foreign Minister, Kang Kyung-wha, and I have been in regular contact with Secretary Tillerson of the United States. During her highly successful visit to Tokyo last week, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made clear our solidarity with Japan as it faces this grave threat.

Just as North Korea has pursued nuclear weapons with single-minded determination, so the international community must show the same resolve in our pursuit of a diplomatic solution. We should not be diverted by arguments that equate the illegal and aggressive actions of Pyongyang with the legitimate and defensive military exercises of South Korea and the United States. North Korea has caused this crisis and the onus rests squarely on Kim Jong-un’s regime to obey international law and meet its obligations to disarm.

All hopes for progress rest on international co-operation, and there are some encouraging signs. On 5 August, the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2371, including the toughest sanctions ever imposed on North Korea, banning exports of coal, seafood, iron ore and lead. If fully enforced, these new measures will cost Pyongyang about $1 billion—one-third of the country’s total export earnings—reducing the resources available for nuclear weapons. We are now pressing the Security Council to pass a new resolution as swiftly as possible, imposing further sanctions and showing the unity and determination of the international community.

China, which accounts for 90% of North Korea’s overseas trade, has a unique ability to influence the regime, and the House can take heart from the fact that Beijing voted in favour of the latest sanctions resolution and condemned Pyongyang’s actions in the most unsparing terms. North Korea’s nuclear device was not only tested near China’s border, it was also detonated on the day that President Xi Jinping opened a summit in Xiamen with the leaders of Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa. I call on China to use all its leverage to ensure a peaceful solution to this grave crisis.

Kim Jong-un claims to want security and prosperity for North Korea’s people. The only way to achieve this goal would be for North Korea to obey the United Nations and halt its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes, disarming in a complete and verifiable manner. Britain stands alongside our allies in striving to achieve this goal.

I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I join the Government in unreservedly condemning North Korea for the flagrant breaches of international law. I also welcome the Statement’s careful and judicious tone. This crisis can be resolved only through co-ordinated international action, through the de-escalation of tensions and ultimately through negotiations. As I said earlier, this crisis requires statesmanship not brinksmanship. There can be no military solution to this dispute, and we must guard against the reckless actions or rhetoric from either side which take us in that direction. The reality is that the only sane options in this situation are properly enforcing the new sanctions regime and restarting the six-party talks to seek new and lasting settlement.

In her earlier contribution today the noble Baroness referred to sanctions being a success, which I assume she meant in terms of their implementation. However, according to the United Nations committee responsible for monitoring sanctions on North Korea, just 95 UN member states have submitted their implementation reports on sanctions contained in Resolution 2270, which was adopted in March 2016. Just 80 member states have submitted implementation reports for the sanctions set out in Resolution 2321, adopted in November. How, therefore, do the Government propose to ensure that any new sanctions are implemented quickly and effectively?

The noble Lord, Lord Hague, considered in a press article today whether the strategic goal would eventually shift from preventing North Korea achieving nuclear capability to accepting that that capability exists and seeking in some form to contain it. Can the Minister say whether the Foreign Office has planned and made contingencies for this scenario?

For the US to turn its back on diplomacy at this stage is simply irresponsible, and as its closest ally we must be prepared to say so. While these Benches welcome the Statement today, the real test is what comes next. As I urged the noble Baroness this afternoon, we should join our European allies in building a stronger case for diplomacy and sanctions. I urge the Government to help steer a course towards the only options that work: dialogue, diplomacy and peace.

My Lords, I will start by taking off from where the noble Lord, Lord Collins, ended. There are references here to standing alongside our allies, to our commitment to international co-operation and to working through the UN Security Council. It mentions three of the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council; France is clearly absent. There is no reference to consultation with our European partners in the entire Statement, and there was no reference to continuing foreign policy co-operation in the earlier Statement on European negotiations. Does this mean that we have in effect already withdrawn from European foreign policy co-operation and that we regard regaining our global status as leaving our European network of co-operation behind? If so, that is deeply unfortunate. It suggests that we are playing at regaining global status and that, broadly stated, we do not understand who our allies are.

