North Korea

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:44 pm on 13th March 2003.

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Photo of Lord Clarke of Hampstead Lord Clarke of Hampstead Labour 7:44 pm, 13th March 2003

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for providing the House with the opportunity of this short debate on the threat to international security posed by North Korea. It is a privilege to follow the noble Lord's excellent speech this evening. Like many others, I am deeply concerned by the Chinese Government's forced repatriation of North Korean refugees and the detention of North Korean asylum seekers in China who try to flee to third countries by boat.

Since early December last year, the Chinese Government have sent home about 3,200 North Korean refugees, following a 100-day campaign against those fleeing North Korea. All the refugees forcibly repatriated to their homeland face the real risk of detention, torture and execution. Much stronger action is required from our Government and all the agencies involved to pressure the Chinese authorities to stop the forced repatriation of refugees and to put more pressure on the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to perform its responsibility of protecting those refugees, including the urgent implementation of the enforcement mechanism of its bilateral treaty with China.

As a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the Chinese Government are responsible for the protection and humanitarian needs of the asylum seekers. With thousands of refugees being repatriated in North Korea and thousands more refugee lives in serious danger, the UNHCR must be strongly pressed to enforce its bilateral treaty with China via binding arbitration. The treaty signed between the UNHCR and China states that the UNHCR has the right to unimpeded access to refugees in China at all times. It also contains a dispute resolution mechanism whereby UNHCR could enforce the treaty via binding arbitration. Surprisingly, the UNHCR has yet to attempt to enforce the bilateral treaty with China through binding arbitration. I hope that the British Government will urge it to do that.

Donor nations to the UNHCR have the right to designate part of the funds for particular projects, as has been mentioned. The British Government should force the UNHCR to act by specifically designating part of its funds to the UNHCR for North Korean refugees in China. The British Government's previous approach to the issue of North Korean refugees has not been effective in providing them with the protection that they urgently need. Thousands of those refugees have already been forcibly repatriated back to North Korea, where many face imprisonment or the likelihood of execution.

Official Chinese figures state that around 10,000 of these refugees were returned to North Korea in 1999. The Chinese authorities have even offered rewards for information leading to the capture of North Korean refugees and those who help them. Furthermore, the Chinese policy of forced repatriation creates a climate of impunity in which North Korean refugees in China are exploited or blackmailed and many of the women are trafficked for sexual purposes. The North Korean refugees are unable or unwilling to report these abuses for fear of being forcibly repatriated. With an estimated 300,000 North Korean refugees in China, much stronger action is now desperately needed. Britain and our European Union partners should be addressing this massive humanitarian crisis.

As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned, the British-based human rights organisation Jubilee Campaign recently reported that North Korea has one of the worst human rights records in the world. Among the many human rights violations perpetrated by the North Korean regime is extensive religious persecution. Thousands of Christians have been put in North Korean prison camps simply because of their religious beliefs. Christians are treated as political criminals and come under intense pressure to give up their faith and worship Kim Il-sung, the deceased founder of the Communist regime, instead. Christians are also regularly singled out for the most extreme treatment and toughest punishments in the prison camps. At least 100,000 Christians are believed to be among the 1 million prisoners of conscience suffering horrendous conditions throughout the country's 200 labour camps, where torture, starvation and death are commonplace. Some 300,000 Christians have disappeared in North Korea since 1953.

My friends at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which was also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, have produced several reports showing something of the horror of what is going on in North Korea. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned one case. It would bring tears to anybody's eyes to read of a father cradling a son who dies of cold in the night while trying to flee this persecution.

The inhumanity of the treatment meted out to the prisoners in the camps is indescribable. Many people suffer in the camps, but Christians tend to suffer most of all. They are seen as a particular threat by the regime. They alone are not sentenced to a specific number of years. They are imprisoned as long as they keep their faith. If they renounce their faith and acknowledge Kim Il-sung, the former North Korean leader, and Kim Jong-il, the present leader, as the supreme power, they may walk free. They can go if they give up their faith. In addition, prison guards are promoted if they succeed in rehabilitating a Christian prisoner. This gives them a particular incentive to target Christians with beatings, torture, harsh labour, rape and other unspeakable treatment. In the report to which I referred from Christian Solidarity Worldwide there is a description of a former prisoner who saw a guard pour molten iron over living Christians because they would not renounce their faith.

The Jubilee Campaign is one of several human rights organisations calling for stronger international action to protect North Korean refugees in China. The US human rights organisation, Human Rights Watch, released a report in November last year entitled, The Invisible Exodus: North Koreans in the People's Republic of China. In that report, a former North Korean prison guard gave detailed testimony about how the North Korean authorities deal with repatriated refugees. He said:

"They investigated whether the repatriated people had any relationship with South Korea. If a person met South Koreans or reporters or wrote articles, or attended church or escaped after committing a crime in North Korea, they would be secretly killed".

In 2000 a Korean pastor accused the North Korean regime of committing genocide against its own people. The clergyman, who preferred to remain anonymous for security reasons, made those comments in Germany at an annual Christian meeting. He pointed out that a million political prisoners and more than 100,000 Christians had to vegetate in concentration camps. According to the Korean pastor, the North Korean regime regards Christians as major enemies. Anyone caught with a Bible is dealt with as a South Korean spy and shot immediately. He said that 400 Christians had been executed in 1999. Many persecuted Christians are among those fleeing North Korea to China as refugees.

There can be no doubt that the forced repatriation of North Korean refugees from China puts them at serious risk of severe persecution and death. The international community should not simply stand idly by while hundreds of thousands of refugees' lives are put in grave danger by the actions of the Chinese and North Korean authorities. I hope that the British Government will take the action that I have suggested previously.