Human Rights (North Korea) — [Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]


Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds, Conservative)
I am grateful to have caught your eye in this important debate, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend Andrew Selous. I also pay sincere tribute to my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, who clearly showed her passion for this subject in the way she spoke about it. With the Conservative party human rights commission, she has produced a comprehensive report. I participated in some of the hearings, and I congratulate her on the report. I have read every word of it, and it would repay any Member of the House to read from it.

I want to concentrate on human rights in North Korea. Before I do, however, I want to put on record that North Korea is one of the world’s putative nuclear states. It carried out nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013. Whenever my right hon. Friend the Minister has dealings with any of the five powers in the six-party talks, I would urge him to see whether we can get the talks back on track. In my recent discussions with the Chinese—I was in Beijing last week and met Foreign Office Ministers at Minister of State level—it was clear that they, too, do not want a rogue nuclear state on their doorstep. There is, therefore, good cause to hope that China, which has the most influence of any country on the DPRK, can put some pressure on it to at least prevent it from becoming a nuclear power and deploying ever longer range ballistic missiles, potentially carrying nuclear warheads.

The UN commission of inquiry has been widely quoted today; indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton quoted widely from it. One of the most

telling quotes from it was from Mr Justice Kirby, the retired and very respected Australian judge who wrote it. Let me quote just one sentence of what he said:

“The gravity, scale, duration and nature of the unspeakable atrocities committed in the country reveal a totalitarian state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”.

That is a pretty damning indictment, if ever there was one, of the inhuman treatment that the country metes out. The ordinary citizens of North Korea are sentenced to a slow death, because they do not have enough food. Their life expectancy is probably not beyond their thirties. If they go into one of the camps—and there are between 80,000 and 120,000 political prisoners—they face a quick death sentence, because they are starved there, and work harder; but it is not only that. The appalling thing about North Korea is that if someone commits a crime it is often not only that person, but their children and their children’s children, who are imprisoned. That often applies to those poor people who try to escape the misery across the Chinese border. They are sent back, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton has said, to appalling conditions in the prison camps. They are routinely tortured and forced to have abortions. People’s babies are routinely slaughtered in front of them and the other inmates of the camp. The regime is truly inhuman.

In an article in the Korea Times the other day Kim Mikyoung said that

“the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is one of the poorest nations, yet one of the proudest; it is one of the most sanctioned states, yet one of the most defiant; it is one of the weakest, yet one of the most resilient.”

Its people are incredibly resilient, considering the treatment that the state metes out to its poor citizens. As my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton said, the little known Organization and Guidance Department for the Workers Party of Korea is responsible for many aspects of ordinary Koreans’ lives—the prison camps and the re-education that happens in them, the “dear leader’s” guard and the watching of that guard to see who adulates the leader. Such is a state where the citizens spy on each other.

The recommendations of the UN commission are comprehensive and should be implemented in full, including by taking the report to the UN Security Council and referring the DPRK to the International Criminal Court. Along with the report of the commission of inquiry, the report produced by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton produced a number of excellent findings, and I encourage everyone to read it.

I put a question to my hon. Friend the Minister during the urgent question debate obtained by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton on 16 December.


Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds, Conservative)
There is no doubt about it; the increased interest by a number of Members of Parliament, which has been emphasised by the strong attendance at today’s debate, is in no small part attributable to the work that the Churches are doing. I have already referred to Christian Solidarity Worldwide and the work that it has done.

The second tool that we have in our armoury is the British Council, which my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire has referred to. The British Council had an excellent programme of training English teachers, but unfortunately when Kim Jong-un and his regime threatened the Foreign Office with the closure of our embassy last year, it had to stop its activities. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Minister could, in his summing up, say something about the British Council and tell us if and when it is likely to be able to resume its activities.

The third tool in our locker is Kaesong. When I stood on the demilitarised zone and looked through the telescope into North Korea, I could see the industrial zone of Kaesong quite clearly. Working in the Kaesong industrial complex is one of the very few activities where both North Korean and South Korean workers can get together. The factories manufacture things that are needed in the south. The North Koreans who work there receive much-needed hard currency from the south, but, more than that, they are able to interact with South Koreans and encounter their ideas about what is going on in South Korea and the rest of the world. The hope is that they will spread those ideas by word of mouth into the rest of North Korea. That is an important tool in our armoury.

