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Westminster Hall

Thursday 22 June 2006

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (Human Rights)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Tony Cunningham.]

2.30 pm

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): I should declare an interest. Mr. Benton, you employ my wife and, for the purpose of today’s debate, you are employing me. This is the first occasion in 18 years that this has happened. We have been forced apart all that time.

The United Kingdom’s dealings with North Korea are constrained by three key concerns to which I shall come in a minute. I will give a full update on the current position and on what I have been doing since I took over the portfolio. I assume that Opposition Members will then speak, after which I shall answer specific questions. At the end of the debate, I hope to have clarified what has been happening as well as my intention to make my role as effective as I possibly can to improve the situation in the country.

The three key concerns to which I referred are the threat to the security of the region posed by North Korea’s illicit nuclear weapons programme, the potential for proliferation both of nuclear weapons material and technology and missile technology, and the North Korean human rights situation, which ranks among the worst in the world.

I deeply regret that the North Korean Government have so far declined to give the world some reassurance about their intentions regarding missiles. In the current climate, to conduct a test of a long-range missile would be bound to raise tensions in the region. I hope that the North Korean Government will step back from such a provocative move and preserve the moratorium that they have honoured since 1999. The human rights and weapons issues are interlinked. The North Korean Government have made it clear that they regard respect for human rights as a risk to their national security. That, in turn, in North Korean eyes, seems to revolve around the possession of what they describe as a nuclear deterrent and the means to deliver it.

I am pleased that we have the opportunity today to discuss such concerns and commend the continued interest shown by members of the all-party parliamentary group on North Korea, which has promoted the debate. Hard information on North Korea’s human rights is difficult to come by. Human rights organisations, including the United Nations, are denied access. Nevertheless, often through the bravery of individual North Koreans risking their lives and those of their families, a picture of serious and widespread abuse has emerged over the years.

Torture and the death penalty are in regular use. There are horrifying reports of inhumane treatment, including forced abortions and infanticide. Religious persecution appears systemic. Arbitrary detention and
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forced labour in prison camps is common. A so-called offender may find that three generations of his or her family suffer the same fate for the alleged offence. North Korea’s penal code allows the death penalty for ill-defined crimes, such as counter-revolutionary activity. The judiciary has no independence and the legal system has no transparency.

We have seen a recent much-publicised example in Mr. Son Jong Nam, who was charged with alleged treason. The United Kingdom and its European Union partners have been pressing the North Korean Government to halt the scheduled execution of a man whose crime appears to have been to have met his brother outside North Korea. The country has ratified four of the major United Nations human rights conventions—the international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights, the international covenant on civil and political rights, the convention on the rights of the child and the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. However, North Korea has yet to make any commitment in respect of slavery, trafficking in humans, refugees and migration. Although it has signed those covenants, there is no evidence of its respecting the concept and principles contained in them.

North Korean refugees impact heavily on the surrounding region. Large numbers seek refuge in China from destitution or persecution in North Korea. Estimates vary, but there may be up to 100,000 North Koreans in China’s border provinces at any one time. They risk arrest by the Chinese authorities and forcible repatriation to North Korea, where punishment for leaving without permission may include the death penalty. We regularly urge China to allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees access to the border region and to observe its obligations under the 1951 Refugee convention. South Korea, on the other hand, is ready to accept North Korean refugees. Approximately 8,000 have settled there. The numbers have increased in recent years. The North Koreans have found their way to other countries in the region, including Thailand, Burma, Mongolia, Laos and Vietnam.

The United Kingdom and the international community continue to press the North Koreans to co-operate with the United Nations and allow international monitors, human rights organisations and experts to investigate many allegations. The North Korean response has been to claim that the reports are fabricated by the west to provide us with a stick with which to beat them.

I wish to set it on record that our interest is to see improvement in human rights in North Korea. We have no hidden agenda. We believe that our concerns can be resolved. The North Korean Government simply need to seek co-operation with the international community rather than confrontation.

