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Volume 804: debated on Tuesday 30 June 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the situation on the border between North Korea and South Korea; and what residual responsibilities they have, if any, in relation to the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement.

My Lords, we are concerned by North Korea’s recent confrontational rhetoric and actions. We urge North Korea to act responsibly when dealing with South Korea and the international community. The UK works multilaterally and with partners to seek peace and prosperity for the Korean peninsula, and we are an active member of the United Nations Command, which continues its important work to maintain the armistice agreement.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. Seventy years ago this Friday, HMS “Triumph” and an American carrier made the first carrier strikes against North Korean airfields. This was only five days after Prime Minister Attlee agreed that Britain could operate with the US on behalf of the UN, proving once again the versatility of carrier strike and that prompt, resolute action against an aggressor ensures the survival of free and democratic nations. The war lasted three years, with 3 million deaths, and an armistice was signed but there was no peace treaty.

With the failure of President Trump’s three on one high-profile summits, North Korean aggressive statements, the blowing up of the joint liaison ops in Kaesong, renewed missile testing, threats to remilitarise the border, et cetera, is the whole peace process now lost or is there hope? Have the UK Government tried to bring the parties back together, using our membership of the Military Armistice Commission as a lever? Does the Minister agree that worsening US-China strategic competition in the post-coronavirus era will make negotiations on North Korea’s denuclearisation, which is the key to a peace agreement, more difficult?

My Lords, the noble Lord summarises the situation very well. The challenges are immense, not least given the current and most recent actions taken by the North Koreans, including blowing up the building where negotiations were continuing to take place on a daily basis. We remain positive about the need to seek resolution to this issue, which has gone on for far too long. We continue to support American efforts in this regard, including support given to the US and the South Koreans on a recent statement issued, and we implore all sides, including those who support the North Korean regime, to ensure that both North Korea and South Korea can resume their discussions, which had borne fruit in certain respects.

My Lords, the armistice agreement, which was signed by an American lieutenant-general, was of course signed on behalf of the United Nations Command. The period since then has been punctuated by hostile provocations, which have occurred on both sides although it is much easier to see the absurdity of the North Korean regime, its bellicose nuclear threats and its recent actions, including blowing up the building. It is true that there has been fault on both sides, including the United States’ abrogation of paragraph 13(d) of the agreement in 1956.

I wonder whether, as a permanent member of the United Nations and—

My Lords, I am afraid that the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, is inaudible, so the Minister will write—if he would like to write—with the supplementary answer.

My Lords, what assessment has been made of the spread of coronavirus in North Korea, for example through satellite assessment and attendance at clinics, and do the Government think that conflict with the south is a deflection from that?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right to draw attention to the situation in North Korea on both the humanitarian and human rights front. Yes, the challenge remains to understand what support we can provide. Although we of course support sanctions, she will be aware that humanitarian support continues to be delivered through the UN avenues. We called on North Korea to make an assessment of its situation domestically on Covid-19 and allow support to its citizens.

My Lords, as the Minister has acknowledged, the Korean War never really ended in 1953; indeed, it is still going on, with the actions from an erratic and hereditary autocrat who may or may not have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. The Minister mentioned support to allies. It is important that, when we support allies in the region and fellow democracies such as Japan and Australia—and, indeed, down in the South China Sea —we have the means to support them. I fear that we need to look closely at how much we are spending on defence, not because we want some conflict with North Korea—or, indeed, anyone else in the region—but because we must be taken seriously by countries such as North Korea.

My Lords, let me assure my noble friend that we take our role as part of the UN Command very seriously. Most recently on the specific issue of deployment and support, the Royal Navy deployed ships to the north-east Asia region in 2018, through HMS “Sutherland” and “Albion”, and in 2019, as my noble friend may be aware, through HMS “Enterprise”.

The APPG on North Korea would particularly like to ask the Minister about two issues. First, what assessment has been made by our ambassador in Pyongyang of the widespread reports of food insecurity, even famine? Secondly, is anything known about the size of any listening audience to the BBC World Service’s Korean service and whether it is in fact helping to break the information block?

My Lords, I will write to the noble and right reverend Lord on his second question. On his earlier question, we retain a mission, of course, but as he may be aware, we drew that down due to concerns around the Covid pandemic; we are working to restore the ambassador to North Korea at the earliest opportunity. As I said in response to an earlier question, the situation on the humanitarian front remains very dire within North Korea.

My Lords, this is a dangerously escalating situation and the noble Lord has mentioned our acting multilaterally. However, the two key players in this are obviously the US and China. What direct contact have we made with both of those players to ensure that we move to de-escalation? Also, I read in the FT recently that we would be targeting by using the Magnitsky powers in relation to North Korea. Before the Recess, the Minister promised that those statutory instruments would be put before us. Can he give an update of when that will be, because obviously this situation demands urgent action?

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that we continue to work to ensure peace on the peninsula. He is quite right to say that both the United States and China have a key role to play. We continue to liaise with both nations bilaterally and, more importantly, through the Security Council. On his second point about Magnitsky sanctions and the regime, as I said earlier, we are proposing to bring those forward before the Summer Recess, and we are in the final stages of doing that now.

My Lords, the Minister has talked about the Government supporting sanctions but also about providing humanitarian aid. What assessment have the Government made of the relative balance between the two in the context of North Korea?

My Lords, the sanctions are not targeted against the North Korean people, and we will continue to support delivery of humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable in that country. Denuclearisation will assist in that respect.

My Lords, what is the Government’s assessment of the likely success of the US negotiation strategy of maximum pressure based on “denuclearise first, reward later”, including the effectiveness of the UN sanctions and their impact on North Korea’s humanitarian crisis?

My Lords, I believe that I have partly answered the question put by the noble Lord already. On the specific issue of the US sanctions, the US is demonstrating patience and has adopted a sense of willingness in its approach, although success is not guaranteed. Enforcing sanctions which have been agreed unanimously in the UN Security Council in response to North Korea’s nuclear ballistic missile testing does help to create the conditions to incentivise change on the part of North Korea, while of course keeping the humanitarian corridor open.

My Lords, following the invasion of South Korea by North Korea, 16 UN member nations, including the United Kingdom, sent fighting units to the peninsula under the auspices of the United Nations—we sent more than 100,000 servicemen. The United Nations command provided core military strategic direction. Subsequently, the UN has passed resolutions and applied sanctions. In 1953, an armistice agreement was signed, but no formal peace agreement has ever been signed. Recently, the situation in North Korea has deteriorated. I would like to ask my noble friend the Minister if the UN can play a more active role in achieving peace. Can we influence this in any way?

My Lords, we continue to implore that we work with the UN Security Council in pursuit of that objective.

My Lords, I have visited the Republic of Korea and gone to the 38th parallel, but it was one of the most scary experiences that I have had in my life. The Republic of Korea is a stable, democratic country, and we have a responsibility to support it. Will Her Majesty’s Government raise the threats being made by North Korea at the United Nations Security Council in an effort to get both Russia and China to help calm the North Koreans?

My Lords, the noble Lord has raised an important point. I believe that it is through the UN Security Council, as I have just said in response to my noble friend Lord Sheikh, that we will provide the real route for North Korea to come back to the table and to continue with its denuclearisation and demilitarisation effort. That will bring more stability to the Korean peninsula but to the wider world as well.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed. That concludes the Hybrid Proceedings on Oral Questions.

Sitting suspended.