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North Korea: Human Rights
Question for Short Debate
Lord Alton of Liverpool
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the work of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB):
My Lords, on 21 March 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council established the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with a mandate 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 … for violations which may amount to crimes against humanity”.North Korea’s scant respect either for its own people or for the people and security of the region as a whole is underlined by the launching of artillery shells and short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan, concomitant with the squandering of desperately needed resources that could be used to feed the millions of North Koreans who suffer acute malnutrition and chronic food shortages. Four times in the past two weeks alone, North Korea has test fired short-range missiles and rockets, and threatened a fourth nuclear test in violation of United Nations sanctions.
While 84% of North Korean households have borderline or poor food consumption, it is reported that in 2012 Kim Jong-un spent $1.3 billion on North Korea’s ballistic missile programme, in addition to $300 million on leisure facilities and nearly $700 million on luxury goods including watches, handbags and alcohol. Set against that, the findings of the commission of inquiry, which completed its investigation and released its findings last February, should be looked at from an accurate perspective. Its report detailed a truly shocking disregard for humanity, which included,
“extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other grave sexual violence and persecution on political, religious and gender grounds”.The chairman of the commission, Mr Justice Michael Kirby, found many of these violations committed by the Government of North Korea to be,
“without parallel in the contemporary world”, and to constitute crimes against humanity.
It will come as no surprise to noble Lords that at every stage the Government of North Korea refused to co-operate with the commission’s investigation and have since dismissed the report as,
“a product of political confrontation and conspiracy”,
and rejected its findings.
During the four visits that I have made to North Korea, three of which were with my noble friend Lady Cox, I have been deeply impressed by the dignity and forbearance of the North Korean people, but equally dismayed and saddened by the hateful ideology that criminalises and brutalises its people.
Some North Koreans who have fled their country were able to testify at the Commission’s public hearings in Tokyo, Seoul, Washington DC and here in London. Some originally gave their testimonies to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, which I have chaired for the past decade. While mentioning the APPG, perhaps I may thank James Burt, its honorary secretary, for his work in preparing for today’s debate.
It hardly needs saying that the bravery of the testifying witnesses has been remarkable; one of them is with us today. Many have families in North Korea, who remain in constant fear of reprisals.
In breaking the wall of silence that surrounds the DPRK, those who have escaped—including 25,000 who now live in the Republic of Korea, and 700 or 800 who live in the United Kingdom—have been game changers.
As we meet today, 11 North Korean escapees are languishing in prisons in China’s Jilin province—a region I visited 18 months ago. I wonder whether the Minister can tell us whether Her Majesty’s Government would be willing to appeal to China to accept its obligations under international law and not return those escapees to North Korea, where they face persecution, torture and possible death.
I hope that China will give serious thought to relaxing its policy of repatriation, not least because the Commission of Inquiry’s report describes how pregnant women are forcibly aborted and their newborn babies killed if it is thought that mothers have “diluted” the Korean bloodline by bearing a child with a Chinese parent. Not only is this ugly racism, it is utterly lacking in humanity and deeply offensive to China.
For terrorised North Koreans and the international community alike, the Commission has marked a turning point. For too long, states have claimed that too little was known of the extent of North Korea’s crimes to justify action. In the words of Mr Justice Kirby:
“Now the international community does know. There will be no excusing a failure of action because we didn’t know…The suffering and the tears of the people of North Korea demand action”.
The findings detailed in the commission’s report stretch to well over 300 pages, and time does not permit a detailed overview. I know that other noble Lords will enlarge on some of these points but, in summary, the Commission found that the freedoms of thought, expression and religion were routinely and brutally curtailed in the North Korean state.
North Koreans are discriminated against on the basis of class, gender and disability. The vast majority of North Korean citizens are unable to leave their own country, choose where they live or decide where they work. The withholding of food by the North Korean state constitutes an explicit policy of enforced and prolonged starvation, which contributed to the deaths in the
1990s of at least 1 million people, with some estimating that as many as 2 million people died. Detention, torture and execution are established tools of social control. The abduction of foreign nationals has been routine. Up to 120,000 North Koreans face starvation, torture, forced labour, sexual violence and execution in the country’s political prison camps.
The Inquiry found evidence of crimes against humanity. One firm of celebrated lawyers also suggested that the evidence points to genocide against the country’s Christians—a point to which my noble friend Lady Cox will return. My noble and right reverend friend Lord Eames will refer to some of the other issues that have been raised in the report. One of its underreported aspects is gender-based crime against women; another is the indoctrination of children. I wonder whether violence against women was raised during the recent conference on preventing sexual violence in conflict.
