My Lords, I have been asked by a number of Members of this House why we are having a debate on the DPRK—North Korea—this afternoon. Why now? What has materially changed? I went to the Library a few moments ago and asked when North Korea had been debated either in this House or the other place. The answer was that it was debated in this place in 2017, in a debate instigated by my friend the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and in the other place in an Adjournment debate brought by Andrew Selous in 2014, and to which I answered as the Minister of State in the Foreign Office at that time. Many things have changed in the world since that time and many things have changed certainly in North Korea.
I worry sometimes about the bandwidth we have for foreign policy. How often do we debate or even speak about Afghanistan? How often do we speak about what is going on in Syria or in Yemen? We are focused always on the issue at hand, which at the current time is mainly Israel and Gaza. We seem to ignore all these other things, but that does not mean to say that bad things are not developing when our backs are turned.
Whenever we talk about the DPRK, there is a big international move to condemn it or bring about some kind of conference or forth. Then we all go away and forget about it. When we come back to see what has happened, the result is always materially worse. One day, we might seriously regret our lack of attention. If this debate achieves anything, I hope it concentrates the minds of those who are following it, not least those in Pyongyang who will no doubt be given a copy of it, however sanitised.
The fundamental thing that has changed since 2017, or certainly since 2014, is the increased part played by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as part of an unhealthy, unwelcome and, frankly, dangerous anti-Western axis. In the time allocated to me, I intend to highlight what is going on internally in that country, expose what it is doing on the international stage and make some suggestions for His Majesty’s Government.
Lockdown has been going on for some time in North Korea. The country closed down completely and expelled the British embassy from Pyongyang—all embassies except the Russian, Chinese and Cuban embassies and a handful of others. Our ambassador has not been allowed back and the country is still using the excuse of Covid and lockdown, despite it accrediting a new ambassador from China in July.
Of course, lockdown suits the regime, because it means that no international observers can visit the country. This has coincided, unsurprisingly, with a huge crackdown on dissent. Prison camps are full. Some are there not for sins that they have committed but for sins allegedly committed by their fathers and their fathers’ fathers. We are increasingly seeing clamp-downs on watching South Korean films or listening to South Korean music—some crimes punishable by death, if caught.
Then there is malnutrition. Although there is no evidence of the mass starvation that we saw in the 1990s, there is evidence that some parts of the country are suffering deeply from a lack of food. In fact, there has been a complete breakdown in the public distribution of food. The regime has made it illegal to move food privately from one area to another, which suggests a very real problem.
But we are dealing with an opaque regime which, incidentally, has been hit by sanctions. Even those of a Panglossian disposition would find it hard to say anything good about the DPRK or its regime. Kim Jong-un presides over one of the most repressive regimes in the world and certainly over one of the most egregious human rights regimes, systematically abusing its people, of anywhere in the planet.
I want to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, who are in their places, who together have kept the issue of North Korea going in the British Parliament. I pay tribute to them both and acknowledge the brave people who have tried to escape from the hell that is North Korea. I have met some of them in Seoul, in the past, and they are incredibly brave, as are those—indeed, they are even braver—who have helped others to escape. I wonder if the Minister, who has been asked this in the House before, has any knowledge of the 50 Christians who were sent back from China to North Korea, what representations the Government have made about those people and whether any of them are safe or even alive.
It is easy and sometimes tempting to depict Kim Jong-un, with his cult following and his Potemkin villagers, as a rather grotesque, Monty Python-esque figure of fun. All the evidence suggests that this is very far from the truth and that he is an individual who is very focused on certain things which are dear to him—above all, the maintenance of his family’s regime. I believe that increasingly bringing his daughter along to his public appearances is evidence that he intends for this regime to continue. It is his way of demonstrating to the people of North Korea that the Kim regime will continue after his death.
The relationship between Moscow, Beijing and Pyongyang is of interest. I think it is largely transactional, not ideological, because their common enemy is the West, most particularly the United States. Interestingly, in the vote at the UN on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russia was supported in that instance only by Belarus, Eritrea, Syria and the DPRK. The Chinese did not support it. There are areas of difference between the two countries.
Russia is the new player in all this. Relations have certainly picked up since the summit with Putin. We are led to believe that Russia is providing drones, satellite technology, body armour and so forth to the regime in Pyongyang. In return, the Russians are getting shells, some of which are already being used in Ukraine, although there are questions as to their quality. The shells are being transported by train, and the missiles by ship to Vladivostok. There is also evidence that the DPRK who, incidentally, are also serial proliferators of arms and munitions, have been providing arms to the Wagner Group, as well as to others. Some of the Hamas arms provided by Iran were also manufactured originally by the DPRK.
China is currently working closely in tandem with the DPRK, though there is now evidence that the Chinese are increasingly concerned about the direction of travel in the relationship and the closeness between the DPRK and Russia. At the end of the day, if anyone owns the relationship with the DPRK, it is China. China is confronted with a series of pretty difficult choices and bad options, ranging from the possibility of a reunified peninsula which may be democratic and Western-leaning—given the geographical positioning of the peninsula, this is not agreeable to China. Full-on war between the DPRK and the Republic of Korea, again, would draw other actors into the area and lead to mass migration into China—something the Chinese fear as well. Much of this may now change because of Russia’s increasing collaboration with the DPRK on the nuclear programme. In the absence of any other options, I believe that China prefers the status quo—for the time being at any rate.
What has the international response been to this incremental ratcheting-up by the regime in North Korea? In all fairness, the Biden Administration have provided more support to Japan and helped bring Japan and South Korea together in a way that, some years ago, many thought would be impossible, given their complicated mutual history. America has already helped build up a relationship with the Philippines. We should not forget that the last attempt to confront and do a deal with Kim Jong-un was made by Donald Trump at the Hanoi summit. It was a failure which left Kim Jong-un embarrassed. He lost face because there was ultimately no deal with the Americans. If anything, it drove him more towards Russia.
At the last American presidential election but one, which saw Trump elected, the default position of HMG in those days was to support the Clinton regime. We were not even allowed to engage with the Trump camp. In retrospect, that was a huge mistake. I got into some hot water by saying that I thought Donald Trump would win. I say to your Lordships this afternoon that I think it is not impossible that Donald Trump might win once more, however desirable or not that may be. I hope that the Government will start to reach out as the Republican nominee forms a shadow Administration, because we may well face that same situation once more, in which case we can expect all kinds of new initiatives.
We know what Kim Jong-un wants: he wants to maintain his regime at all costs; he wants to be recognised, de jure, as a nuclear state—incidentally, he has studied closely what has happened to those who have given up nuclear weapons—he wants diplomatic relations with the United States; and he wants massive economic aid. Of course, none of these will be remotely possible if the DPRK continues with its illegal weapons programme.
Doing nothing is fraught with danger. There is a real concern now that something could go wrong in relations between Seoul and Pyongyang, because the North Koreans are not even picking up the telephone hotline between the two, so the risk of escalation or unintended consequences is very real and present. That is why I believe the Government should do a number of things. First, I believe they should push to re-establish the six-party talks: we would be in the 20th year of them if they were still happening. I also believe, and I have always believed, that there is a role for the United Kingdom in those six-party talks: I would like to see them become seven-party talks.
Secondly, I believe we should press the DPRK to immediately allow all international agencies back into the country, and back in together.
Thirdly, I believe we should push very hard for the reopening of the British embassy in Pyongyang so that our ambassador can take up his post.
Fourthly, and others may want to say more on this subject, we should devote more resource to countering the DPRK’s cyber programme. It is getting cleverer and cleverer at cryptocurrency theft and ransomware: 30% or 40% of the funding of its illegal weapons programme is now coming from this source, from the Lazarus Group and others, who are thought to have stolen $2 billion since 2017. This is something that, with our partners, we really have to double down on and deal with.
