Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of security challenges and related human rights violations on the Korean Peninsula.
My Lords, in 2003, after taking the testimony of an escapee from North Korea, whose wife and three children had died there, I initiated a debate in your Lordships’ House. I described a,
“corrupt, paranoid and tyrannical regime”,
responsible for “unbelievable brutality and viciousness”. I said:
“This regime has subjugated its own people and now threatens and blackmails the world’s democracies. It does so by threatening nuclear war unless the free world accedes to its demands. To do nothing about North Korea would be the most dangerous option of all”.—[Official Report, 13/3/03; cols. 1546-48.].
Those remarks led to four visits to North Korea, three of them with my noble friend Lady Cox. In subsequent reports we argued for a Helsinki-style critical engagement, increasing the pressure for human rights, in combination with a firm policy of military containment. We argued for a breaking of the information blockade and for the centrality of China’s role, and said that we had to distinguish between what we described in one of our reports as a “decaying political ideology” and the,
“courageous Korean people, caught in this nexus of danger and despair”.
In 2004, we founded the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, which I co-chair. It has held many public hearings with escapees, including prisoners jailed for political or religious beliefs, highlighting the depredations of the gulags, the use of child labour and the Stalinesque purges and executions.
In 2010, in a debate in your Lordships’ House, I called for the creation of a United Nations Commission of Inquiry into human rights violations. It was established in 2013, and the Sages Group, of which I am a member, remains focused on the commission’s findings.
The all-party group also secured agreement for BBC World Service broadcasts which, with smuggled USB sticks and DVDs, will help to prise open a closed society and counter propaganda that literally teaches people to hate.
North Korea is caught in a time warp which has its origins in the armistice of 27 July 1953, designed to put a temporary halt to a war that claimed up to 3 million lives. Sixty years later, a short-term armistice is still in place and a solution is still pending. Having done too little to change the weather, we now find ourselves on the edge of a nuclear winter. We called it “strategic patience”—patient yes; strategic or urgent, no.
James Mattis, the United States Defense Secretary, is in little doubt about how catastrophic a new war would be, saying that a conflict in North Korea,
“would be the worst kind of fighting in most people’s lifetimes”.
Miscalculation, rather than design, is capable of triggering a “Sarajevo” moment, and with more than a million troops under arms and some 8,000 artillery pieces located within range of half the South’s population, this is not a moment for sending the wrong signals.
It was Winston Churchill who insisted that:
“The statesman who yields to war fever must realise that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events”.
But he also warned about the dangers of appeasement—of feeding the crocodiles who end up eating you. He said that there will come a point when:
“The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences”.
If we have not quite reached that moment, we are perilously close to it and on the brink of the irreversible.
When the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, warned in early January that his country was in the “final stages” of preparing an intercontinental ballistic missile, Donald Trump tweeted, “It won’t happen!”. Last week, on American Independence Day, it did. That, the return to America of a dying student, Otto Warmbier, and the holding of three other United States citizens as hostages, whose plight was reported yesterday to be worsening, inevitably becomes a casus belli. It is impossible for the United States to contemplate open talks while their citizens are incarcerated, and now with ICBMs, North Korea would be unwise to believe that the United States would easily accept a nuclear freeze. Attempting to perfect the miniaturisation of its nuclear warheads to mount on an ICBM simply increases the danger and the urgency. I suggest four areas in which to swiftly target our focus: diplomacy, sanctions, North Korean operatives and judicial action.
Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, warned that North Korea’s actions were,
“quickly closing off the possibility of a diplomatic solution”.
President Trump has also told South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in that dialogue with North Korea remains open “under the right circumstances”. China would gain great credit from brokering such an initiative.
But let us be realistic. North Korea has flouted the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, two nuclear safeguard agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency, an inter-Korean denuclearisation agreement, and denuclearisation agreements with the United States in 1994, 2005, 2007 and 2012. It has sent assassins to kill Kim Jong-nam and human rights activists, proliferated ballistic missiles, sold weapons to terrorists, attacked South Korea on numerous occasions, helped Syria employ chemical weapons and engaged in cyberwarfare, including against the United Kingdom. Reason, not hope, should inform any effective policy, and reason tells us that North Korea will not negotiate its nuclear and missile programmes away.
The quest for deterrence may well trigger a race for atomic weapons within the region. South Korea, Japan and even Taiwan may follow suit, none of which would be welcomed by China any more than a failed state on its border and the prospect of millions of refugees destabilising China and the region. Yet despite the gains from a diplomatic breakthrough, both China and Russia—with its increasing business links and trade, along with the use of North Korean labour in its timber camps—seem more interested in cornering the United States than in cornering North Korea or in encouraging fundamental change. With the flick of a switch, China could bring North Korea to the table, but there is a growing belief that it suits China to leave Washington dangling. This year, Chinese trade has increased by 40% and banks continue to launder North Korean money. Paradoxically, it is prosperity and market reforms that ultimately will fundamentally change North Korea, but in the short term, toughened Chinese sanctions might bring the North Koreans to the table and help to avert a catastrophic war.
We should note also that a recent UN report confirmed that North Korea uses foreign banks to access European and US financial systems. Why is this still the case? Moreover, what of the North Korean operatives as generators of hard currency for North Korea? For years, the UN Panel of Experts has named and located North Korean operatives working around the world. Some make money for the regime in seemingly legitimate businesses, while others engage in more sinister activities such as the purchase of weapons-related materials and assassination. Why too was the Korea National Insurance Corporation able to use London to generate more than £113 million to support both the regime and its nuclear weapons programme? An estimated 100,000 North Koreans are working in timber camps and in stadia in Qatar and St Petersburg where they are said to be treated like prisoners of war, in Chinese sweatshops and in Malaysian mines, and are forced to return most of the nearly $2 billion they generate each year in wages to the regime.