I have never been to North Korea, but I have spent time in Seoul and I am conscious of how delicate the border is and how easy it would be to destabilise that region further. There is now a real danger that this situation could begin to slip out of control. We have seen missiles fired over Japan and the drills that that required—the sort of threats from North Korea that are escalating. Clearly, therefore, we have to work with others, including our European allies—but of course, first and foremost, with China and Russia as the two powers that have the most influence over North Korea—to persuade the North Koreans that there is some advantage in lowering their posture and that the threats which they see as being made to them, which of course help to legitimise their regime, are not as acute as they tell their public they are. Multilateral negotiation has to be the way forward. That means working as closely as we can with China, and we should not deceive ourselves that Britain alone has influence on China; it has to be with all the other permanent members, with our European partners and with other leading states around the world.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Wallace, for their contributions. Their tone was extremely helpful; these measured and reflective thoughts are a constructive contribution to our discussions.

On the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, I think the first was the important issue of the number of member states complying with the sanctions imposed by the United Nations. That is an important point, because the effectiveness of the sanctions depends on the ability of the member states to apply them and make them bite. He listed the figure of 95 member states that currently comply with them. That is encouraging and positive; obviously, we would like to see that figure increase. Not every United Nations member state has the civil service capability that the larger powers, such as the United Kingdom, may have. The United Kingdom is prepared to provide advice to other UN member states—particularly, perhaps, to some of the African Commonwealth states—to help them to prepare to implement the sanctions and to understand what technical preparations may be necessary to do that.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, also raised the issue of containment. The difficulty with containment is that it inevitably implies that we first concede that North Korea has a nuclear capability, and we would then have to deal with that by working through a deterrence strategy. The worry is that North Korea is so unpredictable that deterrence norms may not necessarily work as well as they might with other nuclear powers. Certainly, given its track record with other weapons, the apprehension is that there would clearly be a major proliferation risk. That is why it is felt that the strategy currently being embarked upon by the United Kingdom and global partners—which, as I say, is predicated on the forum of the United Nations—is the correct and effective strategy to pursue.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised an interesting issue on foreign policy and whether the United Kingdom is now pursuing some kind of non-EU, but with everyone else, foreign policy. That is not the case. It is clearly evident that there is a close relationship at United Nations level, on the Security Council, of which France is of course a member. The United Kingdom works closely with our United Nations partners, both those on the Security Council and other member states. It is interesting to see just what unanimity of purpose there is, as is manifest by what we have been hearing from the member states of the UN, and in particular, as was made clear in the Statement, by the denunciation of North Korea’s position by both China and Russia. It is obvious that this is a global threat presented by North Korea, and it has to be responded to by a global partnership. That is what the United Kingdom is fully signed up to and what it has been trying to co-operate with, and in some cases to lead, at United Nations level. We need to work with others; the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, made that point, and I entirely agree—this is not a time for people doing their own thing. We have North Korea doing its own thing, and there is an urgent need to respond in a collective international manner to that. The final point the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, made was on the need for a multilateral approach; again, I think that it is absolutely right that that is what we must do.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, was slightly dismissive of my description of the effect of the sanctions earlier on. However, I go back to the evidence, and as the Statement reminded all of us, the sanctions are now biting on over $1 billion-worth of North Korea’s exports, which amounts to one-third of its total exports. That is a significant tourniquet, as I said earlier, on its export trade, which affects its revenue streams to fund this nuclear programme. I also referred earlier to the remarks of the United Kingdom Permanent Representative, Matthew Rycroft. He also made the point in his comments yesterday to the United Nations Security Council that the measures already applied against commodity exports in the financial sector are making it harder and harder for Pyongyang to acquire the hard currency necessary to fund its programmes. I have no doubt whatever that the grip of these sanctions, both those already in place and those that may be contemplated, will have a real effect upon North Korea. The rationale behind that is clear: if we can turn off the money supply that is funding this dangerous and apparently uncontrolled programme, we will go a long way towards addressing the issue.