One witness who fled North Korea told the Commission:
“You are brainwashed”,
“don’t know life outside. You are brainwashed from the time you know how to talk, about four years of age … North Korea is not open to the outside world”,but,
“is a fenced world … They want the people to be blind, deaf to the outside world, so that the people won’t know what is happening”.The CoI report challenges us to think about how we counter hateful propaganda and that wall of silence, and how we break the information blockade. This is why Mr Justice Kirby supports the extension of BBC World Service transmissions to the Korean peninsula. The All-Party Parliamentary Group has heard from groups that have successfully broadcast into the country, and also from North Koreans who escaped and who told of the importance of foreign broadcasts.
Only yesterday, along with other members of the group, I met with Diane Coyle, the acting chair of the BBC. I have reiterated on many occasions, as have other noble Lords, that it would cost only about £1 million to commit to broadcasting to North Korea, compared to DfID’s budget of £12 billion. Surely this is money that we can find, to at least try to help some of those who have escaped to become tomorrow’s journalists. Maybe that is an issue that the Minister could pursue with the BBC Media Action programme.
How do we intend to honour our obligations under Article 19 of the 1948 declaration if we are unwilling to break the information blockade? I have no problem with cultural programmes; but if that is all we do we will be failing North Korea. Instead of telling us about photographic exhibitions or cultural exchanges, I hope that the Minister will tell us whether any human rights projects, for instance, are going to be implemented in North Korea and how we will break the information blockade.
I was saddened that in a recent article a former FCO chargé d’affaires in Pyongyang, Jim Hoare, questioned the place of human rights in our engagement with North Korea, claiming that,
“human rights issues have proved a complication”,to the UK’s cultural projects in North Korea, and that a,“modestly-successful parliamentary linkage seems to have more or less ceased because of the preoccupation with human rights of many British parliamentarians”.
It is the job of parliamentarians to be preoccupied with gross human rights violations, and I would hope that it is a preoccupation that the Government and their officials might share. Engagement with North Korea is not always the same as engagement with the North Korean state. The biggest improvements to the rights of North Koreans have come in spite of the North Korean Government, not because of it. We must engage with the victims of human rights abuses as well as the perpetrators.
When the United Nations Human Rights Council met in March to discuss the report, both it and the United Kingdom voted to recommend that the General Assembly should submit the report to the Security Council for appropriate action, which could include a referral to the International Criminal Court.
Can the Minister tell us whether we will be seeking a Security Council resolution, a referral to the ICC or another judicial tribunal and an expansion of the existing sanctions regime to cover human rights violations?
The resolution also called upon member states to consider implementing the recommendations as laid out in the CoI’s report. Can the Minister tell us how many of the CoI’s recommendations that pertain specifically to states that Her Majesty’s Government have implemented thus far?
As this report describes, North Korea is a country that is beyond parallel. The United Nations special rapporteur, Mr Darusman, recently said, following the publication of the report:
“There is no turning back; it cannot be ‘business as usual’.Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis, once said:
“We have been silent witnesses to evil deeds”.
Let that never be said of us.
Lord Eames (CB):
My Lords, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a devastating indictment of life today in North Korea. It makes explicit reference to violations of the right to food; violations associated with prison camps, torture and inhuman treatment, arbitrary arrest and detention; and violations of the right to life and freedom of expression. It paints a detailed picture of a society that exists on fear and intimidation. It talks about a captive people cut off from the outside world.
As one who visited North Korea in 2007, I have seen something of the atmosphere that prevails in the lives of ordinary people. I was asked by the then Archbishop of Canterbury to lead an international delegation of Anglican communion members to present the proceeds of a world appeal in the aftermath of the floods and storms that devastated North Korea. Despite the outward appearance that I was presented with—the official face of North Korea—nothing could hide the stark realities of everyday life: the subjection of its people; the isolation of villages completely cut off from each other; the enforcement of strict measures by the military; and the fear of foreigners.
However, the difficulty of a report such as we are discussing today is even more than the tragic picture it paints. It is surely the question, “What now?”. Nobody denies the details of life in North Korea it contains; but what are the opportunities for the UK Government to bring about change in that hidden country? What can the outside world actually achieve in the face of the almost total isolation of North Korea? Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
“Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind”.
In light of this, it may surprise noble Lords to learn that North Korea has acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Yet the commission reported that domestic violence is still rife in North Korea and that it is quite common to see women beaten and sexually assaulted in public. North Korean officials are said to exact penalties in the form of sexual abuse and violence with no fear of punishment, while single women who seek membership of the Workers’ Party of Korea are subjected to sexual abuse. It was even testified that the rape of adults is not really considered a crime in North Korean society.