Let me finally also speak of justice and act on the United Nations commission of inquiry’s recommendation that the regime be held to account through the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. The prospect of justice helped to concentrate the minds of the military regime in Burma and it can play its part in North Korea too. In Geneva this year, Tomás Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on North Korea, and a group of independent experts called again for an ICC referral or, in the event of a veto at the Security Council, for the establishment of an ad hoc international tribunal. Crimes against humanity are by definition a concern for all of humanity, and a failure to take appropriate action sends a deplorable signal to despots around the world. Democratic nations should issue arrest warrants for North Korean officials. Any representative of the regime should be detained and tried for complicity in crimes against humanity. We should also downgrade our British diplomatic presence, which is treated contemptuously by North Korea while providing it with a veneer of legitimacy.
North Korea is not a normal nation. It is a brutal totalitarian regime that starves its people while simply seeking its own survival. But a better outcome is still possible if the international community pursues a hard-headed, effective and reasoned foreign policy that unites a concern for security and human rights while supporting Koreans who are working for change. Doing nothing remains the most dangerous option of all, and I thank all noble Lords who are to participate in this debate for drawing attention to these issues.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for bringing this important question to the House. I commend him on his insightful and clear introductory speech. I shall focus my comments on the plight of Christians within North Korea. Given that it is an extraordinarily restrictive state, up-to-date information on conditions for Christians or indeed any other group within the state is limited. Moreover, a dearth of domestic criminal law guidance which would codify sanctions against those who counter the state prevents concerned outsiders building up a systematic understanding of the consequences of non-conformism.
In 2014, the UN commission of inquiry report on North Korea outlined the,
“almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion’,
within the country. During the same year, the UK Parliament’s APPG on International Freedom of Religion or Belief documented the persecution of religious groups in North Korea, similarly concluding that,
“the DPRK systemically oppresses freedom of religion or belief and that Christians in particular are targeted by the regime and subjected to chronic human rights abuses, amounting to crimes against humanity”.
The state commits to protecting religious freedom in its constitution, but Article 68 affirms:
“Religion must not be used as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the State or social order”.
While two Protestant churches reportedly exist in the DPRK to welcome believers on official visits, this constitutional qualification allows the state to persecute North Korean adherence to religious beliefs, such as Christianity.
According to Christians from the DPRK in contact with organisations outside the country or who have managed to escape across the border, this persecution flows from the state’s view of religion as a national security threat that challenges in particular loyalty to the Supreme Leader. Christianity in particular is perceived by the state in geopolitical terms as an unwelcome manifestation of neo-imperialistic western influence. Dedicating one’s life to Jesus Christ represents the most profound threat to a state-sanctioned cult that treats total loyalty to a ruler as indispensable to patriotism.
Branded as foreign spies or enemies of the state for their beliefs, Christians are placed on the bottom rung of the caste system, labelled hostile individuals and forced to live in isolated villages where they are subjected to forced labour and horrific treatment in “Nazi-esque” death camps. The most recent estimates from Christian Solidarity Worldwide state that between 10% and 45% of those currently imprisoned in detention camps are Christians, detained under national security pretences for such vague and innocuous charges as possession of religious items or contacts with religious people. The tales of torture, sexual violence and starvation that emerge from these camps are horrifying, but it is also instructive to note the incessant and intimidatory scrutiny Christians and others not living in the camps face.
United Nations and NGO evidence portray an Orwellian society in which Christians are forced to live in a state of constant fear, monitored by the national security and public safety agencies’ extensive surveillance network and a system of neighbourhood groups and informants. Former agents of this surveillance network vividly describe how the state roots out Christians by setting up fake “secret” prayer meetings to attract Christians in both North Korea and China. Chinese pastors are sometimes bribed to hand over Christians who have managed to escape across the border. Agents are given rewards that include medals, higher pay or promotion for identifying and arresting religious offenders. Their training focuses on identifying possible signs of Christianity—sometimes seemingly innocuous acts such as remaining silent with closed eyes and meditating, or suddenly giving up alcohol and smoking.
Faith must be practised in strict secrecy and only in association with closest family members, always vigilant to being monitored and to overcurious friends and neighbours, with self-censorship of one’s speech, behaviour and even thoughts to ensure beliefs are well hidden. Such self-censorship and fear are utterly destructive for building the good society in which individuals can support each other beyond the bounds of incredibly tight family groups by carrying out charitable acts inspired by faith. Whence comes civil society in such a climate of suspicion? The preconditions for a public square in which human rights can even be called for, let alone a prevailing culture where these could be put into practice by the DPRK’s population, are eerily absent.
After 1945 the world promised never again to allow the horrors that the Jewish community endured—living in fear, being hunted down for their beliefs and being herded into concentration camps—to happen again. Despite our good intentions, Christians in the DPRK are reliving this shameful history under the auspices of a regime seemingly impenetrable to outside intervention. As a nation that upholds and advances international human rights law we must do all we can to protect those who are suffering in such conditions. Will my noble friend the Minister urge the Government to support the referral of the human rights situation in the DPRK to the International Criminal Court, following the recommendation of the UN’s 2014 commission of inquiry on North Korea that found that crimes against humanity are being perpetrated?
Will the Government call on countries such as Brazil and China, which have good relations with the DPRK—I read this morning that North Korean exports of iron ore to China are up 200% so far this year—to exert all their power to encourage Pyongyang to abide by every international human rights instrument it has ratified and, in particular, to protect freedom of religion or belief as stipulated in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights?
My Lords, I too am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Alton for securing this debate, although I have to say that it is a very short period in which to discuss one of the major security challenges that our nation will face in the years ahead. I say “security”, for that is the aspect on which I shall focus my remarks, but I echo the concerns raised by my noble friend and other noble Lords regarding the serious violations of human rights by the North Korean regime.
