North Korea

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:17 pm on 21st April 2004.

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Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench 3:17 pm, 21st April 2004

rose to call attention to the security and human rights questions posed by the actions of the Government of North Korea; and to move for Papers.

My Lords, good fortune in the ballot enables me to place the Motion before your Lordships today. I will touch on security concerns, human rights, the treatment of refugees and the humanitarian crisis.

Our last debate, on 13 March 2003, was overshadowed by North Korea's decision to reopen its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. Having expelled United Nations inspectors, reneged on its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, sought to enrich uranium, produced enough plutonium for half a dozen nuclear weapons, test-fired cruise missiles and developed intermediate range missiles, North Korea was rightly described by many of your Lordships as posing a serious threat to regional and world stability.

Beyond the secrecy and speculation about North Korea's ability to design and fabricate nuclear weapons, it is in no doubt that North Korea has hundreds of Scud missiles available for export. Revealingly, Libyan sources have recently claimed that they had weapons links with Pyongyang. The No Dong missiles have a range of 1,300 kilometres, and the Taepo Dong 2 system could have a range of up to 10,000 kilometres. That arsenal and tangled spider's web has made the world deeply wary of North Korea and entrenched the isolation of what was always known as the hermit kingdom.

The continuing six-party talks have not resolved those issues, but at least some of the sabre rattling and dangerous brinkmanship has been replaced by a desire to find a non-military solution. In parenthesis it might be worth adding that it is not unrealistic or fanciful to seek a Libyan outcome in North Korea. Engagement—though not appeasement—will unlock the door and remove one of the potential quartermasters of worldwide terror and allow economic and political reform to proceed. But is that a realistic approach?

Following our previous debate, with the noble Baroness, Lady Cox—who is currently visiting refugee camps on the Burma border and greatly regrets being unable to participate in the debate today—I had a frank exchange with North Korean diplomats. I asked whether we might travel to North Korea to raise our concerns directly. In September, that led to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and I visiting Pyongyang. We met senior officials, including Kim Yong Nam, the president of the Presidium, and Choe Tae Boc, the Speaker of their Assembly.

Outside Pyongyang, we went to Anju, 80 kilometres north of the capital and to the inaptly-named demilitarised zone at Panmunjom where, following the deaths of an estimated 2 million people during the Korean War, the 1953 armistice was signed. The Asian Wall that we saw at Panmunjom, which divides the two Koreas, deserves the same fate as the Berlin Wall that divided Europe.

On our return to the United Kingdom we published a report. I am grateful to the Jubilee Campaign and Christian Solidarity Worldwide for facilitating our travel and the report. In Washington, we subsequently presented our findings to members of Congress and discussed our conclusion that engagement is possible with the Assistant Secretary of State, James Kelly.

Last November, the All-Party Parliamentary British-North Korea Group, of which I am chairman, was created. In March, with the assistance of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, we welcomed Choe Tae Boc, North Korea's Speaker, who led the first such delegation to a western democracy. Detailed exchanges took place with Members of both Houses, including the noble Lords, Lord Howell of Guildford, Lord Jopling, Lord Clarke of Hampstead, and my noble friend Lord Chan. Detailed discussions were held also at the Foreign Office with the Minister, Mr Bill Rammell. The delegation discussed religious liberties, at Lambeth Palace, with His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury.

It is therefore clear that I believe that hard-headed, Helsinki-style engagement is worthwhile. The Helsinki Final Act 1975 linked foreign policy to basic human rights principles. That measure recognised that increasing the pressure for human rights, in combination with a firm policy of military containment, could act as the catalyst for change.

The history of the DPRK suggests that mere threats will be counterproductive, inducing paranoia, isolationism and the destabilisation of the region. Nor should we underestimate the deep patriotism of North Koreans, their memories of Japanese occupation or their fear of what they perceive as enemies at every gate. However, the regime knows that the status quo is not an option. The DPRK now needs a face-saving exit strategy.

The alternative—that is, military engagement, possibly leading to nuclear conflagration—would be catastrophic for North and South Korea and their regional neighbours. During our discussions in Pyongyang, senior figures consistently stated their willingness to give up their nuclear programme and to accept a process of verification. They said that their conditions are a commitment to no first strike by either side and a pledge of peaceful coexistence. Surely nothing would be lost by testing the sincerity of that position.

We concluded that a peaceful outcome is possible; that the DPRK is exhausted; and that for the world community the present crisis is an unwelcome distraction at a time of confrontation with radical Islamic terrorist groups. In our report we also detail numerous "small steps" that could be taken. For instance, the US should be encouraged to establish a diplomatic presence in Pyongyang.

It was a concern about human rights that prompted our debate a year ago. These issues are not part of the six-party talks, but they are inextricably linked with the way in which North Korea is perceived in the West. Issues such as security have not gone away either. Last autumn, David Hawk produced a chilling report entitled The Hidden Gulag. In February, a BBC programme made disturbing claims about chemical weapons being tested on camp inmates. There are now concerns for the safety of Kang Pyong Sok, whose son gave damning evidence to the BBC.

On 1 March, at a meeting in Warsaw with North Korean refugees, I heard harrowing accounts that make for sobering reading. Professor Leon Kieres told that conference that,

"hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives in the camps", and estimated that,

"about 150–200,000 prisoners are still being held in them".