Despite all the attention given to the CoI’s report by the international media and Governments around the world, gender-based violence has been the most overlooked aspect of the report. The former Foreign Secretary has been vocal on the role of the UK in ending sexual violence, most notably in his establishment of the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. Can the Minister assure us that the FCO has been vocal
on this issue in its dealings with the Government of North Korea? He may wish to consider matching FCO spending on cultural programmes in North Korea, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, with spending on projects designed to improve the rights of women in that country.
In its report, the commission documented countless violations of the freedom of thought, expression and religion in North Korea. Using the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as its benchmark, the commission concluded that the indoctrination of the North Korean population has been implemented to such a degree that the emergence and development of free thought and conscience is entirely suppressed. Such extreme indoctrination is not reserved for adults; the indoctrination of children is routine.
Children are taught violence and hatred of the outside world. Their aspirations are not set for personal betterment, but to aspire to and emulate their former leader, who remains the country’s “eternal president” despite his death in 1994. One witness even claimed that as a child he was only interested in becoming a great warrior in order to become a killer of his enemies. Children who do not live up to such hateful standards are instructed to publicly berate themselves in weekly confession and criticism sessions. The children we are talking about are aged four. In their project for North Korea, this Government concerned themselves with children’s care institutions and teaching programmes. The Minister may wish to consider how teaching programmes may challenge the indoctrination of children, which seeks to imbue North Korean children with hatred.
I am particularly concerned about the position of religion and religious groups in North Korea. The Christian community is totally outlawed. Public worship is banned. Freedom to express the Christian faith is forbidden and those who refuse to renounce Christianity are subjected to imprisonment, torture and even execution.
I have two final points for the Minister. Some weeks ago she responded to remarks we made about the work of the BBC overseas and the hope that one day a way would be found to encourage its use in North Korea. What encouragement can the UK Government give to the BBC to consider this possibility afresh? Secondly, our embassy in Pyongyang presents an opportunity to do things that are denied to some of our partners. Is the Minister satisfied that we are making the most use possible of this facility?
The Lord Bishop of Peterborough:
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this important and timely debate. The report of the United Nations commission makes horrifying reading, and it is surely incumbent on the democratic and free world to read, reflect, take counsel and take action. There is great evil in the North Korean regime, which the civilised world cannot simply ignore: not just because it threatens regional and world peace, although it does; not just because millions of innocent people are suffering, although they are; not just because every human right is being trampled, although it is; but, ultimately, because not to do anything about evil on this scale is to collude with it.
The Diocese of Peterborough is twinned through the Anglican Communion’s companion link scheme with the Diocese of Seoul in South Korea. That has given me the privilege of visiting South Korea, studying its history and culture, getting to know its people and seeing some of the wonderful work that the church does there. British people, even Members of your Lordships’ House, may be surprised to know that the Christian church is alive, strong and remarkably influential in South Korea—as it was in the north before the communist takeover. In the 2007 census, 46% of South Koreans identified themselves as having no religion; 29% as Christian; 23% as Buddhist; all other faith groups put together made up the other 2%.
Christianity has become the largest religion, and thrives. South Korea is second only to the United States in the number of its people travelling abroad as Christian missionaries. Internally, the Christian faith has had and continues to have great influence for the good on civil society, human rights—especially of women and children—and democracy.
During my most recent trip in May, I visited schools, residential homes and work projects for people with disabilities, migrant workers and others often seen as excluded in advanced industrial societies. Previously, I have visited major projects to feed and care for the homeless and a large residential home for the elderly, with high-dependency medical facilities and staff. All those projects are run by the Anglican Diocese of Seoul, sometimes under licence or with funding from the city council, sometimes simply as Christian charitable ventures. The big society—are we still allowed to use that phrase?—is alive and flourishing in South Korea, making civil society and people’s lives better.
The growth and influence of Christianity, not least through Minjung theology, which focuses on the image of God in people, their intrinsic worth and the need to lift them out of oppression and suffering, has been huge. The older Confucian hierarchical structure gave little or no value to individuals, and none to women or children. That culture has been totally transformed, largely through Christian influence.
My visit earlier this year followed shortly after the terrible ferry tragedy in which hundreds of children died. Seoul was covered with yellow ribbons in tribute to those children. The Government were in severe difficulty because of the avoidable accident. Those responsible were being prosecuted. Questions were being asked about how institutions and individuals could fail to protect children. Human life is now valued in South Korea as much as in the West, and that process has reached the point of looking for special protection for the weakest and most honourable. Christian influence and values have achieved that.
The process of advancing human rights and democratisation began across the whole of Korea before the Korean War, but has been effectively crushed in the north since then. I have also visited the demilitarised zone. I have not yet visited the north, but I have seen in Seoul’s Anglican Cathedral photos and lists of Christian leaders martyred by the communists during the Korean War, including the dean of the cathedral and the mother superior of the Anglican convent next door, where I stayed in May.