The Korean peninsula remains frozen in a divided state between two very different societies—frozen, let us recall, by an armistice and not by any enduring political settlement. The north is governed through a paranoid dictatorship which defies most efforts at analysis. Its leader is by any measure a loose cannon. As an old friend and colleague of mine in the United States said recently, Kim Jong-un has not even been unpredictable for long enough to be predictable in his unpredictability.
This regime, which dispenses bellicose threats like confetti, has nuclear weapons and is working on a ballistic missile and miniaturised warhead programme that will allow it to deliver such weapons to the territory of the United States. South Korea and Japan are already well within its compass. In the recent assassination of Kim Jong-nam with VX nerve agent, the regime seemed to be going out of its way to signal its possession of chemical weapons
This all presents us with a deeply worrying prospect, and it is not one that we in the UK can ignore, thinking that the region is far removed from us and our interests. Conflict on the Korean peninsula, drawing in the United States and possibly Japan and risking the involvement of China, would destabilise the world more widely and have a severe economic impact on us, to say the very least. The use of nuclear weapons would, needless to say, be a global game-changer.
How should we respond to the current challenge, and particularly to the North Korean programme to develop a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile? It seems to me that there are three broad possibilities. The first is that China exerts sufficient pressure on Kim Jong-un to convince him to give up his ambitions in this regard. The second is that the United States, perhaps in concert with others, takes military action to try to destroy the programme. The third is that North Korea is successful and establishes such a capability. Let me examine these scenarios in turn.
China is the only country with any real influence over North Korea, but how willing is it to use it? In response to Pyongyang’s missile tests, China has issued some deprecatory remarks in various international fora, but does Kim Jong-un pay any attention to them? All the evidence suggests that he does not. The only thing that seems likely to sway him is diplomatic and economic action that constitutes a realistic threat to him and his regime. Is China prepared to take such action?
Despite Beijing’s announcement of a ban on North Korean coal imports following the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the value of Chinese exports to North Korea, as we have already heard, has remained strong through the first half of this year. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that China is serious about bringing real economic pressure to bear on Kim Jong-un. And why would it be? China does not wish to see any progress towards a unified Korea. On the other hand, anything that causes difficulties for the United States is very welcome to Beijing. Nor does China wish to risk a flood of North Korean refugees across its border. Perhaps the only thing that would seriously concentrate China’s mind would be the development of nuclear weapons programmes in South Korea or Japan, neither of which seems likely. My conclusion is that China is not prepared to take the kind of draconian measures that would have a realistic chance of changing North Korea’s course.
What, then, of military options? Although General Brooks, the commander of American forces in Korea, has said recently that his troops are prepared for war—as one would expect him to—how likely is it that the United States would be the one to initiate such a conflict? Most analyses suggest that America would eventually be victorious, but at a terrible cost, not least to Seoul, and of course the position of China remains a great imponderable, as does the use of nuclear and chemical weapons. Remarks by Defense Secretary Mattis suggest that he views the costs as unacceptable. How likely is it that a more limited strike, if the consequences could indeed be limited, would destroy or at least severely derail North Korea’s missile programme? Given the inadequacy of intelligence inside the North, and the regime’s extensive use of tunnels and underground sites, it seems unlikely that we could have a high degree of confidence in the outcome. All of this suggests to me that military action, unless initiated by the North, is unlikely.
That leaves the third scenario, the one where North Korea develops a nuclear weapon capable of striking the United States. This, it seems to me, is far and away the likeliest outcome, in which case we must consider how we deal with such a situation. This does not mean that we should cease our efforts to persuade China to exert realistic diplomatic and economic pressure on Pyongyang, just that we should not count on them succeeding. We should work for the best but plan for the worst. The good news is that the one thing we probably can reliably expect from Kim Jong-un is a serious interest in his own survival and the continuance of his regime. That means that he will be susceptible to nuclear deterrence, but to be effective, deterrence has to be credible. We should therefore be working with our allies now to determine the best way of ensuring that credibility. The continued need for strong nuclear deterrent capabilities seems to me to be the key lesson from what is happening in North Korea today.
The situation that I have set out in this debate is a gloomy one, but that is no excuse for hiding our heads in the sand. We must be prepared for a much more dangerous world in the years ahead. We must recognise that the stakes are far too high for us simply to leave the problem to others. We must recognise that the clock is already ticking and that the time to act is now.
My Lords, it is a privilege and an honour to follow the noble and gallant Lord. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for having, over these many years, tracked the North Korean situation very closely, and for bringing it to our attention. I shall not talk about the human rights record, which he is very much more capable of, but shall follow the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, in talking about security aspects. I will take what he said as my starting point so that I can work further on it.
The problem is that, in one sense, the world gave up any worry about nuclear proliferation 20 or 30 years ago. We have many more nuclear nations now than was the case when the Cuban missile crisis confrontation took place. I think it was partly the Cuban missile confrontation that removed the fear of nuclear weapons. We thought, “We can handle this; we can handle Armageddon and we do not have to worry about it”. I was a young graduate student in America at that time, watching it on television, and I thought, “Either this is the end of the world or it is not; I have no choice in the matter”. Luckily, it was not, but since then we have nuclear arms in India and Pakistan and God knows where else, so I think it will not be possible to denuclearise North Korea. Nobody—neither China nor the USA—has either the military or the diplomatic strength to denuclearise Kim Jong-un.
It is remarkable for me as an economist. Economics textbooks start with a peculiar diagram about the choice between guns and butter. Kim Jong-un has taken the view, “Forget about butter, I only want guns”. And for a relatively poor country, he has an extremely high level of military sophistication. Weapons are cheap. That is the issue. Weapons are not expensive. Anybody can get them. It will not persuade him if we say, “If you do not do this your people could have a much better life”. He would be worried about that. If his people had a better life, they could have other ideas about why he was there—so it is in his interest to keep the people as they are, to dazzle them with weapons but not to let them have bread.