Another important tool in our armoury is the fact that there are an increasing number of electronic devices such as radios and mobile phones. Villages on either side of a valley that were previously unable to communicate with each other suddenly find that through the odd one or two people who have mobile phones, they can communicate with each other. That combined with the internet will probably bring down the regime more quickly than almost anything else.

Finally, in the very few minutes that I have left, I would like to say a word or two about China. As I said, I was in China last week with quite senior members of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Although they are not prepared at the moment to intervene in condemning the DPRK for its human rights record, it is quite clear that they do not want to see it becoming a nuclear state.


Hugo Swire (The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office; East Devon, Conservative)
I congratulate my hon. Friend Andrew Selous on securing this debate. I pay tribute to his work, and that of the all-party group on North Korea, in raising the profile of human rights issues in DPRK and seeking to give North Koreans, wherever they are, a voice. I also thank the Conservative party human rights commission for the report it released earlier today, called “Unparalleled and Unspeakable”, which makes harrowing reading. I congratulate my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, as I have done before, on her work in this respect.

I join other hon. Members in paying tribute to church groups, non-governmental organisations and fellow parliamentarians for continuing to raise this issue and shining some light, as I have said before, on this dark, dark place.

The issue of human rights in North Korea has occupied a great deal of my time. I discussed it only yesterday with our ambassador to Pyongyang, who will also meet the all-party group next week. As I have said before to this House, and in two written ministerial statements in February and March respectively, I believe that the situation in North Korea is without equal in its scale and brutality. No one who has read Lord Alton’s book, “Building Bridges”, can fail to be moved by the suffering of North Korea’s people, or to recognise the urgent need to end this suffering.

Of course, the Government also have wider objectives in DPRK. We remain deeply concerned about the development of nuclear and ballistic missile programmes pursued in wilful disregard of UN Security Council resolutions. The DPRK’s behaviour poses a threat to regional stability and to the global non-proliferation regime, and its willingness to sell conventional arms to anyone who will pay fuels conflict around the world. Nevertheless, we have not allowed this to distract us from challenging the DPRK on its human rights record.

The UK played an active role in supporting the commission of inquiry, hosting a visit that allowed DPRK refugees in the UK to provide evidence to it. I myself met Justice Kirby on that visit. It is deeply regrettable that he has been subjected to personal abuse from the regime in Pyongyang. Following the commission’s report in February, I issued a statement welcoming the spotlight it shone on appalling human rights violations and called upon the DPRK Government to address them urgently.

We worked with the EU, Japan and others to ensure that the UN Human Rights Council adopted a strong resolution, recommending that the commission’s report be forwarded to the UN Security Council for consideration of appropriate action, including referral to an appropriate international justice mechanism. I have made it clear that, ultimately, the UK sees the International Criminal Court as the most appropriate option for this.

We took a similarly strong position in New York last month, when the commission gave an informal briefing to UN Security Council members—the first time members of the Security Council have ever considered DPRK human rights—although both China and Russia were notable for their absence. Again, we took a tough line at the DPRK’s universal periodic review on 1 May, using

our role as a member of the troika to counter any exaggeration of DPRK engagement with the review’s recommendations.

We will continue to keep the spotlight on North Korea: when the DPRK special rapporteur, Marzuki Darusman, presents his report to the Human Rights Council in June; when Ministers meet at the UN General Assembly in September; and through a tough UN General Assembly resolution in the autumn.

With an UNGA resolution behind us, we could work with like-minded partners to gather the nine votes necessary to put DPRK human rights on the Security Council’s agenda, but we are realistic about the prospects for holding individuals to account before an international justice mechanism, at least in the short term, because the DPRK is not a signatory to the Rome statute and a referral to the International Criminal Court requires a UN Security Council resolution, as would the creation of an ad hoc tribunal. We expect both would be blocked by China and Russia. However, that does not mean that we should give up. We will continue to work to change the position of those members of the international community—and there are too many of them—who will not condemn the DPRK’s human rights record. The DPRK’s response to the commission of inquiry’s report shows it is sensitive to international criticism, so we will ensure there is no let-up. We all have a part to play in that.