Fifthly, I believe that, with allies, we should push to increase sanctions. The North Koreans are masterful at evading sanctions, so we should certainly have sanctions on the leaders in that country but we should also have secondary sanctions. This has a wider application, and I think we should do it more often with other countries where we sanction people. There are those who get away: the personal shoppers; the people who manage the London real estate; the people who look after the yachts and the holiday homes. Anybody who has any connection with the leaders of a rogue regime should also suffer sanctions. We need to do much more in this area, complicated though I know it is.
Finally, we should work with our allies and the International Criminal Court on holding DPRK officials to account. Although it is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court, as some other countries unfortunately are not, I believe we need to show countries such as this that if they continue to violate international norms by joining in axes against western democracies, they need to be held to account. If they continue to treat their own population in the way that they have, they also must face the full force of international law. I beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Swire, in a powerful introductory speech, has set the scene brilliantly in providing us with an analytical and sharp analysis of the situation in North Korea. The whole House is indebted to him for initiating this important debate. I declare my role as co-chair, with Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP, of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, and my non-financial interests in the register.
It is 70 years since the Korean War armistice. Millions died in that war, including more than 1,000 British service personnel, who lost their lives fighting for the freedoms now enjoyed in the south but not in the north. Last weekend we commemorated the 75th anniversaries of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the convention on the crime of genocide. The UDHR was to be
“a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”.
Keep its universal application in mind as we consider North Korea. Keep it in mind in reflecting on an interview just last week with an escapee who had managed to get out of North Korea, with his family, in a small boat. Among other things, he described how he had been forced to watch the execution of a 22 year-old man who had been caught listening to South Korean music and watching banned movies.
Keep our commitment to the UDHR and the genocide convention in mind as we consider that 2023 is also the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the United Nations commission of inquiry into human rights violations in North Korea. Led by the eminent Australian jurist his honour Mr Michael Kirby, it was, in the words of the United Nations, mandated
“to investigate the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with a view to ensuring full accountability, in particular for violations which may amount to crimes against humanity”.
When it reported in 2014, it concluded that North Korea is “a state without parallel”. It called for North Korea to be referred to the International Criminal Court for prosecution. Indeed, in pursuing the failure of the UN to take forward the recommendations of the UN’s own inquiry, our all-party parliamentary group established a parliamentary inquiry. It followed up the continuation of human rights violations in North Korea from 2014 until 2021, and found that nothing much had changed in that respect since 2014. If anything, the situation was even worse.
The UN commission of inquiry left open the question of whether a genocide is taking place. Since then, further evidence has emerged of the deliberate targeting of religious groups, which would fall within the convention’s definition. I argue that the convention needs to be widened to include the targeting of political classes, whom Stalin’s Soviet Union did not wish—for good reason—to see included in 1948. The commission of inquiry found that, over five decades, hundreds of thousands of prisoners had been exterminated in political prison camps, and that in the lifetime of three generations, entire groups of people, including families with their children, had perished in those death camps because of who they were, not for any actions they had carried out. It was certainly an intent to eliminate, but not genocide in a technical sense. Justice Kirby proposed a new term, politicide, to describe the atrocities. The commission unanimously concluded that the state has committed crimes in North Korea that definitely amount, in a technical sense, to crimes against humanity, and it concluded that those responsible should be arraigned before the courts and brought to justice.
In this 75th year of both the genocide convention and the universal declaration, it is worth returning to the foundation documents. In the case of the UDHR, it is difficult to see which of the 30 articles, if any, North Korea is not in breach of.
Article 1 of the UDHR insists that:
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”.
Article 3 insists that:
“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”.
Without that right to life, of course, all other rights are worthless. Article 4 abjures slavery, yet 90% of the wages of North Koreans who are able to work overseas are confiscated. Article 5 asserts that torture, mental or physical,
“inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” is not permissible. Article 6 insists on the rule of law. Article 12 states that no one will be subjected to arbitrary interference with privacy, family or home. Article 13 requires the right to leave a country. Article 14 states that where there is persecution, other countries must provide asylum. Article 17 provides
“the right to own property”.
Article 18 upholds the right to religious belief. Article 19 supports
“the right to freedom of opinion and expression” and to seek and receive information regardless of frontiers. Article 21 provides for democratic government. Article 25 deals with the right to food and care, and Article 26 with the right to education.
How far North Korea is derelict in breaching article after article of the UDHR, and how far the international community has been derelict in failing to act on the findings of the UN’s own commission of inquiry, can be seen by a cursory examination of the COI’s findings.
It unequivocally concluded that North Korea had systematically violated human rights, including freedom of thought, expression and religion, the right to food, and more besides. The state has committed crimes against humanity including—in the COI’s exact words—
“extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation”.
“systematic, widespread and gross … unspeakable atrocities … on a vast scale”,
“crimes against humanity”,
and Justice Kirby said they were
“strikingly similar” to crimes committed by Nazi Germany. The COI said the gross violations and crimes are
“ongoing … because the policies, institutions and patterns of impunity that lie at their heart remain in place”.
That was true in 2014; it is true now.
In the light of the evidence which has emerged from those thousands of escapees—there are around 30,000 in the Republic of Korea and there are about 1,000 in this country—Karim Khan KC, the prosecutor for the ICC, should examine further the testimonies of those who were incarcerated, or whose loved ones perished in the prison camps, because of their beliefs and consider whether this does indeed meet the test of genocide convention. If he is unable to do this because of the likely blocking vetoes of China or Russia—as in the case of the failure to refer the COI findings to the ICC—an independent people’s tribunal should be established to consider that evidence. This could be modelled on the very successful Independent Uyghur Tribunal that looked at the evidence of genocide against the Uyghur people in Xinjiang, and was chaired by the eminent lawyer Sir Geoffrey Nice KC.
In 2017, the UN Human Rights Council voted to look for legal strategies for eventual prosecutions and authorised the creation of a central repository for evidence—which was the right call—but prosecution has not occurred. I hope the Minister, who I know has followed this in great detail and cares about it as passionately as I do, will tell us more about where the accountability process and the question of impunity have now reached.
Changes of Administration in both the Republic of Korea and the United States have also played their part in dampening the quest for accountability, although I strongly welcome the Republic of Korea’s most recent insistence—echoed in a conversation I was privileged to have with President Yoon during his very welcome recent visit to the United Kingdom and to this Parliament—that his Government will champion the human rights of North Koreans. That is very welcome indeed.
While international justice for crimes is needed, we must also look at other options, including under the principle of universal jurisdiction. Such prosecutions in the UK would most likely not be possible because of the very limited scope of Section 51 of the International Criminal Court Act 2002. This is an issue that has been raised by experts in the field and the noble Lord is aware of it. Until we reform our law—which perhaps an incoming Government might consider doing—other countries, such as Germany and Argentina, which have broader universal jurisdiction, should be encouraged to address the growing impunity for these atrocity crimes in North Korea.
“all-pervasive and severe restrictions, including an absolute monopoly on information and total control over organised social life … further tightened by Covid 19 prevention measures”.
The resolution related that these measures have led to
“food insecurity, severe hunger, malnutrition, widespread health problems and other hardship in the population”.
The prison camps, with an estimated 100,000 people being held there, are characterised by torture, brutality and degradation.
This is a country which, according to the 2021 report of the US State Department, World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers, spends a staggering $4 billion on armaments, an estimated 26% of its GDP—the highest proportion among the 170 countries it reviewed. Yet it is also a country where people starve and live in acute poverty, while its leaders wallow in luxury. The Telegraph reported earlier this week that dictator Kim had been seen riding in four new foreign vehicles, including a $200,000 armoured Mercedes-Maybach sedan. It brings to mind comparisons with the Communist dictatorship of Ceausescu in Romania.