So what is to be done? My view is that first of all one has to bring to a conclusion the Korean War—which has not been brought to a close, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, pointed out. We only have an armistice. We have not got an end to the war. This is not entirely my own idea; it has been around in the literature. First, we have to say that the Korean War is over and that the division of Korea is permanent. We must have no idealistic dreams about uniting Korea, because that would really alarm the poor man as he would lose his empire. One has to pacify the situation by saying, “Yes, we honour your sovereignty, we confirm that North Korea is a separate republic”—or country, or whatever it is—“and we want some sort of settlement across the 42nd parallel”—or whatever it is—“so that we can demilitarise the border”. We need to give him an assurance that we are not interested in removing him, killing him or de-fanging him.
Any attempt to attack him militarily—as I have often said, I do not have much realistic knowledge of this, but I can guess—to destroy his weapons or whatever it is will leave him with enough weapons to attack Japan and South Korea. It is not a risk worth taking, so we have to let him have his weapons but persuade him not to use them. That requires freezing the current situation in a more peaceful direction. Give him recognition, negotiate with him, give him status and make quite sure that he does not attack either of his neighbours—Japan or South Korea.
I agree with the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, that China has absolutely no interest in playing our game. We want China to do such and such, but we have no kind of sanction on China—and why would China want to do it, because basically China is more worried about Japan and South Korea militarising themselves, or America offering them considerable amounts of weapons, than about what trouble Kim Jong-un can make for it? He is not going to make any trouble for China. So we have to assume that this is our problem and that, while we need China’s co-operation, we have to tackle it diplomatically.
We will not get everything. North Korea will not become a liberal democracy—forget it—and its human rights situation may still be very peculiar. But the priority right now is to get away from a nuclear winter, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, described it, because that way lies the deaths of millions of people. We ought to go very carefully and very diplomatically, in a combined effort of the US, the UK and other NATO powers, and make quite sure that, whatever we do, we do not incite him into any kind of action. Let him keep his toys, but do not let him play with them.
My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on securing this debate.
I will comment on two aspects of the current North Korean crisis. First, we are clearly at a very dangerous point in the development of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. What has been until now a chronic regional issue is on the cusp of becoming an acute global one, as North Korea develops the capacity to launch an intercontinental attack. We all know the dilemma that this creates. Do we accept that North Korea, led by a maniac, can continue to threaten with impunity, or do we try to pre-empt the risk, with the danger that North Korea uses its existing nuclear capability with devastating regional results? Both options are clearly unacceptable.
It seems to me that apart from sanctions, our only available operational avenues are covertly to sabotage North Korea’s developing capabilities or to do what we can to undermine the regime from within. I am sure that covert sabotage is already happening, although this will rightly not be made public. It is one of the few available options and such a programme should receive all the support and resource available.
The other way through the impasse is to hasten the downfall of the current regime. Tyrannical regimes that terrorise their populations are not inherently stable or secure. If regime change is the aim of the international community, public sabre rattling may be counterproductive. We might do better to keep quiet while doing what we can to undermine the regime from within.
I realise that this is very much easier to say here than it is to do in practice. But there are rumours that executions of alleged traitors within the regime are at an unusually high level over the last 12 months, with several hundred killed in the last year along with their families. This suggests that the regime fears losing its grip. But terror can act as a solvent as well as a glue. If you fear for your own future and that of your family, you may well be looking for a way out. You may be next on the list, and you have the incentive to change the regime. Though I recognise that understanding the internal dynamics of such a regime is extremely difficult, the fact that these purges appear to be taking place does at least present us with the germ of a possibility of progress.
My second point relates to the wider human rights situation in North Korea. The Warmbier case demonstrates the inhumanity and brutality of the regime but is one manifestation of the situation depicted in the work of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry. It described the position in North Korea as unparalleled in the world. Human rights are routinely and deliberately abused in North Korea. Freedom of religion and belief, in particular, is almost non-existent. As the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, reminded us, the regime persecutes severely those who practise their religion, particularly Christians, and punishment is also extended to their families. This may include slave labour, sexual violence and torture. Those forcibly returned to North Korea from China are also subject to abuse, torture and even death.
Will the Minister comment on three points? First, will the Government ensure that the recommendations of the UN Commission of Inquiry are regularly raised in the Security Council despite the difficulty of getting agreement to take action? Secondly, will the Government continue to press the Chinese Government to reconsider their policy of repatriating North Korean refugees, given the conditions to which they are being returned? Thirdly, will the Minister update the House on the BBC’s plans to develop and extend its Korean language coverage in order to provide those in North Korea with at least the possibility of receiving accurate information on the situation in that country and beyond?
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on securing this debate.
As the north’s state-run Rodong newspaper described it:
“The peninsula is the world’s biggest tinderbox.”
Conflict could break out at any time by accident, miscalculation or some form of pre-emptive strike. Let us be clear: by action and by rhetoric, North Korea is striving to develop ICBM nuclear capability, threatening and taunting the United States, South Korea, Japan and others. We cannot, ostrich-like, bury our heads and ignore this, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, said earlier.
But conflict is not inevitable. There are two potentially hopeful factors. First, perhaps rather strangely, there is Kim Jong-un himself. For all the obvious negatives, he has never indicated that he is prepared to see the destruction of his country or the termination of his family dynasty. In other words, he may be ruthless, reckless and playing with fire, but he is no kamikaze. Secondly, of course, there is China. But China is between a rock and a hard place: between a nightmare refugee problem if the regime in the north collapses, and being reluctantly dragged into a serious military clash with America. I do not believe that tighter sanctions would work. Kim Jong-un has clearly demonstrated utter disdain and worse for his population’s welfare, and China is hardly supportive—as has been indicated, trade between the two countries has grown by 40% in the first quarter of the year.