I have met some of the people involved in the Anglican Church’s remarkable initiative, TOPIK—Towards Peace in Korea. That organisation, which last year put on a major peace conference in Okinawa, Japan, works for the peaceful reunification of Korea. It provides famine and flood relief for North Koreans, and from time to time gets permission from the Pyongyang Government to take aid in. It promotes dialogue with North Koreans, and helps some of the few North Koreans who escape the brutality of their regime to resettle in the south.
I do not need to catalogue the horrors perpetrated by the regime in the north—the report does that. So do the testimonies of those who have escaped from the concentration camps, some of whom have been to speak to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, as we have heard. I do not need to remind noble Lords of the brutal attempt to wipe out religion, particularly Christianity—the report does that. So do the accounts of various atrocities brought to us by agencies such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
I am neither diplomat nor politician, but certain things are clear to me. First, keeping North Korea isolated, treating it like a pariah state, will not help. It may well be that individual leaders need to be brought to the bar of international justice, but the state itself and its people must be cared for as part of the human family rather than demonised and held at arm’s length. Western and Asia
n Governments should press for aid agencies to be allowed in, and should offer to feed a starving people. Diplomatic channels should be kept open. Ideally, China would help Pyongyang to be more open to the rest of the world.
Secondly, the Government of South Korea should be encouraged and helped by the rest of the world to continue to work and prepare for reunification. Such work is going on under President Park, but more is needed. The economic cost of reunification will be enormous, even for a relatively wealthy country such as South Korea. The infrastructure of the north is virtually non-existent, millions have starved in recent years, hundreds of thousands are in concentration camps, and there is no freedom or civil society. The civilised world needs to be ready to stand alongside South Korea for this enormous humanitarian nation-building task.
Thirdly, the people of North Korea must be helped to prepare for a better future. Some Christian and other agencies are already doing that on a small scale, at great risk to themselves. However, the world can and should do more. As has been noted already, the failure of the BBC to provide a Korean service to reach the north, and the failure of our Government to encourage and even fund the BBC to do that, is quite inexplicable. That sort of outreach helped prepare the people of eastern Europe, and most recently the people of Burma, to aspire to and then live in a freer society. The BBC has changed and is changing, but surely its responsibility to promote our democratic and free values—not least in places where they are under threat or do not exist—must remain.
The world community cannot simply ignore the plight of the people of North Korea. They are our brothers and sisters in the human family, and we have a responsibility towards them.
Baroness Cox (CB):
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Alton on securing this debate, on his tireless dedication to human rights and freedom around the world, and on his leadership on the situation in North Korea. As has been mentioned, I have had the privilege of travelling with my noble friend to the DPRK on three occasions and serving as vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the DPRK. I echo all the points my noble friend made.
North Korea is the world’s most closed nation, in which every article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is violated, and it has been aptly described as “one large prison”. As has already been emphasised, the report by the UN commission of inquiry has helped to put North Korea’s appalling human rights record higher up the international agenda and has shone a light on one of the darkest corners of the world. Among the catalogue of crimes against humanity which the commission has documented are the denial of freedom of religion and the brutal persecution of religious believers, which I wish to highlight today, echoing concerns eloquently expressed by the right reverend Prelate and other noble Lords.
According to the UN inquiry:
“There is an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association”.
It concludes that the regime,
“considers the spread of Christianity a particularly severe threat”,
and as a result:
“Christians are prohibited from practising their religion and are persecuted”.
Severe punishments are inflicted on “people caught practising Christianity”. We know from many testimonies of North Korean refugees that possessing a Bible in North Korea can lead to execution and/or incarceration in prison camps, being subjected to severe torture, inhuman conditions and, in some cases, slave labour.
I remember one story of a labour camp based in an iron foundry. One day, all the inmates were forced to stand in a large circle and the three Christian prisoners there were put in the middle. They were given an ultimatum: either they recanted their faith or they would die with molten iron poured over them. They refused to recant and they died singing praises to God as the molten iron was poured over them.
Although the DPRK’s constitution allows for freedom of religion in Article 68, in practice any belief that dissents from total loyalty to and worship of the Kim dynasty is a crime. An edict from Kim Il-sung declared that,
“religious people should die to cure their habit”.
The current ruler, his grandson Kim Jong-un, continues this policy. In 1950, 24% of the North Korean population practised religion. Today, that figure is just 0.16%. With the exception of the four state-controlled Potemkin-style churches in Pyongyang, which I and my noble friend have visited, Christians and other religious believers in North Korea worship in secret and in fear.