In the face of all that, it was therefore surprising—as the noble Lord, Lord Swire, alluded to—that, on
It also underlines why a parliamentary Select Committee should be given power to meet in camera, where necessary, to oversee this opaque and random process. Over the years, I have made over 400 interventions about North Korea in Parliament—in Questions, letters and meetings around this building. It is 21 years since I first raised the issue of the repatriation of escapees, which the noble Lord, Lord Swire, touched on. I did so in that first instance after a North Korean escapee came here to give his testimony. He described the plight of repatriated refugees:
“Some have been executed … When returned, they face torture, interrogation, and humiliation. Any woman who is returned and became pregnant while in China is forcibly aborted, supposedly to avoid the birth of babies ‘contaminated’ by foreign influences. There are reports of repatriated North Koreans being corralled and bound together, with wire being passed around their wrists and through their noses”.
That was testimony given in the Moses Room here in the Palace of Westminster.
Hundreds more were recently repatriated, and I have repeatedly urged the Government to raise this failure to protect refugees with the People’s Republic of China, not least because the Republic of Korea is willing to give sanctuary and a new life to every single one of them. I have received the supine and hand-washing response that
“it is for the parties involved to interpret their obligations under this agreement”.—[
We are talking about the 1951 refugee convention, of which China, which sits on the UN Human Rights Council, is in breach.
My noble friend Lady Cox, with whom I have travelled to North Korea, will speak specifically about the targeting of religious adherents, but the UN commission concluded that
“there is an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion”.
The charity Open Doors has again listed North Korea in 2023—for the 19th time out of 20 years—as the state in which, worldwide, Christians face the greatest level of persecution.
In the face of all this, we must do more than making weak-tea statements of concern. We must call out issues such as forced repatriation, the breaking of sanctions over weapons of mass destruction, the links to Putin’s war machine and the day-to-day violation of human rights—and, specifically, a referral of the commission of inquiry report to the ICC. We must continue to break the information blockade—not by short-sighted reductions in the BBC Korea service—which the APPG campaigned to initiate.
Let me end on a hopeful note. In 2016, the then North Korean ambassador and his deputy asked to see me. He read me a long denunciation for raising cases of human rights and providing a platform for escapees. His deputy had been given the task of compiling all my Hansard speeches and interventions in this House. He subsequently told me that it was his job to be my spy. A few weeks after my defenestration, Mr Thae Yong-ho and his family defected. He later told me that, through his observance of our parliamentary democracy and way of life, he had been convinced by the democratic case for freedom, human rights and the rule of law. Today Mr Thae is an elected Member of the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea, representing the Gangnam district of Seoul. He recently took part online in a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group focusing on the likely fate of the escapees being repatriated by China. I hope that he is the advance party for what will one day be a united Korea that upholds the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and gives its people the freedoms and liberties enjoyed here, and indeed in the Republic of Korea.
My Lords, it is such a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who is such an incredible subject-matter expert. I rise to make a brief and narrow contribution to this important debate, specifically on the role that the Royal Navy has played in enforcing sanctions. Enforcing sanctions is never easy, but we are fortunate that the Royal Navy has a permanent presence in the Indo-Pacific, comprised of two offshore patrol vessels: HMS “Tamar” and HMS “Spey”.
I declare an interest as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Singapore, and I had the pleasure of visiting HMS “Spey” two weeks ago. HMS “Tamar” has already played an important role enforcing UN sanctions targeting North Korea’s illegal weapons programme. The ship patrolled the East China Sea, in very rough sea conditions, ensuring that items destined for illicit activities were not able to make it to North Korea. This is the first Royal Navy permanent presence in the Indo-Pacific since the handover of Hong Kong to China. It is because of this presence that, just a few weeks ago, during the state visit of the President of South Korea, we were able to sign an agreement, the first of its type, committing to joint enforcement of sanctions resolutions.
Our offshore patrol vessels are small, just 90 metres long—in fact, Kim Jong-un is known to have luxury yachts larger than that, complete with waterslides, all while his citizens suffer from extreme poverty—but in this case, size does not matter. In fact, we are better off having smaller ships in the region. They have tremendous capability and are very well suited for the region and the specific job at hand. In fact, they are perfect for capability-matching with Indo-Pacific nations that we work closely with. Larger vessels can sometimes overwhelm the host nations’ maritime forces. The design of these ships enables us to show the flag very effectively. They have an adaptable flight deck and bunk space for 50 people in case they are required for humanitarian assistance and disaster response across the region.
It is critical that we keep them there. The region wants them; the region welcomes them. They are an enduring presence that also builds and reinforces cultural links, including to more neglected parts of the region, in a less demanding or provocative way than a larger warship. I hope the Minister will join me in paying tribute to the ship’s companies of HMS “Spey” and HMS “Tamar”. I know he will agree that we must not take them for granted. To keep them going, a tremendous amount of work goes into ensuring personnel and supplies are in the right place at the right time. This is no easy task. It is the tyranny of distance.
We need to consider now what we do beyond 2028 when their scheduled deployment finishes. Should we deploy Type 31s to the region? Probably, but as an addition to, not a replacement for, our offshore petrol vessels. I end by thanking my noble friend Lord Swire for securing this very important debate and for his longstanding contributions to safety and security in the region.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Swire, for securing a very important debate. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for his very long and incredibly hard-working contribution to ensuring that these issues do not disappear entirely off the British government agenda and are brought to the public’s attention.
The condition and behaviour of North Korea is one of the crucial issues on the global geopolitical stage today. That is one reason why I am standing to speak in this Thursday afternoon debate. The other is a personal, historic connection. In 1998, 25 years ago, I was on the streets of Pyongyang. I was there as a tourist, having written on my visa application in my own handwriting, “I am not a writer or journalist of any kind”. It so happened that the first article I wrote for the Guardian Weekly, of which I subsequently became editor, was about Pyongyang. I was a lot younger then and did things that perhaps I would not do now.
It was a chance for me, as an Australian who came to Europe after the Berlin Wall had come down, to get some insight, no matter how constrained or limited, into that kind of society. It was the last society of that kind left in 1998. I really understood Orwell in new ways after being in that society in Pyongyang. The last morning, I slipped—or at least I think I slipped—my oversight guards and was able to walk out on the streets of Pyongyang on my own. I understood what it was to be a non-person because everyone, for reasons I entirely understand, looked through me as though they could not see me. They did not want to acknowledge me. A street sweeper swept around my feet without ever acknowledging my existence. The only people who did were a line of 10 year-olds who were about to enter a building and did not have a teacher with them. They were smiling and saying, “There’s a foreigner over there” to each other. I waved at them and they waved back.
Those 10 year-olds would now be about 35 years old. They will never have known what it would be like to live in a society with any kind of freedom or opportunity, but it is really important that we look at the broader history of Korea here. If we look back over its history, from about 1876 onwards Japan exerted a continuing, crushing influence on the Korean people. The great Empress, Myeongseong, was assassinated by the Japanese in 1895 and Japan formally established colonialism in 1910. For the people of North Korea there is, going back many generations, no kind of sense of a state or society that gives them any kind of real hope or normality or any sense that there was an attempt to work for the common good.
We all know what difficulties there were in the reunification of Germany. When we think about the situation that the North Korean people are in, we need to think about how difficult that was. To pick up some points made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, it was reported in the Economist that on
I also want to pick up some points made by the noble Lords, Lord Swire and Lord Alton, about hunger and food insecurity in North Korea. Going back to my visit in 1998—the noble Lord, Lord Swire, talked about how bad things were there in the 1990s—that was when I really grasped a word that had been merely hypothetical for me before “gleaning”, gleaning the leavings of the harvest from the fields. What I saw in the fields of North Korea, just outside Pyongyang, was a long line of maybe 20 or 30 middle-aged women who were going through a rice field. Each of them had at her waist a small purse. They were not young women, but they were picking up individual grains of rice and were going to get, at most, a small purseful from several hours’ work. That is a real measure of hunger.