I believe that there is only one way forward to avoid conflict, and that is for America to swallow its pride, be magnanimous and appeal to Kim’s vanity: humour him, by offering, for example, direct talks with no preconditions or reciprocal visits; maybe the lifting of sanctions or allowing the north to host perhaps a major world event. It may not work and would require a big US climbdown but surely it has to be worth trying. This is where China could be the key facilitator. The alternative is frightening. Of course, the United States has a huge range of military capability, including cyber, and probably new weapons, which previous US Administrations did not possess when weighing up the former options. It may conclude that in the final analysis, it has no option left but military action. We must all pray that an alternative way is found—but how much time is left?
I remember some years ago, as a Defence Minister, visiting South Korea and laying a wreath at the Gloucester Valley war memorial, commemorating the Glorious Glosters in the Battle of the Imjin River. Surely, enough blood has already been shed on that peninsula.
My Lords, I too congratulate very warmly my noble friend Lord Alton on his tireless work on North Korea, on securing this debate and on his characteristically comprehensive opening speech.
The tragic death of the US student Otto Warmbier is just one example of the North Korean regime’s brutality, which has incarcerated between 100,000 and 200,000 political prisoners. Hundreds of escapees testify to the horrors of slave labour, torture and prisoners forced to scavenge for rats and snakes because of the deliberate shortage of food. For Christians and other religious minorities, the situation is particularly bleak, as highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer. Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s 2016 report, Total Denial: Violations of Freedom of Religion or Belief in North Korea, highlights the denial of freedom of religion and belief and the fact that it is a political crime to practise Christianity:
“Christians usually practice their faith in secret. If discovered they are subject to detention and then likely taken to prison camps … crimes against them in these camps include extra-judicial killing, extermination, enslavement/forced labour … torture … and other inhumane acts”.
Four years ago, the United Nations established a commission of inquiry, to which my noble friend Lord Alton has referred, to investigate North Korea’s human rights record. They found a state where “crimes against humanity” including extermination, murder, enslavement and torture are committed with impunity. The Australian High Court judge who chaired the inquiry, Justice Michael Kirby, claimed that the abuses committed in North Korea are on a par with the Holocaust. Kim Jong-un stands accused of crimes against humanity and should be called before the International Criminal Court. Can the Minister say what action the United Kingdom is taking to ensure that ICC referral and accountability for human rights abuses is a UN Security Council priority? On 6 July the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said that the US would table a new resolution against Pyongyang at the UN Security Council. Will Her Majesty’s Government use their diplomatic leverage to ensure that human rights are at the centre of this new resolution, as requested by my noble friend Lord Evans?
I raise concerns about recent proposals that North Korea be invited to co-host skiing events at the Masikryong ski resort during next year’s Winter Olympics, which will be hosted by South Korea. My noble friend Lord Alton recently raised this issue in a Written Parliamentary Question. I was reassured by the Minister’s concerns in the Answer about the use of forced child labour at the ski resort. Will Her Majesty’s Government use their influence to ensure a rather broader response to that and that the International Olympic Committee should not allow the North Korean regime to host the event at all?
I also raise concerns about UK travel and tourism in North Korea. Otto Warmbier’s case demonstrates the dangers of western citizens travelling to North Korea, and I welcome the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s warnings to all those travelling there regarding the risks involved. However, there is a related concern that UK-run tour companies may be providing considerable revenue to the regime. Given the Minister’s response to Lord Alton’s Written Question that,
“it is not possible to accurately assess the income generated for the DPRK government from tourism”,
would Her Majesty’s Government consider barring all tourism to North Korea until the human rights situation improves? I speak as someone who, with my noble friend Lord Alton, has been there three times. At that time we thought it was right to go to raise our concerns; now we feel that it would not be right to go.
May I raise the case of Mr Ham Jin-Woo? Mr Ham escaped from North Korea in 2011 and has worked for the defector-run news organisation Daily NK since January 2012. His insider knowledge and sources have allowed him to provide the world with vital information about life inside North Korea. In addition, he used to be an agent of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, which was in charge of abduction of Japanese citizens, so he has testified several times about the abduction operations that the bureau carried out and the nature of the institutions of the North Korean regime. On 28 May of this year, Mr Ham took a business trip to China to contact his sources and to obtain information. Since then, the Daily NK has not had any communications from him at all, and it is feared that he has been abducted.
The work of people like Mr Ham for defector organisations is particularly important, and his possible abduction in China is also, obviously, tragic. Will Her Majesty’s Government consider making representations to China to ensure that the Chinese Government do all they can to investigate the possible abduction of Mr Ham?
In a report to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2016, before completing his term as UN special rapporteur on human rights in the DPRK, Marzuki Darusman said:
“The totalitarian governing structure in North Korea absolutely denies rights to its people and its unchecked power appears as strongly entrenched as ever throughout the whole country”.
I passionately hope that this debate will highlight the case for our Government and the international community to redouble efforts to call the regime in North Korea to account and to end the impunity with which it is carrying out such systematic, wide-ranging and brutal violations of human rights, which should not be allowed to persist anywhere in our world today.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on securing this debate. I will visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea again in early September and will continue to use these opportunities to engage with that country and seek improvement.
To understand the DPRK, we need to look at its history over the last 100 years. It is a country that has suffered sequential and barbaric invasion, brutal occupation by other countries, pillage, famine and disease on an unimaginable scale. In that context, it is not surprising that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea feels alarm, distrust of other countries and acute fear of the dangers that surround it. I see no advantage at all to the regime of North Korea in promoting such fear and in favouring guns over butter—other than that it genuinely and sincerely believes the risk to be acute. This has led to extreme isolationism and the promotion of the national philosophy of juche—self-reliance, not depending on any other country because no other country can be trusted.
The debate has focused a great deal on weapons. But weapons are only one part of the dual strategy currently being followed in North Korea, known as the byungjin line. The second is economic change. Since Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, we have seen dramatic changes in the economy of North Korea. It is moving towards a more market-based economy, led by Pak Pong-ju, the former Prime Minister. The Korea Development Institute has told us about the strong growth in earnings and the increasing easing of economic freedom. We have seen the emergence of a new class in North Korea: the donju, which we might call the middle class.