We will also pursue another of the commission’s recommendations, endorsed by the Human Rights Council, which is the creation of a new body to continue the commission’s work of documenting human rights violations, so that when conditions allow for criminal investigations, as they surely will, there will be up-to-date, credible evidence for prosecutors.

Alongside our efforts to ensure that DPRK human rights remain high on the international agenda, the UK will continue to use our policy of critical engagement to raise our concerns directly with the North Korean authorities. Critical engagement means robust exchanges that leave our DPRK contacts in no doubt about our views, not least about their appalling human rights violations. It means raising specific cases, like the 33 people reportedly sentenced to death for alleged contact with Kim Jong-uk, a South Korean national who entered the DPRK for missionary purposes and has been convicted on charges of espionage. It means reminding the DPRK that, in the modern world, even it cannot keep its misdeeds hidden and that, if the rest of the world really is wrong about its political prison camps—its gulags—it has the means to disprove the claims by providing access to independent observers. Those we speak to may be able to do no more than repeat standard lines, but what we say is repeated up the chain to those with real power. We are expanding our engagement, but we are doing so cautiously, not least because we do not want to give the impression of rewarding the DPRK when there is nothing to reward.

For example, we took an important step earlier this year when we accredited a non-resident defence attaché to Pyongyang and gave the DPRK attaché in Moscow similar status. That process is opening up new opportunities for engagement with a different part of the DPRK system, opaque though that system may be. We have

also provided training to improve DPRK officials’ understanding of international economic standards. Also, through our contacts with NGOs, the all-party group on North Korea and DPRK refugees, we are ready to consider how we can support others who want to engage directly with the DPRK.

Critical engagement means finding ways to inform DPRK citizens, especially officials and others with influence, about the UK and its values, so that they recognise the benefits of working with the outside world rather than remaining isolated. This is a policy aimed at long-term, incremental change. We are honest enough to acknowledge that nothing the UK says or does will lead to any improvement in the immediate future.

However, we have a responsibility to use our embassy in Pyongyang to do the things that many of our partners cannot do, so as to exploit what the US special envoy for human rights in the DPRK, Ambassador Bob King, described to me in a meeting we had in London last week as our “advantage”, and to take forward the commission of inquiry’s recommendation that states and civil society organisations foster opportunities for dialogue and contact in areas such as culture, good governance and economic development.

For example, as my hon. Friend Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said, 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. Sustained engagement by the UK and other European countries, and by NGOs, has resulted in modest improvements in the treatment of disabled people, with a particular boost being given by the participation for the first time of a DPRK athlete in the Paralympic games when they were held in London in 2012. I met that athlete myself.

Several Members from all parties have again raised—quite rightly—the introduction of a BBC World Service Korean-language programme, which would be a further way for us to inform DPRK citizens about the outside world. As hon. Members know, and must accept, the BBC World Service is operationally, managerially and editorially independent. Nevertheless, we kept in close contact with it during its review last year, which we believe to have been a thorough consideration of all the options. Although the World Service board concluded that it was not currently possible to offer a meaningful and cost-effective Korean-language service, it has undertaken to keep that decision under review. We have passed on to the BBC the report from the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea, “An Unmet Need”. We understand that the BBC will complete its response to the report in the next few weeks. We will continue to engage with the BBC and bring to its attention any changes in circumstances that might affect its assessment of the viability of a Korean-language service. As hon. Members have already said, the Foreign Secretary has to agree to new BBC World Service programmes. However, it is rightly and properly for the BBC itself to make proposals to him in the first instance. That may just sound like a sequencing issue, but it is an important distinction and one that Members must respect.

Many other issues were raised in the debate, but alas in my remaining minute, I do not have time to address them. Let me conclude by reiterating the Government’s desire, which is shared by my hon. Friend the Member

for South West Bedfordshire, to see concrete progress on alleviating the appalling human rights situation in North Korea, on ending the climate of impunity and on bringing those responsible to account. I would just say that—