We know that in March this year, the G7 Foreign Ministers noted the dire humanitarian situation. We have heard a lot about the regime’s exotic, luxurious lifestyle, but we are also talking about weapons of mass destruction and ballistic weapons programmes, into which vast amounts of resources are going. I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Swire and Lord Alton, about the need to think about sanctions, but sanctions that do not force those middle-aged women out to hunt individual rice grains in the fields or leave the children of those whom I saw all those years ago going hungry and malnourished. We have to be smarter and cleverer than that. We have to think about a future world in which we can, ultimately, see some different regime and some kind of future for North Korea. Starving people is no way to do that.
I think the noble Lord, Lord Alton, talked about Magnitsky-style sanctions, and the noble Lord, Lord Swire, talked about the enablers in our society. I have no doubt that there is North Korean money here in London, going through banks, law firms and real estate agents. We have to do a lot more about the huge corruption problem that we have in the UK. That is something that we can do directly, and we also need to make sure that we apply sanctions in smart ways that address that angle.
Finally, I spoke a little about weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. North Korea withdrew from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in 2003 and tested its first nuclear weapon on
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Swire, for enabling us to have this debate and to discuss the current threats to peace, security and human rights posed by North Korea. I have been in North Korea three times, as my noble friend Lord Alton mentioned. I will never forget one occasion when I went for a walk in Pyongyang and I heard the footsteps of my minder following me. After about 10 minutes, the footsteps accelerated. He caught up with me and he said, out of breath, “I can’t keep up with you. You are going to have to walk alone”, which was wonderful. I walked through Pyongyang without a minder, and it was poignant how many people wanted to come up to speak to me and how they shared with great openness their deep concerns. It was a very special occasion.
I am delighted that there are today representatives of the diplomatic corps of the Republic of Korea here and an escapee from North Korea, who himself suffered great torture. We know that people who have escaped from North Korea have great courage; it is a great privilege that you are here and we hope that you will find this debate encouraging.
Today’s discussion is very timely. In March 2024, it will be a decade since the United Nations Commission of Inquiry concluded its mandate to ensure the full accountability of violations of human rights in North Korea. As some of us will recall, that inquiry visited London for an evidence-gathering session, where exiled North Koreans, including many who had found refuge on these shores, shared their harrowing experiences. In its conclusion, the inquiry found that
“systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been … committed” in North Korea, which
“In many instances … entailed crimes against humanity”.
These issues have been raised by other noble Lords, but I repeat them because they need to go on the record and be emphasised. The inquiry concluded by stating that the human rights situation in North Korea was without
“any parallel in the contemporary world”.
As we prepare to mark the 10-year anniversary of the inquiry’s report, we must be realistic and sober in our reflections. It is no great secret that impunity prevails in North Korea today and there is still no serious prospect of implementing many of the inquiry’s core recommendations to ensure that those most responsible for crimes against humanity are held accountable. Justice may be a long game, but I think we would all have hoped for greater movement in the past decade.
The UN inquiry recommended that the Security Council refer the situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court. It recommended that a United Nations international tribunal be created, and that the Security Council impose targeted sanctions against alleged perpetrators of crimes. These recommendations have never been implemented. Given the role of China and Russia in the Security Council, we may never see them implemented. Therefore, new approaches to ensuring accountability, including the United Kingdom’s global human rights sanctions regime, must surely now be considered. I hope the Minister will comment on what steps are being taken to ensure that accountability can become a reality. The current situation of prevailing impunity in North Korea poses an acute challenge to the legacy of the inquiry, to the UK’s foreign policy and to international justice, but ultimately to North Korea’s victims, some of whom have found refuge here in the United Kingdom.
Before I move to speak further about some of the egregious violations in North Korea and their impact on communities, I will clarify why the issue of human rights matters in the context of this debate and global peace and security. Traditionally, there has been a separation in policy for North Korea, meaning that human rights issues and what are commonly termed peace and security issues, which refer to the country’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, are addressed separately. As my noble friend Lord Alton has argued many times, there can be no tangible political progress on human rights or peace and security in North Korea unless both issues are approached collectively. I am heartened to see this is now reflected at the Security Council, where the United Kingdom, the United States, the European Union and other like-minded states have begun to break down these barriers and approach human rights and peace and security for North Korea as a single issue. The previous United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea highlighted the imperative for the international community to pursue leverage on human rights in a consistent, principled and effective manner. This included mainstreaming human rights into peace and security diplomacy. It is vital that this approach prevails.
I do not wish to dwell on this issue of policy, but I will clarify how the two issues are closely linked. We know from the testimonies of former officials that North Korea operates a slush fund, where state resources can be diverted to fund its weapons programmes. In turn, it is these weapons that threaten regional and international peace and security. According to the United States State Department, North Korea spends 35% of its gross national income on its military—a total of $3.6 billion. Some $620 million of this military budget is spent on nuclear weapons. Where does North Korea, a country isolated from the international economy, find such extraordinary amounts of money to bankroll its weapons of mass destruction programmes?
We know North Korea raises funds through theft and extortion. In 2020, the United States Department of Justice charged three North Korean individuals for stealing over $1.3 billion in cash and cryptocurrency from banks and business around the world. What is less well known is that North Korea diverts resources to its weapons programmes that should be spent on feeding and sustaining its population. North Korea is, quite literally, taking from the poor to feed its insatiable desire to build weapons that are capable of killing millions. According to the World Food Programme, over 40% of the North Korean population are undernourished. It would cost $79 million, which is just 2% of North Korea’s estimated military budget, for North Korea to meet the financial requirements of its food security, agricultural and nutrition sectors, and to eliminate chronic food insecurity for its population, yet it chooses not to do so. We can see that North Korea is sacrificing the basic and fundamental human rights of its population to fund its military machine. In this respect, human rights violations have become a generator of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction.
North Korea’s vast penal system is perhaps the clearest example of how the state diverts resources away from the most vulnerable to fund its weapons programmes. Created under the Soviet Civil Administration in November 1945, the North Korean penal system is comparable to the infamous Soviet gulags. The purpose of the North Korean penal system is to isolate persons from society whose behaviour conflicts with upholding the authority of the supreme leader. Detainees are re-educated through forced labour, ideological instruction and punitive brutality for the purpose of compelling unquestioning obedience and loyalty to the supreme leader, both while the individuals are in detention and after they are released. Many detainees in the penal system have no formal convictions, have experienced no due process and have committed no crimes. Simply reading the Bible or watching a foreign film may lead to a lengthy prison sentence.
We cannot know the true scale of the prison population in North Korea, but if we take the US State Department’s lowest figures of 80,000 detainees in the political prison system we can start to understand its scale and question how North Korea can afford such a vast system. Australia and North Korea have roughly the same-sized populations. We know that Australia spends 250 US dollars per day on each of its prisoners to meet their basic human rights, such as food and clean conditions of detention. If we imagine that this basic cost of $250 per day per prisoner was being spent by North Korea on 80,000 prisoners, it would spend over $7 billion a year on prisoners alone, which is twice its military budget. Based on reporting from the non-governmental organisation Korea Future and its North Korean prison database, we can confidently assume that it is spending nowhere near that figure.