These are small changes, but they would not have happened under the two previous leaders—and they are happening under Kim Jong-un. This is the direction of travel that we saw successfully followed in Singapore, China and Vietnam: centralised power and control, but a gradual movement towards a more market-based economy, which increasingly makes the centralised control impossible to sustain. When you visit Ryomyong in Pyongyang, you see a very different environment from the one you would have seen 10 years ago. It is not just in the urban areas. In the rural areas there is now more freedom and autonomy for farmers to manage the land as they choose.
Politically, we have kicked the can down the lane for long enough. We have now realised that that lane is a cul-de-sac and that the can is hitting the end of it. We have to do something before something very dire happens. The policy of strong patience works only while the can can still move down the lane. It is quite evident to me that President Trump has no plan for North Korea. The key must be to re-establish the six-party talks that commenced in 2003. The USA will not take the lead in doing it—it will not swallow its pride. Nor will the Chinese, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, said, have much incentive to go much further than they have done.
What North Korea needs now is a facilitator who will bring together the talks that the country needs. There are no easy options in North Korea. This is a country of lousy choices and any improvement will require great patience, but the UK is uniquely placed to provide leadership here as we are not a member of the six-country group. There is a global challenge and if we rise to it and take a lead in promoting a bringing together of the various nations, we will be rewarded not only by the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea but by the rest of the world. In the current vacuum there is a risk that Russia may step in and grab a toehold in the valuable economies of north Asia. We have to give Kim Jong-un face in promoting these talks, but I believe that the opportunity is so great that we should do that.
Kim Jong-un is acting in what he believes to be a rational way because of the fear that surrounds him. That is what we have to address. Otherwise, some of the very bad things that have been described to your Lordships’ House today will continue. What are we as a country going to do to take a positive lead here?
Frankly, reinforcing and enhancing sanctions does nothing; it only hurts people who are already suffering. It is not obvious to me that the leadership of North Korea is taking huge economic advantage, as opposed to political advantage, of the situation.
What have we done to help North Korea, to defuse the tensions, to take a lead? How are we using our opportunity to influence? Do we have the courage and confidence to rise to the challenge? Is the Foreign Secretary willing to visit North Korea? I urge that as a first step towards better dialogue. It is not right to say that we should not visit North Korea. Nor, I fear, do I agree with my noble friend Lord Evans of Weardale that we should continue conducting covert action—if we already are—because it just fosters the very fear that has led to all the bad things that Members of your Lordships’ House have discussed today.
We must make it clear to North Korea that it must cease developing nuclear weaponry, but we should also respect the integrity of the country and its distinct philosophy, not try to force western systems into juche. Otherwise, I fear, we will see more blood spilled. The noble Lord, Lord Lee, referred to the Glorious Glosters, and it is very moving to visit the cemetery—but, goodness me, if things go in the direction that some people forecast, that will be but a small corner of the huge cemetery that will have to carry the dead if we allow this situation to go out of control.
I urge the noble Baroness to say that the UK will not just sit quietly by and do little but will instead seize the opportunity to make a positive contribution.
My Lords, like other Members of your Lordships’ House, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for bringing this debate to us this afternoon. It is clearly a serious issue and one that is, as we so often say, timely, but we are looking at two discrete aspects today: one is the domestic; the other is the international. I am very grateful that I am not sitting on the Government Bench this afternoon, because the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, has been asked to do some difficult things. She has been asked to think about bringing cases to the International Criminal Court; to ensure that North Korea should be allowed to host international events, as my noble friend Lord Lee suggested; or not be allowed to host international events, as the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, suggested; and that it should be opened up and that we should be trying to work with North Korea and accept it as a very different sort of state. The noble Baroness is being asked to do difficult things which almost get to the realms of Alice in Wonderland.
I go back to the beginning and say that in many ways, despite the excellent work of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, North Korea remains a country about which very little is known. The noble Lord, Lord Myners, may have far more information about and understanding of North Korea and what is going on there than most of the rest of us, but what we hear about human rights abuses in North Korea—about the persecution of Christians, as the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, in particular, talked about; about the concentration camps; and about the way that people are treated if they try to escape that country—should be brought to international courts. What do Her Majesty’s Government propose to do about those issues? What assessment have the Government made on the challenges? What are the Government doing?
The noble Lord, Lord Myners, suggested that we need to take a leadership role, and we on these Benches agree with that, but it has to be one that is not about acquiescence. Some values are too important for us to say, “Well, we’ll leave it to the North Koreans. If they have a different set of values, that’s fine”. Matters of human rights are universal. It is wholly wrong to suggest that somehow we should leave it to the North Korean Government to sort themselves out. Military intervention of the sort that took place in Iraq and the regime change sought there and in Libya are clearly not the right thing to do. However, we can say that some things are morally reprehensible and try to find change in North Korea, which is hugely important. I was thinking, when the noble Lord, Lord Myners, reminded us of the initials DPRK that it lives up to the tradition whereby, if a country has “Democratic” in its title, it is very rarely democratic. Most of the people in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea probably do not really feel that it is a republic that takes their interests or concerns at face value either.
North Korea remains a very closed country. We know very little about it, other than from those brave people who have managed to escape and have told their stories. I had the opportunity during the election recess to contribute to a conference that was organised by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea—under a slightly different guise because it could not function in that capacity during the election—and it was very moving.
The noble Lord, Lord Evans of Weardale, seemed to suggest that we could maybe think about change that would come about by revolution—an internal rising up, but we would need to really believe the noble Lord, Lord Myners, that the world in North Korea has changed so fundamentally that there is now a middle class that would be able to rise up. People who are starving rarely create revolutions. It is when society has moved on and people are not starving that they begin to seek their political, democratic and human rights. I do not believe that that is where North Korea is at the moment.