Obviously Japan and South Korea are most in the front line and most immediately in danger, and our thoughts are very much with them, but does my noble friend agree that after those two the country most threatened by, and most in danger from, any nuclear escalation in the Korean peninsula—although it may not appreciate it—is the People’s Republic of China? Is not the reality of the future that the necessary force and pressure on Pyongyang—which, frankly, I think will require more than sanctions and UN resolutions—will come only from the combined and co-operative efforts of Washington, Beijing and Moscow, and possibly Tokyo as well? They alone are in a position to work on North Korea in ways that do not create even more of a disaster and corner Pyongyang into even more violence, instead being somehow able to bring pressure to bear beyond what they are doing already. Does my noble friend accept that, although we and the United Nations may do our very best—all the things that she has described are useful—the real pressure will come only from those four capitals and that we must use our good offices as best we can from this end of the planet to encourage and interpret, with our skill and tradition, but that basically the power of very strong persuasion will be the only thing that brings Kim Jong-un and his gang of generals to any kind of reality and to any kind of containment and pause?

I thank my noble friend for his question. I agree that China is pivotal to this, and that point was reiterated by the Prime Minister in her response to these developments. Importantly, as has become apparent at United Nations level, China and, for example, Russia are very clear about the unacceptable nature of what has happened. I think the adjective used in the Statement was that China was “unsparing” in its comments. My noble friend makes a very good point. Of course China is pivotal, as are Japan, Russia and the United States, but I also go back to what I said to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. There has to be some kind of cohesive international partnership to try to deal with this, and I think that the United Kingdom plays an important role in that. No one country has a monopoly of influence. China is extremely influential—there is no shadow of a doubt about that—but it is by acting in concert, as the global powers are currently doing, as manifested by the United Nations resolutions, that we stand the best chance of applying a squeeze to the money revenue stream which Kim Jong-un relies on to fund his illegal and apparently uncontrolled nuclear programme. Therefore, I am not totally at variance with my noble friend’s important point, but I reiterate that what we do as a country and as a Government has to be in partnership with our global colleagues, and I think we are doing that effectively at United Nations level. It is early days to judge just how much the sanctions are biting but all the evidence is that that bite is there and that it will become even firmer.

My Lords, the Government seem to be working on three assumptions here. One is that the Chinese are unreservedly committed to restraining Kim Jong-un; the second is that sanctions will work; and the third is that this country has, as the noble Baroness has just put it, an important part to play, even without the European Union. I hope all three assumptions are correct but is there not an alternative hypothesis? China’s long-term strategic aim is to be the dominant power in Asia—to be once again the “Middle Kingdom” of the Yuan and Ming dynasties. She will achieve that only when the Americans are no longer present on the western rim of the Pacific. The Chinese always regarded that situation as very anomalous. The only way that America can be removed is for the ties between America and her three allies in the region, and other countries in the region, to be gradually attenuated and eroded. Eventually those countries will have to deal with China more or less on China’s terms. In that scenario, would not the very best thing that could possibly happen be that the United States be publicly humiliated, shown up as incapable of reacting to threats and unable to defend her allies in the region?

A number of points arose in that contribution and I shall try to comment on them. I suppose there will always be differing interpretations of what motivates individual powers, and no doubt different motives will be ascribed to those individual powers. However, given the enormity of what we face—and by “enormity” I mean that, first, this is unprecedented and, secondly, Kim Jong-un appears particularly obdurate about disregarding international law and the United Nations’ measures—I think it has to be responded to globally. While there may be other politics at play—we live in the real world, and it would be impossible to imagine a real world where other politics and political influences did not come to bear—at the same time, the focus has to be on dealing with what has been happening. It is encouraging that, whatever else may be going on in their different back yards, all the powers that are part of the United Nations initiative and privy to the resolutions, and which support and endorse those resolutions, collectively have a very important role to play. My view is that there is evidence that that partnership is proving successful and having an effect, and it is very important that all the major powers stand together against this situation and do not begin to dissemble among themselves. I do not think that would contribute to the positive direction of wanting to persuade Kim Jong-un that there is merit in stopping what he is doing and merit in trying to do something about his own country and the plight of his people. If we can work in tandem towards that objective, there may be some cause for hope.