An indication of how the regime views religion—specifically Christianity—is seen in the response of the DPRK’s ambassador to the UN after the UN Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review. He highlighted the activities of Christians working among North Koreans in China, saying:
“There are in the northeastern area of China so-called churches and priests exclusively engaged in hostile acts against the DPRK. They indoctrinate the illegal border crossers with anti-DPRK ideology and send them back to the DPRK with assignments of subversion … human trafficking and even terrorist acts”.
China’s policy of forcibly repatriating North Korean refugees and sometimes arresting Christian missionaries who help them is cause for serious concern. North Korean escapees who are sent back into the DPRK face dire consequences, particularly if they are suspected of having converted to Christianity, of having been in contact with Christian missionaries or of possessing a Bible. I ask the Minister whether Her Majesty’s Government have raised these human rights violations with the Chinese authorities and, echoing the query raised by my noble friend Lord Alton, whether HMG have urged China to stop arresting missionaries and refugees and to end its policy of forcible repatriation.
A month ago, an international law firm, Hogan Lovells, commissioned by an international network of NGOs known as Human Liberty, published an independent legal analysis of North Korea’s human rights record, concluding that the DPRK’s targeting and extermination of religious groups might indeed constitute genocide. Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s 2007 report, North Korea: A Case to Answer—A Call to Act, also concluded that there may be “indicators of genocide” in relation to religious persecution. I ask the Minister to clarify Her Majesty’s Government’s response to the Hogan Lovells report. What steps are they taking to address the severe violations of freedom of religion and other human rights in North Korea, including lack of accountability and widespread impunity?
I also want to raise, briefly, two other issues: the information blockade, highlighted again and again by my noble friend Lord Alton and other noble Lords because it is so important; and humanitarian crises. Only by breaking the regime’s information blockade can the people of North Korea be given alternative ways of thinking to the propaganda that they are fed daily. I did a lot of work behind the iron curtain in the dark days of Soviet communism, and particularly martial law in Poland, and I remember how eagerly the people trapped behind the iron curtain yearned to hear news from the BBC and from the West. It was transformational in keeping them in touch with the wider world and giving them alternative ideas in preparation for the time of transition.
I therefore reiterate the view expressed on many occasions by many noble Lords that the BBC World Service should reconsider a Korean-language broadcast, especially as the UN inquiry notes the importance of foreign sho
rt-wave radio broadcasts. It calls on the international community to provide more support for the work of civil society organisations and to make efforts to broadcast accessible information to the country.
The inquiry also highlights North Korea’s dire humanitarian crises, concluding that the deprivation of food, calculated to bring about the destruction of part of a population, amounts to virtual extermination. In addition to the regime’s policies, which have caused food shortages and distributed food on the basis of political class, the international community also bears some responsibility. While there are legitimate questions to be asked about transparency and accountability of aid, what assistance will Her Majesty’s Government provide, and might that increase to meet the very real humanitarian crisis?
North Korea’s healthcare system is another issue needing urgent attention. The Guardian in April reported North Korean refugees describing a health system with,
“broken equipment, declining treatment standards and widespread self-medication”.
When my noble friend and I were in Pyongyang on one of our visits, we were told by local people that the contents of the first aid kit in our vehicle represented more equipment than would be found than in many a rural primary healthcare clinic in North Korea.
A US doctor, Ryan Choi, in a new paper on healthcare in North Korea, describes the healthcare system in shambles. The downstream effects are food shortages, a shortage of domestically produced pharmaceuticals, breakdown of the sanitation system, a shortage of medical supplies and, very seriously, a resurgence of infectious disease and a rise in mortality and morbidity. A 2010 report by Amnesty International paints a similarly disturbing picture. Are Her Majesty’s Government providing any assistance to address this crisis in the DPRK’s healthcare system?
I conclude with the words of the UN special rapporteur on human rights in the DPRK, from his most recent report. He said:
“The work performed by the commission of inquiry should be seen as the beginning of a process, not the end … The post-commission era presents a new phase for the human rights of the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea … and requires a decisive change in the approach going forward … The international community must set in train immediate, impartial and just action to secure accountability, fulfil the responsibility to protect, put human rights first and stop grave human rights violations, in accordance with international law … The revelation of the truth, international scrutiny and sustained pressure have had some initial effects and will continue to do so”.
I hope the Minister can provide assurances today that Her Majesty’s Government will treat the desperate human rights and humanitarian situation in North Korea with the urgency and priority that are so desperately needed.
Lord Burnett (LD):
My Lords, I am grateful to the Deputy Chairman, to my noble friend Lord Alton and to other Members of Committee for allowing me to speak in the gap. I congratulate my noble friend—and he is my noble friend—Lord Alton on calling this debate and I pay tribute to him for his tenacious and courageous commitment to the endeavour of securing respect for human rights and democracy in North Korea.