The second aspect of this debate is about the international situation. There has been much talk about the nuclear capabilities—so far, not entirely clear—of North Korea, but the military intentions are clear. So, too, is the cyber intention. I for one would not be terribly keen to go to an international event hosted in North Korea—certainly not with a mobile phone, an iPad or any other sort of electronic device. We need to think about the role North Korea wants to play in the world and how we respond to that.
The President of the United States has frequently said he has no red lines, but in the case of North Korea he has begun to suggest that maybe there are some red lines. He has begun to take his ships literally to the Korean peninsula. The last thing we need is an escalation of military power in the Korean peninsula. China clearly already is a nuclear power, and the idea that South Korea or Japan might also want to respond in kind is indeed a chilling prospect. If that is not to happen, what are Her Majesty’s Government doing to persuade not just the United States to respond, but for China—a key member of the P5—to respond? It is North Korea’s closest neighbour and, in many ways, an ally. It is also a key trading partner. If China is willing to step up to the plate and assist, maybe we can look to military de-escalation. We would not expect China to change its traditional views and say, “We want North Korea to change what it does internally”. China has a long-standing view that it does not intervene in other countries’ internal affairs.
It would be helpful to know what Her Majesty’s Government are doing not just about assessing what is happening in North Korea but how they might help to change it.
My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for initiating this debate. He has done so before; we had a very good debate in 2016, and I shall make reference to some of the issues raised in it.
In January this year, the US State Department report on human rights abuses in North Korea highlighted summary executions, arbitrary detentions, including the accused’s family members and children, abductions, forced labour, prison camps, torture, forced abortions and rape. The 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry report accused the regime of grave systematic human rights abuses, concluding that the,
“gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”.
The nuclear testing of 18 months ago resulted in swift condemnation from the UN Security Council. As we have heard, Peter Wilson, the UK’s deputy permanent representative, said at the time:
“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”.
Since the 2016 nuclear tests, there have been more than 30 ballistic missile launches, and the first intercontinental ballistic missile launch, as we heard from the noble and gallant Lord, on 4 July. Two days ago, a Chinese official rejected President Trump’s calls for China to do more to rein in its neighbour, saying that the “China responsibility” theory must stop, and that it was not the key to calming tensions on the Korean peninsula. Before a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 in Hamburg, Trump cited strong trade figures between China and North Korea, saying:
“So much for China working with us—but we had to give it a try!”.
According to data released in April, China’s trade with North Korea grew by 37.4% in the first quarter compared to 2016.
In today’s Washington Post a senior defector from the regime, Ri Yong-ho, said that American and multilateral efforts to sanction North Korea into submission will not work because there are too many ways around them. For around three decades, Ri was a top money-maker for the Kim regime, sending millions of dollars a year back to Pyongyang even as round after round of sanctions was imposed. He argued that unless China, Russia and the United States co-operate fully to sanction North Korea, it will be impossible to hurt that country. Amid calls for China to limit oil exports to North Korea, Russia has dramatically increased the amount of oil it has sent to North Korea this year. The US Treasury has sanctioned more and more North Koreans and North Korean companies by name to try to cut them off from the American financial system, but few, if any, have any exposure to the United States.
President Trump appeared to strike a more conciliatory tone at the G20 meeting with President Xi, saying that he was confident that the North Korean nuclear issue would eventually be resolved, but it may take more time. In the light of the USA’s testing of anti-missile technology this week, what is the Government’s assessment of how this will impact on the growing crisis in the peninsula? What are we doing to reduce tensions? How are the Government following up on the conclusions of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ 2014 inquiry—mentioned by many noble Lords—which recommended that the top leaders of North Korea be referred to the ICC for gross violations of human rights? What steps have the Government taken to pursue that? There are suspicions, as the noble Baroness mentioned, that a North Korean hacking group was responsible for the cyberattack that hit the NHS in May. Is the Minister in a position to tell us whether the National Cyber Security Centre’s investigation found this to be true? If it is true, how will this impact on the UK’s sanctions strategy?
We have had the further missile tests and the death of US student Otto Warmbier, which have heightened tensions in the peninsula. The Government have made it clear that they see military action as undesirable, and that they will work with the US within the UN to ensure that there are stronger sanctions. Bearing in mind what we have heard in today’s debate, have the Government assessed the effectiveness of the current sanctions regime, and what recent dialogue has there been between the Prime Minister and President Trump on how it can be strengthened? Do the Government share President’s Trump’s apparent renewed optimism about China’s position towards North Korea in terms of trying to reduce the tension, and have they raised with Russian authorities the question of oil supplies? We all want a resolution, but it cannot be at the expense of the people of North Korea, who have suffered so much.
My Lords, I first thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for calling this debate and for the valuable work that he does with colleagues in this House as co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea. Indeed, his four visits to North Korea are further testament to his interest and his knowledge. I also thank other noble Lords who have contributed to the debate, which I found genuinely interesting; there were some very thought-provoking contributions.
The actions of the North Korean regime cause serious challenges to its immediate neighbours and the wider world. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, eloquently expanded on these, as did other contributors. North Korea has repeatedly demonstrated total disregard for its international obligations and for United Nations Security Council resolutions. There has been a sharp escalation in provocative behaviour over the last 18 months, starting with the fourth nuclear test in January 2016. Since then, we have seen more than 30 ballistic missile tests and a fifth nuclear test, in September last year, and of course, as a number of contributors identified, just last week, the regime carried out a launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked what the UK is doing. The UK has been swift to condemn North Korean provocations. We have supported strong action at the United Nations Security Council aimed at stopping North Korea’s illegal ballistic missile programme, and our activity includes three United Nations Security Council resolutions since 2016. We have also been at the forefront of EU efforts to impose additional measures aimed at further reducing North Korea’s ability to fund its illegal nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. We are working to ensure that all United Nations member states implement and rigorously enforce the sanctions.
