Korean Peninsula: Human Rights — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:25 pm on 15th June 2010.

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Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates Conservative 3:25 pm, 15th June 2010

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton. His knowledge and his work in the area of the conflict and the situation in Korea is acknowledged and respected by the whole House. If Her Majesty's Government or the United Nations were ever looking for an envoy to dispatch to the Korean peninsula, his would be a fitting name to put forward.

I also welcome my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire to the Front Bench. We are looking forward to his contribution not only in this debate but also in future debates on this matter. I have two points to raise: the first is a specific case of human rights and the second relates to some of my own thoughts about the way forward on the Korean peninsula and some of the issues faced there.

I want to ask the Minister specifically about what more can be done to ensure that human rights abuses in North Korea are put firmly on the international agenda. The House may remember that Robert Park, a 28 year-old American human rights activist, was arrested after entering North Korea on Christmas Day. Happily, as a result of international representations and after being detained for 43 days, he was released. Park had crossed the border from China, carrying a letter to North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-il. He had attempted to draw attention to tens of thousands of political prisoners held in the communist state.

Since then, Aijalon Gomes has also entered North Korea in the hope of shining a light on some of the 154,000 political prisoners who are believed to be held in six camps across the country. In a Written Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, last week the Government said:

"We are aware of Mr Gomes' case. The Swedish embassy in Pyongyang, which is the consular protecting power for US nationals in North Korea, is handling his case. We are in touch with the Swedish embassy and stand ready to offer assistance if they request it".-[Official Report, 8/6/10; col. WA39.]

I should be grateful if the Minister could tell us what response he has received from the Swedish embassy and what is currently known about the whereabouts of Mr Gomes.

The House will also recall that two American journalists were also held in North Korean prisons last year. Laura Ling and Euna Lee were imprisoned in March 2009 after they strayed across the border between North Korea and China while on assignment for Current TV, a company owned and operated by the former American Vice President, Al Gore. They were intending to make a report on the trafficking of women across the border. North Korea sentenced them both to 12 years hard labour. Former President Bill Clinton intervened on their behalf. He flew to Pyongyang and, after five months in prison, they were released. Their arrest had not only been entirely unexpected but the Chinese authorities and missionaries working in the region had been warning for some time that North Koreans were looking for high profile foreigners to use as bargaining chips. Their reason for being on the border was to highlight the plight of refugees trying to flee from North Korea. It was also to highlight the dangers facing those brave Chinese families who have been assisting refugees and who face arrest for doing so.

Can the Minister tell us what is being done to persuade the Chinese Government to allow access to the border areas to United Nations agencies that work with refugees? How does he respond to the report published by Anti-Slavery International into the suffering of many women who make the border crossing in order to earn money to support their impoverished families? The United Nations estimates that 400,000 people have died in the camps in the past 30 years. Many of the stories that have emerged of escapees reveal the primitive brutality that has been experienced there. Many of these barbaric practices were pioneered by the Japanese during their occupation of the Korean peninsula.

In conclusion, I should like to make two points. First, we need to be very careful about demonising North Korea. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in The Gulag Archipelago, reminded us that the line between good and evil does not lie between nation states or even across the 38th parallel but within each and every human heart. It is not that the people of the north are evil and the people of the south are good. There is good and evil in all. That needs to be recognised. The people of the north have suffered a level of brutality which is unimaginable, not just over the years of the regime which has been in place for the past 50 years but for almost a century since they came under brutal Japanese occupation.

I know that, like me, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, have had the opportunity to visit both north and south of the border and have experienced the depth of feeling that remains there. The experience of Japanese occupation is taught in primary schools and from kindergarten. People experience that day in and day out; they have a living history of that brutality, and it is drummed into them. Not surprisingly, therefore, they view the external world with some suspicion and fear. That was added to by the short and brutal engagement of the Korean War, which is also scarred on the consciousness of every primary school child and every family in North Korea. If it were not so, there is no way that the country of North Korea could keep within its extensive porous borders to the north with China its population of 21 million. We need to place this in the context of the great crimes against the Korean people, and especially the North Korean people, which have been perpetrated over the past century, and seek some truth, justice and reconciliation for them.

The only way forward is the peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula. The Korean peninsula is artificially divided because of Cold War politics. It is a leftover of Cold War politics. It is a lingering injustice. Long after Germany has seen its reunification, the Koreans are still waiting for theirs. Why does it not happen? In part, people may say that that is a result of the north and the south, but it is not simply a matter of the north and the south getting together. We know that there are external pressures and that great powers are at play. Japan, China, Russia, and the United States all have interests there. They were represented in the six-party talks which followed North Korea's withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2005.

Every effort has to be made to bring about that reunification. North Korea is economically virtually on its knees. Its GDP per capita is about $1,800, which makes it the 193rd poorest country on the planet. Just across the border in South Korea, there is a GDP per capita of $28,000, making it one of the richest countries on the planet. The total GDP of the north is $40 billion; the total GDP of the south runs to $800 billion. The inconsistencies between the two are vast. They are known and they are commented on.

Somehow, the international community needs to correct that injustice by creating a framework in which those two countries currently separated by that artificial division can begin reunification talks. When it was proposed that that might be on the agenda, it was at the six-party talks. When German unification took place there were not six-party talks, there were the four external powers, the Allied powers, but they were called four plus two talks. Germany was allowed to talk freely between east and west with other Allied and interested parties in the room. So it should be in North Korea. There should not be six-party talks; there should be two plus four talks. The agenda of peaceful reunification of a demilitarised and once again proud Korean nation standing there in east Asia should be an objective of us all.