We have heard this afternoon that the 2014 report of the commission on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea sets out clearly the horrific and cruel nature of the regime. In the first paragraph of its conclusions and recommendations, it says that,
“systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, its institutions and officials. In many instances, the violations of human rights found by the commission constitute crimes against humanity”.
Those are serious charges. It goes on to say:
“The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world … a State that does not content itself with ensuring the authoritarian rule of a small group of people, but seeks to dominate every aspect of its citizens’ lives and terrorizes them from within”.
Amnesty estimates that more than 100,000 North Koreans are in prison camps, often at the whim of some apparatchik; slave labour, child abuse and torture are commonplace in these camps. Prisoners have little food and hundreds of thousands—possibly millions—of people have died in these camps since the 1950s.
In 1945, when the full nature of the heinous Nazi crimes became apparent, the free world wondered why it had failed to act, in the face of far less compelling evidence. We know what is happening in North Korea. We in Britain have a dilemma. We do not have the military or financial power to topple the regime. It is also in the best interests of those who sincerely wish to effect change and bring about democracy and respect for human rights in North Korea for us to preserve our embassy and representation in that brutally afflicted country.
Recently I took part in a debate on defence. I and other noble and noble and gallant Lords highlighted the fact that the world is becoming an increasingly dangerous place. It is not just the intractable Israel, Palestine and Middle East conflicts, and the conflicts that beset almost the entirety of Africa from north to south; it is the conflicts in Ukraine, India and Pakistan and the continued tension between China and Japan, as well as other conflicts in other parts of the world. Those of us who are deeply concerned about North Korea fear that the conflicts raging elsewhere are bound to take the attention and priority of the nations that can effect change in North Korea. I refer principally to China.
Our relations with China seem to be on a constructive course and there is some evidence that China takes an increasingly critical view of the horrors that the North Korean regime inflicts on its people. The United Nations special rapporteur’s report on human rights of June 2014 makes certain recommendations in paragraphs 51 and 52 in respect of neighbouring and other states concerned.
Paragraph 51 starts:
“On the issue of refoulement”—
that is, forced repatriation—
“the commission of inquiry recommended that China and other States should respect the principle of non-refoulement and, accordingly, abstain from forcibly repatriating any persons”—
Baroness Jolly (LD):
I am sorry, but the noble Lord is speaking in the gap and his time is four minutes.
I will finish by saying that we know how sensitive the matter is. We in Britain have a great deal of influence in the world. We in Parliament must continually impress on our Government the necessity to bring about the changes that should have been made decades ago to this cruel, unforgiving regime, which has for years imposed itself on the people of North Korea.
Lord Bach (Lab):
My Lords, the House again owes a debt to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, not just for obtaining this debate, but for the extraordinary work he has done in relation to North Korea for many years—often in association with the noble Baroness, Lady Cox. Without him, the public, Parliament and—dare I say—Government would be much less well informed than they are. He has raised this issue up the agenda, where it should and must be.
Reading the commission’s report was unlike reading any other report I can remember. In clear, reasoned and judicious terms, it sets out what the horror of being a citizen of North Korea today involves. Life in North Korea would be a classic case of dystopia, except that it is not imaginary. It is real. George Orwell’s magnificent imaginati
on, which created Oceania in the wonderful novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, perhaps gets closest to it, but by comparison Oceania seems positively liberal.
In short, the report is a shocking read and noble Lords in this debate with much more expertise than me have spoken of their response, and it is difficult to say anything original or new. As has been pointed out, the challenge is how to respond to such a regime. Of course, engagement is the right course, difficult as it is in practice, provided—and this is a big proviso—that we never leave behind human rights issues. That is why our diplomatic presence in North Korea is to be welcomed. It is also why the work of the British Council—here I again declare my interest as chair of the British Council All-Party Parliamentary Group—is to be admired and encouraged. It was good to read the speech made by the Minister’s colleague, the honourable Hugo Swire, in a debate in another place on North Korea on 13 May when he said that,
“through the British Council and educational immersion programmes, we have provided thousands of North Koreans with their first access to a foreigner and an understanding of British culture and values”.—[Official Report, Commons, 13/5/14; col. 236WH.]
It is also why it is right for noble Lords today to have been pressing, in a proper and appropriate way, for the BBC to set up broadcasts to the Korean peninsula. If ever there were a people who needed to hear the World Service and for whom the World Service was appropriate, it is surely the North Koreans. However, we must never not talk about human rights.
In a major debate in your Lordships’ House on 21 November last the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, made an important point when discussing how to respond generally to human rights abuses:
“In considering how Britain should respond to human rights abuses, I suggest that one mistake we need to avoid is looking at the issue principally, or even solely, in the context of our bilateral relationship with the country in question. However, Britain’s influence and leverage are unlikely to be decisive nowadays. All too often we have seen how easy it is for the country in question to punish us for our temerity and play us off against other countries which have been less assertive”.—[Official Report, 21/11/13; col. 1107.]