In its report from March this year, Korea Future detailed the case of a North Korean man in his 40s who was arrested for helping people escape the country. Throughout his sentence of seven years and nine months in a re-education camp, he was denied food as a form of coercion and punishment. Pressed into forced labour, he was typically provided with a meal consisting of roughly 4.3 ounces, or 120 grams, of corn each day. When he did not meet his forced labour quota, his food was reduced to just 80 grams, which contained inedible elements such as corn husks, small fragments of stone and wooden twigs. To survive, the man was forced to catch and eat insects such as cockroaches, and small rodents. That is just one of thousands of cases documented by Korea Future. We heard about those situations when we were in North Korea.
If North Korea is not spending its resources to ensure the basic and fundamental rights of its most vulnerable, where are those billions of dollars being spent? To quote our ambassador, James Kariuki, at the UN Security Council in August this year:
“The North Korean authorities divert resources from peoples' basic economic needs toward their illegal nuclear and ballistic weapons programmes ... We urge North Korea to prioritise the well-being of its citizens over the development of its illegal weapons programmes".
This example demonstrates why my noble friend Lord Alton and many others have argued that we cannot separate our policies targeting human rights and peace and security in North Korea. The two issues are mutually interdependent.
I end by discussing another human rights issue that poses a very real and present threat in North Korea—the persecution of religious communities. First, I commend the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea on its tireless work on this issue and many other human rights issues. It seems remarkable today but, at the creation of the North Korean state in the 1940s, religious communities, including Buddhism and Christianity, were part of the fabric of society. Many had played a role in the struggle for Korean independence from Japanese colonial rule during and following World War Two. The Protestant community in what is now North Korea was estimated to be 200,000-strong in 1945. Despite suffering waves of persecution throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Korean Catholicism had an estimated community of 55,000 adherents. Yet under the Soviet Civil Administration and later the North Korean state, these religious communities were targeted by persecution, discriminatory legislation, arbitrary arrest, exile and murder.
Tens of thousands of Protestants were killed or fled to South Korea. Those who survived were forced underground in the late 1950s and early 1960s, leading to the creation of the present-day underground churches in North Korea. Catholics suffered an even worse fate. According to the former archbishop of Seoul and apostolic administrator of Pyongyang, by 2006 there were no known Catholic adherents remaining in North Korea and no remaining Vatican-recognised institutions of the Catholic Church. All that remained were “show churches” in Pyongyang, used to try to mislead foreign delegations. In reality, Catholics have effectively been eliminated from North Korea.
A report by the law firm Hogan Lovells, which was commissioned shortly after the 2014 UN commission of inquiry, found evidence to suggest that this persecution of religious communities in North Korea may even amount to what can be called genocide. More recent evidence lends weight to this legal opinion. In its 2021 report entitled Persecuting Faith, the non-governmental organisation Korea Future documented 167 cases of serious human rights violations perpetrated against Christians in North Korea between 1997 and 2018. Indefinite life sentences and death sentences were handed to Christians simply for being Christian. Victims were generally aged between 20 and 59, but it is shocking that even a child aged two was also a victim. Korea Future found that, in 11 cases, the victims were believed to still be held in detention in North Korea; their fates are unknown.
It would appear that there is sufficient credible evidence to show that human rights violations perpetrated by North Korean officials are neither arbitrary nor random, and are purposely directed at the destruction of Christian and other religious communities. These findings are supported by testimonies, internal government documents, and statements from former high-ranking North Korean officials who have defected.
This brings us back to the question of how we can ensure regional and global security from North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and how we can increase the security of the North Korean people. The first step in any response must include efforts to ensure accountability and deter future acts of violence and aggression. In doing so, we should deploy all available options in our foreign policy toolbox, including bilateral diplomacy, consensus-building at the Security Council in New York and the Human Rights Council in Geneva, and the United Kingdom’s global human rights sanctions regime.
It is the prospect of using targeted human rights sanctions that I will end on. The global human rights sanctions regime was established in 2020. The regime allows the UK Government to impose sanctions in response to certain serious human rights violations around the world. The regime is intended to target not individual countries, but individuals or organisations involved in serious human rights violations. It is with that message to my noble friend the Minister that I conclude.
My Lords, we all owe a great debt of thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Swire, for introducing this debate this afternoon, for having the prescience to bring it, and for bringing his immense expertise to the Chamber. Right at the outset, he raised an issue that all of us present, and those many Members who are not in their places, should think about. In the 21st century, there seems to be an issue of politics and international relations speeding up, and of Governments, politicians and the media being perhaps unable to deal with more than one crisis at a time.
It is only two and a half years ago that the United States, and with it its NATO allies, pulled out of Afghanistan. That was not an unexpected incident; your Lordships’ International Relations and Defence Committee had written a report about the UK’s role in Afghanistan and published it in January of that year. The Government responded to that report, yet in August 2021 it seemed that the Government had been somewhat blindsided by Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. That withdrawal, and the West’s inability to remain and support the Afghans once the US left, sent messages to Russia and China. Why is that important? It is because, in many ways, nobody was looking at Afghanistan at that time. Nobody was saying, “What if there is a major change?”, yet for two and a half years, thousands of people in Afghanistan have been fleeing for their lives. Decisions made on issues that have not been adequately thought about can have major consequences.
However, we do not really talk very much about Afghanistan at the moment. Ukraine, the next big international crisis, pushed Afghanistan off the front pages and seemed to push it out of the mindset of this Chamber and the other place. Then we get Israel and Gaza.
As the noble Lord, Lord Swire, put it, there is a real issue of bandwidth. I think of it perhaps as the CNN factor but, in a conversation earlier, it was pointed out that maybe it is the TikTok generation. Well, I suspect the Minister replying to the debate this afternoon is not of the TikTok generation. I may be wrong; he may be going to say that I have got it entirely wrong and he spends much of his time on TikTok and Instagram—but I suspect not. I suspect that, like many of us, he is of a generation that is used to events happening in a somewhat slower way, taking time to evolve and not being followed by the media 24/7. In the 30 years since Bosnia and the rise of CNN, we are expected to respond to crises immediately but to switch from one to the next to the next.
One question I will ask the noble Lord is not directly about North Korea—I will come on to that in a moment. It is: to what extent are His Majesty’s Government able to take the time to think about wider threats beyond the immediate? The then Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, was blindsided by Afghanistan—being on holiday where, apparently, he could not swim because the sea was closed. That issue had been foreseen, even if it suited Ministers later to suggest that it had not.
North Korea is precisely the sort of issue, as the noble Lord, Lord Swire, pointed out, that this House and the elected Chamber spend very little time thinking about; how very different for Japan and South Korea, and I welcome their diplomats present today. There is very much a question of what His Majesty’s Government are able to do beyond integrated reviews to think about North Korea and the sorts of unintentional consequences of the fact that is has developed nuclear weapons. So my question to the Minister is on wider strategic matters, because I want to focus my remarks on the wider international.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Swire, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and my noble friend Lord Alton for repeatedly bringing questions about North Korea to our attention. Frankly, if they did not, who would? Obviously, we now have the added benefit of having the noble Lord, Lord Swire, here to do that, but we need to be reminded in this country about North Korea and the questions that we need to think about as part of the international community.
Today’s debate is about the current threat from North Korea. As defence spokesperson for these Benches, my immediate thought was of the international consequences and threats that we have rightly heard about from speakers across the Chamber and the domestic threats and human rights violations perpetrated every day in North Korea. These matter and we should be thinking about them, and I add the support of these Benches for the comments about concerns about genocide and crimes against humanity. As so often, I ask the Minister what assessment His Majesty’s Government have made of concerns about crimes against humanity and genocide being perpetrated in North Korea and of whether now is the time to be thinking about naming genocide.
In order to widen the debate, I want to think about the wider global consequences, which were well introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Swire, and touched on in particular by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle. Aside from the domestic threats to the individual—to the very people whom the North Korean Government should be protecting, their own citizens—North Korea’s obscene defence expenditure of 35% or 40% of its GDP ignores its citizens. It is not about protecting them; it is about the aggrandisement of the state.