My Lords, the judicious mix of containment, deterrence, sanctions and diplomacy was contained in the Statement read to us by the Minister this evening. On the specific point about sanctions, will she confirm that during the first six months of this year there was a 40% increase in trade between China and North Korea, and that, as she indicated, about 90% more trade is done with China? Therefore, in the context of the Security Council meeting next week, what information do we have so far that China will support, for instance, a crucial embargo on oil, which would be the one thing that would make a difference in trade with North Korea, or that a veto might be used? On justice, it is now three years since the United Nations commission of inquiry reported that this was a state without parallel. It recommended that North Korea should be referred to the International Criminal Court. Why has nothing been done to facilitate that recommendation? Does this not always have to run in parallel with all the other actions that we take?

In Questions earlier today, I referred to the lessons of the Cold War. Surely during that period we learned that, once mutually assured destruction was determined between the powers, other things had to be done to reach over the heads of ideologues and dictators. We should never confuse the people of North Korea—a country I have visited on four occasions—with the ideology of the regime. There is a need for the tyranny imposed on the people by that benighted regime to be lifted. Just as we had a Helsinki approach during the Cold War to change the nature of the former Soviet Union, surely we should be doing far more to promote a Helsinki with a Korean face in order to change the nature of that regime so that one day, like South Korea, which has a GDP 20 times greater than that of North Korea, there will be change. After all, it was in the lifetime of Members of your Lordships’ House that we saw South Korea move from being a brutal military dictatorship to being one of the greatest democracies and thriving economies in the world today.

On the specific issue about China’s trade position with North Korea and the attitude of China to sanctions, I can say only that the United Kingdom Government certainly operate at United Nations level in the expectation that member states comply with the sanctions regime. The noble Lord referred to the increase in trade and its raising questions about whether the sanction regime has been complied with. I am sure that that will attract the attention of the other member states in the United Nations; they will no doubt want to ask questions about it.

On the important issue of the United Nations describing North Korea as a “state without parallel” and why there has not been a referral to the International Criminal Court, I may be wrong in my recollection—no doubt the noble Lord will correct me if I am—but my understanding is that North Korea is not actually a party to the statute constituting that court. That makes referral to that court difficult.

Forgive me: I misunderstood. I cannot give a specific answer to that point, but I undertake to make inquiries and write to the noble Lord.

The noble Lord made the important point that the people of North Korea should not be confused with the ideology of North Korea. That is a vital point worth repeating. The people of North Korea are a very oppressed people. They seem to live in a very difficult environment. We suspect that they are denied many of the everyday benefits of life that we take for granted. They are a proud and historic people. That is why the international community is anxious to try to find a way to improve the lot of North Korea. I said in my earlier remarks that part of this is addressing a threat to security and part is addressing a destabilising influence. Part of it also has to be about trying to chart a way forward that gives a more optimistic future for the people of North Korea. I think that was an echo of the noble Lord’s final contribution—can we afford ourselves some hope? We can and I hope that we shall, because if we do not the prospect is very bleak. There are examples where, against the odds, change has occurred. If that can be the case in one country, why not in another?

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister is right in saying that unity is crucial in this, so I am bound to say that it is a matter of some sadness if not regret that we have now pushed the policy of sanctions so far that we have now lost China to the international consensus. That is a loss that will be measured in terms of loss of influence on North Korea. It is important at this stage that we face reality. The Minister said that the policy of sanctions has succeeded. Can she name a single shred of evidence measured in terms of the reduction in North Korean armament processing that would support that conclusion? This policy followed for the last 10 years has not succeeded: it has failed. There is an old saying: “If you go on doing what you’re doing, you will get what you’ve got”. What we have now is a fully nuclear-armed North Korea and a world standing on the very brink of nuclear conflagration.