Human rights abuses are legion in North Korea and many undoubtedly constitute crimes against humanity. Of course the British Government must have a bilateral relationship with North Korea, as they must with all countries, but surely the UN Human Rights Council, the General Assembly of the UN and the Security Council of the UN are the key bodies to work through in combating these abuses. Do the Government agree with that sentiment?
Given the totally negative attitude of the North Korean Government, the remarkable Michael Kirby and the other members of the commission of inquiry have produced a full and devastating report. Whichever section of it one reads, I am afraid that the same deeply depressing verdict is overwhelming. Whether it is about abductions, freedom of thought, expression and religion; or about discrimination or violations of freedom of movement and residence; or the deeply shocking violations of the right to food and the equally shocking section on arbitrary detentions, torture, executions and prison camps, there is little or no comfort to be found. It is a very bleak picture indeed. However, at its end the report makes what I believe to be sensible recommendations. It points out the need for those responsible to be held to judicial account and, in its last recommendation, it calls for the UN and the states involved in the Korean War to convene a high-level political conference to consider and ratify a final, peaceful settlement of that war. That is a brave—some might even say a courageous—recommendation but it is also one which demonstrates that, even after hearing the appalling evidence about the regime, the authors of the report are determined to keep a light shining in the massive gloom that prevails. If they can keep that light shining, surely it is our duty to do so, too.
The Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Warsi) (Con): My Lords, I echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Bach, in relation to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on introducing this debate and shining a spotlight on atrocious human rights abuses in the DPRK. I pay tribute to his work, and indeed to the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and that of the North Korea All-Party Parliamentary Group for what, I believe, is the most important aspect of that work, which is giving ordinary North Koreans a voice.
Noble Lords will know that the United Nations commission of inquiry has provided an authoritative account of the systemic, widespread and gross human rights violations committed by a state described as,
“without parallel in the contemporary world”.
As others have said, it is now vital that we ensure that its report is a beginning, not an end. The commission of inquiry report called for:
“Urgent accountability measures … combined with a reinforced human rights dialogue, the promotion of incremental change through more people-to-people contact and an inter-Korean agenda for reconciliation”.
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I cannot comment on inter-Korean reconciliation—that is a matter for the two Koreas—but I will set out how, as asked by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, the UK is responding, bilaterally and with others, to the commission’s recommendations on accountability, human rights dialogue and people-to-people contact.
First, on accountability, the UK agrees that, with no willingness from the DPRK to hold perpetrators to account, the international community has a responsibility to take action. We have already taken several steps. We worked with others to ensure that the UN Human Rights Council’s DPRK resolution in March contained strong language on accountability, including a recommendation that the commission’s report be forwarded to the UN Security Council. In April, we joined other Security Council members for an informal public briefing by commissioners. In May, we raised DPRK human rights issues during closed consultations with the High Commissioner for Human Rights. In June, my right honourable friend the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Member for East Devon, visited Geneva. He took part in an interactive dialogue with the special rapporteur on human rights in the DPRK, raised DPRK human rights with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and discussed accountability with representatives from the United States, France, Japan, the Republic of Korea and the EU. We will continue to work with like-minded partners to maximise the prospects of achieving genuine accountability, despite the challenges.
There is broad agreement on what we need to do: focus on DPRK human rights at this autumn’s UN General Assembly; achieve a strong, well supported DPRK resolution in the UNGA Third Committee; and take forward the recommendation that the UN Security Council should formally consider the commission’s findings and recommendations. This includes referral to the International Criminal Court, which the Government have made clear we would support. However, the DPRK has not signed the Rome Statute. As noble Lords will be aware, this means referral can be achieved only through a UN Security Council resolution. As we saw with Syria, China and Russia are likely to use their vetoes to block any such resolution. This does not mean that we should not pursue an ICC referral, but it does mean that we need to think carefully about when and how to take one forward, not least to ensure the maximum support from other members of the Security Council and the wider UN membership.
However, not all the commission’s recommendations on accountability need Security Council action. A number of measures are already
moving forward, including renewal of the special rapporteur’s mandate and the creation of a new regional field office, to be based in the Republic of Korea. This new office will continue the commission’s work of collecting and documenting human rights violations until the North Korean regime can be brought to account. The UK stands ready to offer our support.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked specifically about sanctions. The commission made a recommendation to the Security Council on targeted sanctions. Existing UN and EU sanctions against the DPRK are based on UN Security Council resolutions targeting the DPRK’s
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nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. Like an ICC referral, a new UN sanctions regime would require a UN Security Council resolution. The UK would want any new sanction proposals to have a clear impact on the human rights situation in North Korea without any unintended negative impact on the general population. After recent successful legal challenges, we need to be sure that any proposals are both legally and politically deliverable in the European Union.