One defector and prison inmate who had earlier served as part of the presidential bodyguard, Lee Young-Kuk, graphically described the degrading situation in prison. This was his testimony:

"From the very first day, the guards with their rifles beat me. I was trampled on mercilessly until my legs became swollen, my eardrums were shattered, and my teeth were all broken. They wouldn't allow us to sleep from 4 am till 10 pm and once while I was sleeping, they poured water over my head. Since the conditions within the prison were poor, my head became frostbitten from the bitter cold. As I was trying to recuperate from the previous mistreatment, they ordered me to stick out my shackled feet through a hole on my cell door, and then tortured them in almost every possible way. Not a single day passed without receiving some form of torture and agonizing experience".

Forced repatriation to these prisons, in breach of China's obligations under the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, has led to cruel treatment and even execution of repatriated refugees. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees is denied unimpaired access, both in the DPRK and in China. Only last week, the Jubilee Campaign reported that the Chinese shot dead a North Korean attempting to enter Mongolia. Seventeen others were arrested. At the Warsaw Conference organised by the Citizens' Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, Byyn Nanee described to me her treatment in China and how her brother was executed after repatriation.

When the Minister replies, perhaps she could say whether welcome reports that China may be about to allow safe passage of refugees directly to South Korea have been confirmed and whether Her Majesty's Government have pursued China over its failure to co-operate with the UNHCR. The Government deserve our congratulations on the role they played last Thursday, at the 2004 meeting of the UNHCR in Geneva. They ensured the passage of a resolution which was supported by 29 countries and raised serious concerns about human rights violations. The resolution also calls for the appointment of a special rapporteur to monitor the situation in the DPRK—something for which many Members of your Lordships' House have been calling. Perhaps the Minister can say when she expects the special rapporteur will be appointed and what the terms of reference will be.

Of course, North Korea disputes many of the accusations that have been laid at its door. However, its failure to allow independent inspection makes it impossible to separate fact from fiction.

Many of your Lordships have rightly expressed concern about the treatment of religious minorities in the DPRK. On a positive note, the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and I were able to visit the Protestant church of Bongsu and the Catholic cathedral of Jangchong. The opening of a Protestant seminary at Bongsu is extremely welcome, as is the construction of an Orthodox church. However, no Catholic priest has been permitted in the country for more than 50 years and there are no diplomatic relations with the Holy See. At Anju, we were moved to learn from Mrs Kim, the mayor, of a Catholic church destroyed half a century ago in the ruins of which believers have continued until this day to meet weekly.

Throughout our visit we persisted in raising cases such as that of the Rev Dong-shik Kim and that of Reverend Ahn Seung Woon—a South Korean pastor who was working in China when he was abducted by North Korean agents. Reverend Woon was shown on North Korean TV but has not been seen since 1995. Reverend Kim disappeared in January 2000 after assisting some North Korean refugees. To date we have not received a response from the DPRK about the fate of either of those clergymen, but those abductions, and those of several Japanese civilians, have soured relations and impeded political progress. If the DPRK truly wants an end to international isolation and, ultimately, reunification with South Korea, it will have to realise that that can come about only by the creation of more openness, more tolerance and an end to such violations.

I turn finally to the humanitarian crisis in North Korea. United Nations officials told the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and myself that there is "an unlimited need" for healthcare. They said that following food shortages and famine—an estimated 2 million people have died in North Korea over the past decade—

"there are not many elderly people left in the DPRK".

They said that in the north-east, on the border with China, orphaned children whose parents had died in the famine were living on the streets—"street swallows" as young as seven years old.

DPRK officials told us that their daily food target per person is just 600 grams of rice. They manage to provide a meagre 350-400 grams each day per person. Food should never be used as a weapon of war. The World Food Programme says that, by and large, food is reaching those for whom it is intended. To those especially in the United States who have been arguing that humanitarian aid in the form of food should be withdrawn, I say that that would be the wrong approach. Surely we can welcome the presence of about 50 independent monitors now assessing food delivery. If we do not tackle the humanitarian crisis and ensure the flow of food, the flow of migrants and refugees from the country certainly will not be abated.

Emergency aid should be complemented by development aid. A priority should be small, micro projects such as the water irrigation and purification programme established by the Irish aid agency, Concern, that we saw at Anju, and which has dramatically improved rice yields.

The DPRK has specifically asked that students should come to the United Kingdom, and I welcome the links that are being developed with Cambridge University. The British Council should open an office in Pyongyang and meet the huge demand for English as a foreign language, which could form an important part of a small steps strategy. It also strikes me that we are brandishing a great many sticks when some carrots might be equally well deployed.

Economic initiatives such as the proposed railway to link the north and the south should be expedited, and passenger transport as well as cargo should be encouraged. This would inspire confidence as well as family reunification and social cohesion.

As their Speaker's delegation learnt during a visit to Cambridge Science Park, there are huge opportunities for economic development and co-operation between Britain and North Korea. But all this is impeded by the stalemate over security and human rights concerns. Investors and non-governmental organisations are wary of an uncertain future. Surely many more would come if those key questions were resolved.

This has been a brief summary of the security, human rights, refugee and humanitarian issues facing North Korea. As Speaker Choe Tae Boc was leaving the recent meeting in the IPU Room here at Westminster, a South Korean student approached him. She told him that he was the first North Korean that she had ever met. Rather movingly, he told her, "You are my daughter". Sometimes human encounter underlines the consequence of painful divisions. At Panmunjom, the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and I remarked that more of our political energies should be deployed in building bridges rather than walls.

North Korea is often described as "the land that never changes". Yet, the president of its Presidium, Kim Yong Nam, told us—I use his words—that,

"change can take place more quickly than we might have thought possible".

It is my strong belief that we should encourage that spirit and use the not inconsiderable expertise and influence of our own country to help North Korea to make a peaceful transition. I beg to move for Papers.