The potential and actual threats from North Korea are linked to the nuclear threat, to cyber and to cryptocurrency, as the noble Lord, Lord Swire, pointed out, and there are wider questions about the potential development of chemical weapons and the use of hybrid warfare. From the perspective of Westminster, most of those threats might seem very far away, but they are threats to our allies such as South Korea, from which we recently had a state visit at which issues of defence were discussed. If the United Kingdom is to be a strong ally and partner of South Korea, and similarly of Japan, we need to think about how to support those countries in their defence, and with our defence relationships. So precisely what discussions are His Majesty’s Government having with those of North Korea’s neighbours that perceive themselves to be most under threat from North Korea in the international space?
The nuclear threat does not affect just neighbouring countries. How effective that threat is—how effective North Korea’s nuclear capability is in 2023—remains somewhat unclear, but we are hearing a lot about the six nuclear tests and the attempts to have intercontinental ballistic missiles and the ability to target the United States, our NATO ally. Have the Government made assessments of the current nuclear capabilities of North Korea and what the potential threats actually are?
We probably differ across the Chamber in our views about the implications of North Korea having nuclear weapons for our own domestic nuclear stance. If we had a world without nuclear weapons, we would all be much safer—the dangers of miscalculation would go away because the threat would have gone—but unilateral disarmament would not get us to that place. As the noble Lord, Lord Swire, pointed out in his introductory remarks, North Korea rightly looks at countries that gave up their nuclear weapons, such as Ukraine, and says, “We want a nuclear weapon”.
So the question of who has nuclear weapons and what we do with them remains pertinent. Have the Government thought about talking to the six about further discussions on the nuclear capabilities of North Korea? Is the United Kingdom in any discussions about being part of those negotiations? In the negotiations with Iran that worked effectively until the Trump regime was in government, the E3+3 had an important role. So the UK does have a role to play, but is it playing it? Do the Government see a role for us, particularly if we were able to reopen our embassy in Pyongyang?
There are many questions that reach into the wider international which the Minister might like to tackle in his 20 minutes when he is responding to these relatively few speeches. Often, we have a debate on a foreign or defence issue on a Thursday afternoon and relatively few people speak. It is wonderful to see that on this occasion—I am deliberately saying this so that it is on the record in Hansard—the Chamber is not empty apart from the speakers; we have Peers listening intently on this important issue, because it matters. The security of North Korea’s neighbours is not just a regional issue; there are global challenges here that affect the United Kingdom and our NATO partners.
I want to wind up my speech with a final set of questions about China, which could potentially play an important role. China has a mutual defence agreement with North Korea. It is also a country that has traditionally not been in favour of intervention in other countries; for example, it did not actively support Russia’s intervention in Ukraine despite it having made a bilateral agreement with Russia almost immediately before the invasion of eastern Ukraine. So, we assume that China would not support North Korea being an aggressor, but is it playing any role as a mediator? Can we have frank conversations with China about this?
Indeed, has there been a change in the FCDO’s position in the past two weeks—or is it three?—since the former Prime Minister was ennobled in order to become our Foreign Secretary? It is clear that, during the coalition Government, the UK’s relationship with China was much closer; although that was arguably too close a relationship, it is still important to remember that our relationship with China needs to include elements of co-operation; it is not just about challenge and competition. Do His Majesty’s Government see a way to talk to China about being a mediator because, at the moment, it seems unlikely that we will have any opportunities to persuade Russia to weaken its relations with North Korea, when Russia needs all the friends it can get? Assuming that China is the main potential mediator, are we having discussions?
In line with many noble Lords, I support from these Benches the ideas that we need to ensure that we have effective sanctions; and that the sanctions against North Korea should be targeted at individuals so that, as far as possible, they minimise the impact on citizens. I spoke on this issue on
“The North Koreans will eat grass”.
That was the impact of the sanctions. We need to make sure that the impact of sanctions is on individuals, and secondary sanctions are vital so that nobody in North Korea who should be taking responsibility is able to escape that responsibility.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Swire, for initiating this debate. His focus on analysing what has changed is absolutely correct. There have been fundamental changes that have had a geopolitical influence; obviously, we need to take them into account. I also think it is relevant that this debate is taking place just a week after marking Human Rights Day and the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Of course, the key element of that is “universal”; it applies to us all without exception. When it was signed at the United Nations, it was clear that all countries signed up to that.
The changes raised by the noble Lord, Lord Swire, which I want to address, are linked to the conflict that we now face in Europe and other issues. The response of Russia is clearly influencing a changing relationship. The axis that the noble Lord referred to is a growing one; obviously, we must address it. The integrated review refresh—I have no doubt that the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, will address it—focused on the instability that the DPRK can create in our relationships. It is that instability that we need to focus on.
However, there is one thing that has not changed in North Korea, and that is the horrendous human rights abuses that have taken place. It has been a constant throughout its history. It has gone from starving the whole population to internment camps, concentration camps and annihilation. There is a detailed history. We have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, about this and I pay tribute to him. Like the Minister—I have to admire his sustainability in post—I participated in the 2017 debate, so we have been a constant factor in this. We should not shy away from focusing on those human rights abuses and building alliances to address them in detail.
Since its first nuclear test in 2006, the global community has been largely united in opposition to the DPRK possessing nuclear weapons. It is just as important now that the world speaks as one to condemn this provocation. I certainly welcome the joint statement other noble Lords have referred to, which was initiated by the US and signed by the UK and a large number of other countries. It urges North Korea to abandon its unlawful weapons of mass destruction and ballistic weapons programme. Just as important is that the statement also urged North Korea to accept the repeated invitations—the noble Lord, Lord Swire, was absolutely right to focus on this—for dialogue, to abandon the weapons and instead dedicate its resources to improving the lives of the people of North Korea.
I have mentioned the integrated review. Our ambassador to the UN, Barbara Woodward, who has been a great ambassador—the Minister and I have been talking about her amazing contribution in raising these issues—said at the November UN Security Council that the missile tests are
“clear threats to global peace and security which is the core responsibility of this Council and they violate multiple Security Council resolutions”.
She also asked and called for—as did the noble Lord, Lord Swire—North Korea to
“reopen its borders and re-engage with UN agencies” including the Security Council, to
“reiterate the depth of our resolve to combating proliferation”,
and in terms of responding to the needs of the people of North Korea. We should not forget that either. It is fundamental.
The United States, as the Security Council penholder, continues to provide global leadership for finding a diplomatic solution. But that is obviously now being impacted by the changing relationship we have been talking about in this debate, particularly with Russia. It is also, as we have heard, undermining the global non-proliferation regime. It appears that North Korea may be providing equipment to attack Ukrainian cities and further the illegal war initiated by Putin. That information comes from US intelligence agencies, as noble Lords have said. The FCDO spokesperson at the time strongly condemned Russia’s decision to source arms from North Korea and urged the North Koreans to cease their supply. The FCDO also raised the issue of
“The transfer of money, military equipment or technology bolstering North Korea’s own illegal weapons programmes”.
There is a two-way traffic here that we need to appreciate and understand. That is why we need an incredibly robust set of sanctions.