I am not in favour of removing the military option from the table. Our policy so far, however, has been, “Respond to our threats and then we will talk”. Why do we not talk while keeping the threats on the table? Diplomacy works best if it is backed by a military option. There is no reason why we should not now keep that threat on the table and commence some kind of dialogue. That is what China wants and what the others want too. The options are very grave. I concede that if we follow that policy we would have to admit that the policy we have been following for the past 10 years has failed. But surely it is better for us to admit that a policy has failed when it is manifestly evident that it has than to allow the world to come to the brink of this kind of crisis, which could lead to incalculable destruction.

I disagree that sanctions have failed. It is always difficult to try to prove a negative and prove that something has not failed, but the reaction of North Korea to the sanctions regime has certainly not been positive. North Korea seems to be feeling the effect of the sanctions. That suggests to me that they are having an impact on the economy of North Korea.

The noble Lord talked about a military solution. I respect his view but I am not sure that I entirely agree with it. He takes the view that, unless a military solution is on the table, nothing else will work because the discussions do not have any clout. But we must acknowledge that a military solution would create a very grave situation. It would obviously present a big risk to the people of South Korea. It is difficult to see how that risk could be eliminated. The United Kingdom Government are of the view that we need to pursue a diplomatic, if possible, economic solution to try to change the mindset of Kim Jong-un. Given the extreme risk presented by North Korea, we are not taking any option off the table, but the United Kingdom Government have made it clear—and the noble Lord would accept this—that our focus at the moment is to try to find a diplomatic solution supported by economic measures that have an effect on the North Korean economy.

My Lords, it is crucial that the United States and the United Kingdom work hand in glove in this desperate crisis. Will my noble friend assure me that the Prime Minister is in regular and personal contact with a President who has shown that he is predisposed to be a little trigger-happy? It is crucial that we avoid a military solution, even though the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, is right to say that it should be on the table. Can my noble friend tell me that there is regular contact between the Prime Minister and the White House following that interesting visit at the beginning of the year?

I should say to my noble friend that I am not privy to the precise communications and arrangements that exist between the Prime Minister and the President of the United States, but I reassure him that there is a high-level diplomatic exchange. There is regular evidence of that—as I indicated in the Statement, the Foreign Secretary is in touch with Secretary Tillerson. I thank my noble friend for his helpful observation that we have to work closely with all our allies. That is axiomatic if we are to make any sense of trying to have a coherent response against North Korea.

I am able to give a quick update from this holograph note that has just been passed to me. It says, “PM spoke to the President today”. There we are—hot off the press to my noble friend.

My Lords, what is the use of leaving a military option on the table when we know that such an option is wholly unrealistic? As the Minister has said, that is in part because of the proximity of Seoul to the border. Should we not be brutally realistic and accept that that is so? Does not she agree that one of the real problems here is that no one, even the South Koreans as I have heard from several of their leaders, really understands the inner workings of the North Korean regime? We do not know its motives. Are they triggered by some form of self-preservation of the regime? Is there some form of potential blackmail of the US and its allies? This is a fact of life: we do not have any intelligence about what motivates the North Koreans. Given the importance that everyone accepts of pressure from China, can she say whether there is any evidence at all that it is prepared to use the oil weapon?

I emphasise that the United Kingdom Government are focusing on a diplomatic solution and, with the collective support of the United Nations member states, to achieve a regime of sanctions which has an economic impact on North Korea so that the revenues making possible the development of its nuclear capability are cut off. It is worth repeating: that is the focus of the United Kingdom Government. We would regard a military solution as a very grave option indeed.

On the role of China, again we have to work in partnership. It is clear that China has shown, particularly in its language at the recent United Nations meeting, how extremely worried it is about this. I think that the country has realised that it has to demonstrate a willingness to play its part not just as a member of the United Nations but also by supporting the sanctions regime.

The final point raised by the noble Lord was that of oil. Again, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, during the discussions at the United Nations which are to be held imminently, searching questions will be asked and a vigorous exploration made of the options. The United Kingdom believes that there are still sanctions options to pursue, and that is what I think will be the source of a robust discussion at the United Nations.