Following the latest violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions last week, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has said that the UK would redouble its efforts to ensure that the international community responds robustly. We are working to that end in the United Nations Security Council and with the EU. Our objective is a tough and united international response, with further significant measures to limit the regime’s ability to fund its missile programme. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Desai, was pessimistic about achieving that objective. However, I think that we and our global partners would do better to endeavour to maintain that pressure, exercise that influence and, above all else, keep talking through diplomatic channels. I think that point was made also by the noble Lord on the Liberal Democrat Benches.
We have also expressed our condemnation directly to the North Korean regime. My right honourable friend the Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific, Mark Field, summoned the North Korean ambassador to the Foreign Office on 5 July. Mr Field condemned the latest test and made it clear that North Korea must begin to take credible steps towards dialogue on its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. Such dialogue can begin only if the regime is serious about denuclearisation.
A number of contributors mentioned the role of China. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has made clear, China has, indeed, a vital role to play. This point was reaffirmed by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, and endorsed by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. China does not want a nuclear-armed North Korea. As a permanent member of the Security Council and North Korea’s neighbour and closest ally, it has a crucial role to play in the implementation of United Nations sanctions, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, identified. As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, urged, we will continue to press China to use its influence, and we shall continue to put pressure on North Korea to change its approach.
Many noble Lords commented on the humanitarian and human rights situation in North Korea. We have grave concerns about these issues. We continue to hear reports of widespread and systematic state- sanctioned human rights violations and the use of forced labour of both children and adults. The noble Lords, Lord Farmer and Lord Evans, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, powerfully referred to human rights violations.
The regime’s actions, its lack of international engagement on human rights and its rejection of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry report are all serious concerns. My right honourable friend the Minister for Asia, Mark Field, set out these concerns to the ambassador last week. I mention this to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Evans, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. Mark Field made it clear that the regime should prioritise the welfare of its people above its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
Our ambassador in Pyongyang also regularly raises human rights directly with the North Korean authorities. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, questioned the wisdom of maintaining the diplomatic presence. However, it keeps a line of communication going and the embassy runs a number of small-scale humanitarian projects to help some of the most vulnerable in North Korean society. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lee, for advocating that we should keep communicating. Indeed, I think that the noble Lord also eloquently identified the importance of trying to maintain dialogue.
In addition to the bilateral action, the UK works hard to maintain pressure on the regime and to highlight its human rights violations on the international stage. In December 2016, the UK Permanent Representative to the United Nations condemned the regime’s use of forced labour as an example of modern-day slavery. We also strongly supported the recent Human Rights Council resolution, making it clear that there can be no impunity for those who violate human rights in North Korea. That is why we fully support efforts to create a viable system of accountability.
I shall try to deal with some of the specific points that were raised. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, talked about the Korea National Insurance Corporation. It is designated under EU sanctions and, as such, is subject to an asset freeze. I confirm that the United Kingdom has complied with all provisions of the EU designation of the Korea National Insurance Corporation.
The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, referred to the plight of Christians in North Korea. Our embassy regularly raises concerns about these matters. The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, also raised very justified concerns about the treatment of Christians. We are aware of reports that people in North Korea who are involved in religion outside the state-controlled organisations have been imprisoned for practising their beliefs, and we urge North Korea to abide by the provision in its constitution that allows freedom of belief in religion.
The noble Lords, Lord Farmer and Lord Collins, asked about the role of the International Criminal Court, if any. It could be an appropriate forum in which to hold North Korea to account for its behaviour, but it has jurisdiction only when a crime against humanity is suspected to have been committed by a country which is party to the Rome statute or when a situation is referred to it by the United Nations Security Council. As noble Lords will be aware, the DPRK is not a party to the Rome statute.
A number of contributors referred in general terms to the role of China. The noble Lord, Lord Evans, particularly raised the issue of refugees. We have on numerous occasions raised with China the matter of the forced repatriation of refugees, including at the UK-China Human Rights Dialogue in June this year. We have also discussed the United Nations Commission of Inquiry report with senior Chinese officials in Beijing.
The noble Lord, Lord Evans, mentioned the BBC World Service. We strongly support the BBC’s mission to bring high-quality and impartial news to global audiences, including where free speech is limited. In 2016, the BBC announced that it would launch a Korean service, to begin in late 2017, and I am sure that all your Lordships await with interest the BBC’s report on progress on that proposal.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, referred to the Winter Olympics. We are aware of reports that ROK officials are considering the possibility of co-hosting certain Winter Olympic events with the DPRK. This is a matter for the Republic of Korea Government. However, any decision to allow co-hosting would require the agreement of the International Olympic Committee.
The noble Lord, Lord Myners, in what I thought was a particularly interesting and thought-provoking contribution, asked what we are doing in relation to aid. The Department for International Development does not have a bilateral aid programme in North Korea but UK aid reaches people there through our contributions to multilateral agencies, including the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund. They work in-country and are better placed than we are to deliver development assistance, given the restrictive nature of the North Korea regime. We also support small-scale projects with a humanitarian focus through FCO funds, which are managed by the British embassy in Pyongyang.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the recent cyberattack. There was speculation on the part of the media that linked the Lazarus Group, which the media accused of being responsible for these attacks, with the DPRK. On 16 June the Foreign and Commonwealth Office summoned the North Korean ambassador to demand that the DPRK Government investigate the group—accused of operating within the DPRK—of such alleged activity.
In the time available I have tried to deal with the issues raised by your Lordships. If I have omitted to address any of them, I shall look at Hansard and endeavour to make good my omission by writing to whichever of your Lordships I have managed to disregard or ignore. I thank noble Lords for what I thought was a genuinely interesting and very well-informed debate.
House adjourned at 6.04 pm.