Reference has been made to the diplomats here today, and the joint accord that was signed during the President of the Republic of Korea’s state visit is incredibly welcome. It included a defence agreement. As the noble Lord, Lord Swire, demanded, a suite of sanctions is not the only requirement necessary; the ability to enforce them strongly is very important. That is why, as raised by the noble Lord, Lord Sarfraz, the accord has closer relationships between the Royal Navy and the Republic of Korea’s navy, ensuring that the two countries are, for the first time, working together and conducting joint sea patrols to prevent goods and materials being smuggled into North Korea. That co-operation is important not only for that specific task but generally to increase security for the whole Indo-Pacific.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, mentioned that the UN panel of experts, assisting the DPRK sanctions committee, warned that cyberattacks from North Korea are being used to steal cryptocurrency and generate revenue for its weapons programme. The Foreign Secretary, the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, has highlighted the danger posed by North Korea’s actions. In a recent Sun newspaper article, he said he had seen briefings that
“make clear the risks of cyber attacks and industrial espionage” from North Korea. Can the Minister reassure the House that the specific threat from North Korea is being addressed by the FCDO in its cross-Whitehall security working to protect not only government agencies but the private sector? The espionage being conducted is not limited to state actors or state departments.
All this shows that the leadership of the DPRK is committed more to provocation than to improving the lives of the North Korean people. The noble Lord, Lord Swire, mentioned that food availability remains a major problem. The World Bank estimates that 42% of the country is undernourished, and I think that is an underestimate, because the DPRK is closed off from the outside world more than ever before. It is impossible to understand the full scale of its people’s suffering.
Human rights are being constantly undermined by the continuation of that horrendous regime. Intense surveillance, enforced disappearance, torture, as I said, and gender-based violence are all prevalent. Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, recently warned that policies introduced to contain Covid are still being used to repress the population, despite the pandemic waning. Human Rights Watch has warned, and I hope the Minister responds to this important point, of the fate of those fleeing North Korea who end up in the wrong neighbouring country—not just China, as sadly there is speculation about Vietnam sending people back as well. It is hopefully a concentration camp but, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned, we know that far worse is going on. We have to ensure that we work with our counterparts and that the FCDO is committed to making sure that the movement of people from China to North Korea is stopped. We must try to ensure that respect.
Ultimately, we have to respond strongly if North Korea chooses provocation while allowing its own people to suffer. I agree with all noble Lords that we should extend the use of Magnitsky-style sanctions targeting individuals. As the noble Lord, Lord Swire, said, it is also about how we can target individuals who facilitate—not simply individuals within the regime. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond positively to all the requests made in this debate.
My Lords, I join all noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Swire for tabling this debate. His introduction again reflected his deep insight and expertise in this area, not just as a previous Minister of State at the Foreign Office but through his continuing engagement with important issues on the global stage. He highlighted directly North Korea’s destabilising behaviours, which have endangered international peace and security for some time and continue to do so.
The issue of bandwidth was raised by my noble friend, as well as by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. I was reflecting on my own day. I started with a Munich group meeting with the ambassadors of Egypt, Jordan, the EU, Germany and France. This lunchtime I hosted the E10 ambassadors, including Japan and the Republic of Korea. This exact subject was part and parcel of our discussion. Interjected among those meetings were others on Afghanistan—including about women and girls and our humanitarian support—Yemen and Syria, and a meeting with the Saudi Foreign Minister, followed by a meeting with the Bahraini Foreign Minister, together with my noble friend Lord Cameron. Perhaps this shows that, within the Foreign Office, we are well positioned in terms of ministerial bandwidth. I understand what the noble Baroness and my noble friend said. We need these debates, whether on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or, for that matter, Friday. I assure noble Lords that the Government will always respond actively and in detail, as I hope to do today.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, also talked about generation TikTok. I may not be on TikTok—when I was growing up, “tick tock” was a clock—but, at the same time, having children of that generation, I am well versed in this. Among the many things that I have to navigate are a message I got just now that there is a dispute between a nine year-old and an 11 year-old that I have to interlock and perhaps conclude when I get home, whenever that may be. Some would argue that this is the most difficult of disputes to resolve. I assure noble Lords that we are very focused on the serious matters in front of us.
Following the 1953 armistice, the tragic division of the Korean peninsula yielded two different models. As we have heard from several noble Lords, the past three decades have seen North Korea choose to develop illegal nuclear and ballistic missile programmes at the expense of its people’s livelihoods, threatening its neighbours and the international community. This is a breach of international norms, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said. We strongly condemn it. We encourage North Korea to return to dialogue. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and my noble friend Lord Swire that the door is always open. Negotiation and diplomacy channels should always remain open. We will co-operate, together with the international community, as expressed in the UN Security Council resolutions. I acknowledge and, of course, will pass on the warm words from the noble Lord, Lord Collins, to our excellent Ambassador Barbara Woodward, whom we met earlier this week. She was in London after a visit to the Rafah crossing.
This dialogue and an end to weapons of mass destruction programmes are essential. We need to agree a path to the complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, a sustainable economy and an equitable society for all North Koreans first and foremost. It is for their sakes.
In the southern half of the peninsula, the Republic of Korea took a very different route following the armistice. As a result, South Korea is now one of the world’s largest economies, the world’s second-largest semiconductor manufacturer and a key global trade partner, home to over 25,000 Britons. It also has astonishing soft power, something we promote. I am sure noble Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said to me, are familiar with the works of BTS and Blackpink—I have a teenage daughter, so I assure noble Lords that I am. I pay tribute to the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of the Korean people. The noble Baroness asked, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, answered on my behalf, about the integrated review. We recently celebrated the Downing Street Accord as part of a very historic first state visit by the President of the Republic of Korea. I was part of that engagement and it was a real celebration of the strengthened bilateral friendship between our two countries. This demonstrates where South Korea is.
These aspirations should not be limited to just one half of Korea. A bright future still lies ahead for North Korea if its Government abandon their programmes, particularly those on WMD. So far this year, North Korea has launched 29 ballistic missiles, including four ICBMs and a military reconnaissance satellite, in direct violation of UN Security Council resolutions. The international community is clear that this activity is absolutely unacceptable. Such provocations raise tensions in the region and risk spiralling into a regional arms race. North Korea has also fully restored its nuclear underground test site and can conduct a seventh test, should it choose to do so. My noble friend Lord Swire will recall that he was Minister for Asia when North Korea undertook its fourth nuclear test. We welcomed the subsequent decision to halt nuclear tests and engage in negotiations, including, importantly, with the United States.
Earlier this week, I met Rob Floyd of the CTBTO, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, to discuss our continuing concerns on this agenda, including over North Korea. We regret that the negotiations with the US did not succeed. We regularly encourage North Korea to respond positively to the offer of talks without preconditions that was offered by the United States and which we support, to reduce those regional tensions, but it saddens me that there is no international consensus on how to manage its provocations. For example, China and Russia consistently fail to condemn ballistic missile launches that directly violate Security Council resolutions they had supported. Such divisions within the Security Council damage its credibility and can only embolden the North Korean regime.
Another nuclear test would, in our view, pose a serious challenge to the international community as a whole. Even North Korea’s close neighbours, such as China and, in the past, Russia, have strongly opposed such nuclear tests. The UN Security Council must act as one to condemn such action—such illegal development—and I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and others that we will continue to urge China, as well as Russia, for that matter, to state unequivocally that they oppose Northern Korean nuclear tests.
The UK is particularly concerned about the burgeoning relationship between North Korea and Russia. There was, as noble Lords may have seen, a meeting between Kim Jong-un and Mr Putin in September, and there is emerging evidence now of North Korean arms sales for Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine. It is not clear what Russia intends to provide in return, but it is likely to be military and space technology. North Korea’s track record of proliferation means that this deal could have dangerous consequences for the region and global security.
To curtail these activities, the UK works very closely with international partners. Sanctions came up. I am proud of our record of having introduced global human rights sanctions: it is something I have campaigned for since I first entered this House back in 2011, and I was delighted it got the cross-party support in both Chambers that it absolutely deserved. I assure noble Lords that we are very much seized, not just with what we do in North Korea but across the piece, of how we sanction both individuals and organisations. I pay tribute, again—it should be a regular feature of any speech on human rights—to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who we all acknowledge as a great champion of human rights. He continues to raise the very issue of the DPRK consistently, and I join the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and others in paying tribute to the APPG’s work in this area as well.