Alongside accountability, the UN commission of inquiry stressed the importance of continued human rights dialogue. The universal periodic review remains one of the few forums in which the DPRK is willing to engage on human rights, so we are exploring with partners how we can build on that.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, asked what avenues are open to the UK to influence the present regime. Bilateral human rights have always been an integral part of the dialogue with the DPRK. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough said, we believe in the importance of keeping those diplomatic channels open. Through our embassy in Pyongyang and its embassy in London, we deliver clear messages about the unacceptability of ongoing human rights violations, including the persecution of Christians, which both the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, have rightly highlighted.
In this regard, we are aware of the report to which the noble Baroness referred—the Hogan Lovells report—and its conclusions with respect to genocide on religious grounds. This of course differs from the position taken by the commission of inquiry, which concluded that the available evidence in this respect was ambiguous. We raised the need for the DPRK to engage with the international community on these issues and made clear our readiness to work together to improve the situation on the ground.
In a small way, our engagement on disability rights has shown that this is not completely impossible, and that progress can sometimes be made. More meaningful improvements would need a radical shift in DPRK thinking. We must convince it that, if it takes that chance, the international community will respond in good faith.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, again asked about our human rights dialogue and how we raise particular issues. There are occasions when we raise individual cases as a way of making the broader points. One such case was that of the South Korean national Kim Jung-wook, who was sentenced in May to life with hard labour following convictions for trying to establish underground churches and espionage; another was that of the 33 North Koreans who allegedly have been sentenced to death for contact with Kim Jung-wook.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked about whether the DPRK has committed crimes against humanity. The commission’s report presents horrifying accounts of the scale of human rights violations in the DPRK. Ultimately, as the noble Lord knows, only a court of law can rule on whether crimes against humanity have been committed in legal terms, but it is clearly a very strong case to answer. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, also asked about the position of China. We raised DPRK human rights
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concerns with China, including the specific issue of forced repatriation, which I think was mentioned by other noble Lords as well. The then Foreign Secretary raised this during his meeting with State Councillor Yang Jiechi in February this year, and officials raised it during the UK-China Human Rights Dialogue on 19 and 20 May.
Another area which the commission of inquiry highlighted was the role of people-to-people contact in supporting long-term change by giving North Koreans the opportunity—
Lord Burnett: I am sorry to interrupt. Can my noble friend tell the Committee the result of the representations that were made to the Government of China this year?
Baroness Warsi: I do not have the specific read-out of that meeting with me, and I need to be accurate about the information that I give at the Dispatch Box. I will therefore write to the noble Lord with further information.
I return to people-to-people contact, an issue highlighted by the commission of inquiry as a way of effecting long-term change. This is an area where the UK can help, given our presence on the ground in Pyongyang. Many of our engagement activities are designed precisely to increase such people-to-people contacts. Through the English language teacher training programme, we have provided thousands of North Koreans with their first access to a foreigner and an understanding of British culture and British values. The British Council is considering the scope of further cultural activity in line with its own commitment to engagement, not isolation. This year our embassy has funded a number of economic workshops, another area of engagement referred to in the commission’s recommendations.
The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough all argued about whether the Government would support Korean-language broadcasts by the BBC World Service in line with the commission’s recommendation on addressing the information blockade. This is a question that has been asked on a number of occasions, as noble Lords will know, and I think I will disappoint them by repeating what I have said—that the BBC World Service is operationally, managerially and editorially independent. Decisions on new language services are for it to consider, and then, if appropriate, to put to the Foreign Secretary. It has undertaken to keep this issue under review. I remind noble Lords of the last Oral Question that I answered on this, when I went into some detail on some of the challenges that that proposes.
The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and the right reverend Prelate again raised the issue of the humanitarian situation. While that has improved somewhat in recent years, there remain many causes for concern, such as those highlighted with regard to food security and healthcare. The UK helps to address these needs through its core funding to the multilateral aid organisations operating in the DPRK. The amount that goes to the DPRK varies, but in 2011-12 it was around £2 million.
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The noble Lord, Lord Alton, specifically asked about the former chargé d’affaires and referred to comments he had made recently. I cannot comment on his personal views or what he may have said or written since leaving the FCO—he left in 2003—but I am aware that during the time he was in post his views were those of Her Majesty’s Government.
This Government are fully committed to tackling North Korea’s poor human rights record. We do not underestimate the challenges, but we do believe that change is possible. We, along with the rest of the international community, have a responsibility to do everything we can to support it.