We must work with our partners—I know the noble Lord, Lord Collins, agrees with me—because it is a vital tool, when it comes to sanctions, to work with others to signal our opposition, and in this case, our opposition to ballistic missile launches.
However, the UK recognises that sanctions are most effective when we can agree them through the UN. Repeated obstruction by Russia and China in the UNSC has made new sanctions impossible and prevented the council implementing Security Council resolutions on the DPRK—a point raised my noble friend Lord Swire—which, I stress again, have been agreed by all council members. These things are extremely important. As such, the UK increasingly opts for a more calibrated sanctions approach that builds international consensus, working with our key partners, and counters the emerging domains of cyberspace as well as nuclear proliferation.
My noble friend Lord Sarfraz and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, referred to the patrolling of sanctions. I am delighted my noble friend was able to visit a UK vessel on station, one of the two offshore patrol vessels, HMS “Tamar” and HMS “Spey”, which are in the Indo-Pacific on an ongoing basis. Both ships support sanctions enforcement activity alongside G7 partners and conduct maritime surveillance. I assure my noble friend that we will continue undertaking joint enforcement operations with South Korea, as announced during the state visit last month. That enforcement action will be underpinned by a new defence and cyber partnership, which will also include sharing information more efficiently to tackle maritime threats in the Indo-Pacific, and the signing of a strategic cyber partnership committing our nations to working together to tackle cyber threats.
As many noble Lords pointed out, including the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, we must reduce North Korea’s ability to fund its WMD programmes. As I stand here today recounting the scope and scale of North Korea’s activities, all noble Lords may have rightly asked “How can a regime, which struggles to feed its people, afford this?” The answer, sadly, is simple : theft. The noble Lord, Lord Collins alluded to this. North Korea funds approximately 40% of its illegal weapons programme via illicit cyber activity. My noble friend Lord Swire also brought our attention to this subject. A recent UN panel of experts report estimates that illegal cyber operations have raised up to $2 billion until now. North Korea steals intellectual property, generates illegal revenue and operates with relative impunity in the cybersphere. That is why the United Kingdom is committed, with our partners, to restricting the ability of its cyber actors to operate with impunity.
As a thought leader in the field, we are raising international awareness of cyber threats from North Korea, and I assure my noble friend, who tabled this debate, that we are building a coalition of partners in this respect. The recent signing of the strategic cyber co-operation partnership with South Korea is an example of this, and it signals our commitment to upholding the norms of responsible state behaviour, cutting illegal revenue streams and reducing the vulnerability of the UK and its allies.
We must never forget that it is ultimately the North Korean people who bear the cost of these actions and their Government’s illicit programmes. Even before the borders closed in response to the Covid pandemic in 2020, the UN World Food Programme estimated that 40% of North Koreans were food insecure. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, drew our attention to this very issue. The self-imposed lockdown can only result in exacerbating the situation. We call on North Korea again to re-open the border. Only then can the UN agencies assess how much support the international community should provide.
As we have heard repeatedly from the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox-, and indeed all noble Lords alluded to this, North Korea’s citizens suffer appalling human rights violations, including imprisonment, forced labour—which are the positives, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, noted—and executions. The lucky ones get imprisoned.
The Foreign Office’s human rights report for 2023, which I lead on, reiterates that the Government severely restricts freedom of speech, religion, belief and assembly, and I will come on to those points in a moment.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, rightly asked about the Security Council. We held an open meeting on the human rights situation in the DPRK on
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and my noble friend Lord Swire mentioned the ICC. I accept that the DPRK is not a party to the Rome statute, and I would hazard a guess that it is unlikely under the current regime to accept its jurisdiction. However, we are clear that there must be no impunity, as several noble Lords have said, for the most serious crimes. The UK has consistently worked, and will continue to work, to secure strong resolutions on human rights in the DPRK at both the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. We will continue to raise these issues and will seek out appropriate action to ensure accountability, including strong consideration of referral to the International Criminal Court.
It is very clear that North Korea’s citizens suffer appalling human rights violations. We will continue to call out the DPRK on its human rights record and are urging others in conjunction to do the same. In response to North Korea’s human rights record, we have consistently called out the violations of UN Security Council resolutions and will continue to do so.
I assure noble Lords that I am very much focused on the issue of those who were returned from China. The information is sketchy, even recently. I was reading the Open Doors report and was particularly taken by Timothy Cho, who himself escaped this abhorrent imprisonment. We are grateful that he was able to come and work here directly. I pay tribute to the work of Open Doors across a range of issues of freedom of religion.
I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, who asked about this quite specifically, as did my noble friend Lord Swire and others, that we are raising bilaterally the issue of the 600 or more escapees, with the country that has influence—China. As to traction, we shall wait and see, but the situation is extremely bleak. We will continue to highlight the practice of the forced repatriation of refugees in the international fora. As noble Lords said, the refugee convention of 1951 must be respected.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, talked about Christian persecution. There are many places where Christians suffer but, according to Open Doors, North Korea is the place where Christians suffer most. We must continue the transparency of the human rights and sanctions procedures. I note what the noble Lord says, but we do work with human rights bodies in this respect. I take on board his suggestion to see how we can make that process more transparent, though he will understand the sensitivities in our sanctioning of individuals and organisations.
My noble friend Lord Swire asked about the six-party talks on the DPRK, formed with China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and the US. It is a useful format, which we very much support. We stand ready, if they were to be taken forward again, to play an active part in supporting them. We call on all countries to come together to ensure that the DPRK avoids provocative behaviours and takes steps to generate confidence, and to build a framework for negotiations that advances our shared wish for a peaceful and stable Korean peninsula.
To this end, we hope to re-open our embassy in North Korea, which has been temporarily closed since May 2020. We have asked repeatedly North Korea to facilitate the return of all foreign diplomats, but equally importantly, UN agencies and humanitarian organisations, as soon as possible. We have told its embassy that lifting restrictions on Chinese and Russian diplomats entering the DPRK while excluding diplomats from other countries is directly discriminating against others. Its argument that neighbouring countries have precedence in returning to normal proceedings has no validity under the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations, and we will continue to raise this case.
We will also continue to look for ways to constrain the activity that breaches UN Security Council resolutions, while, importantly, developing and strengthening channels of communication, as all noble Lords have said. As a final word, I say that that door remains open. It promotes the shared goal of all noble Lords in the Chamber today, who have made such detailed, insightful and expert contributions, of a peaceful and stable Korean peninsula and a better life for all the people of Korea, north and south.
My Lords, what we may have lacked in quantity, Hansard will record that we have more than made up for in quality. While it would be invidious of me to single out any one speaker, I am most grateful to all those who spoke and who listened. I am also extremely grateful to the usual channels for allowing me to secure this long-overdue debate.
All of us here will commit to keeping alert to the threat posed by North Korea and keeping up the pressure. In that, I know that we have an indefatigable champion in the shape of our Minister, whose record of his day sent a shiver down my spine. One can only suppose that he exists, in expanding his own bandwidth as he takes on all these difficult issues around the world, by surviving on a diet of canapés and Foreign Office Ferrero Rocher. We know that he is fighting for us in these matters.
Those of us who have stood on the DMZ, in the safety of the thriving democratic Republic of South Korea, have looked across the abyss into the almost Kafkaesque regime in the north. As we go home to our families for the Christmas period and go Christmas shopping—with the warmth of our homes and our families and with food on the table—we should pause to think of those people who are subjected to some of the worst human rights abuses anywhere in the world by a regime with a warped ideology whose sole interest is in maintaining its own stranglehold on that country. We owe them more than sympathy and warm words; we owe them our continuing determination to do something about it.
House adjourned at 4.52 pm.