We have maintained an embassy in the country since 2001. Our staff are working in difficult conditions. We have been able to raise our concerns with North Korean authorities at a senior level. It took some time to persuade North Korea of the need to engage in human rights at a ministerial level.

In September 2004, the then Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), visited Pyongyang. He pressed hard, both on matters of
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principle and on several specific and particularly troubling cases. The North Korean Government did not refuse to contemplate the steps that my hon. Friend was urging on them. However, over time, it has become clear that they have not yet taken the decision to engage on those matters of concern to the United Kingdom and the international community.

In July 2004, Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn was appointed as the UN special rapporteur on North Korean human rights. North Korea has refused to acknowledge either him or the UN resolution that appointed him. He has nevertheless been able to compile reports which set out in detail the many allegations and reports of abuse. They make chilling reading.

On behalf of the Government and all hon. Members, I was able to thank the special rapporteur personally when I met him briefly at the opening session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday of this week. I invited him to London at his earliest convenience. I hope that his diary will permit him to take up the invitation soon. If it does, we will arrange for him to brief interested Members from both sides of the House, including those present here today, on his work as special rapporteur. We will invite him to meet and discuss his perspective on developments in North Korea with non-governmental organisations and other interested religious groups

In 2005, during the EU-led activity on North Korea by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, another resolution was adopted by an increased majority. North Korea has failed to respond. The EU therefore decided, under the UK presidency, to raise the matter in the United Nations General Assembly. A resolution was adopted here in December 2005.

The North Korean Government have so far rejected that clear criticism of its human rights record by the General Assembly. The regime continues to insist that the subject of human rights in North Korea is solely the concern of the United States and a few European countries, including the United Kingdom. The vote in the General Assembly suggests otherwise—88 voted in favour of the EU resolution and 21 against. I am amazed that 21 countries were prepared to vote against it.

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): The Minister may not have to hand a list of those 21 countries, but are the British Government able to influence and put pressure on them to see the full seriousness of the situation in North Korea?

Mr. McCartney: Yes, I will set out what we have been doing and what we intend to do in my speech. The establishment of the new Human Rights Council this week provides an opportunity. I thank the hon. Member for that question and will come to that point in a minute.

We remain hopeful that North Korea will reflect more carefully on the significance of the General Assembly’s actions. UN resolutions, both General Assembly ones and those issued by UN human rights bodies are useful tools and have an important role to play in extreme cases of human rights violations such as we have seen in North Korea. However, our hand
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has been strengthened this week with the establishment of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which has succeeded the Commission for Human Rights. The council’s procedures will provide more tools for applying pressure to regimes such as that of North Korea. Countries with better relationships with the regime than ours will be able to use their influence behind the scenes more effectively. There will be more opportunities for open debate, and a fair and balanced mechanism of universal periodic review will allow council members to identify practical steps to support the human rights of the North Korean people.

This is the nub. So far, the simple, blunt instrument of resolutions, important though they are, has had two effects: first, North Korea has completely ignored the situation and secondly, some of its friends have had the opportunity to say, “We do not agree with motions and resolutions; we’ll do nothing”. Under the proposals, those who do not agree with resolutions in any circumstances now have the responsibility to follow the new principles behind the Human Rights Council and will be able to help North Korea come through the door into the international community, allow NGOs and United Nations bodies in, start working with them on the road to reconciliation with their own citizens and the international community, and develop an approach to human rights— something that it has refused to do so far.

Some of those 21 countries are very close geographically to North Korea or have had a long-term relationship with the regime for other reasons. They now have an opportunity. They no longer have the excuse simply to vote against a motion or resolution, but should be practical and hands-on and use their influence with the regime on behalf of the powerless and voiceless who suffer daily, weekly, monthly and yearly behind the doors of the state.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): I agree with the Minister about the various resolutions and the importance of the Human Rights Council. He rightly flagged up the influence that some countries have with the DPRK regime. With that end in mind, what discussions has he had with the Governments of China, South Korea and Russia?

Mr. McCartney: I shall come to that. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that the issue has made me rather busy since I was appointed. I am not being flippant; I have been busy, and the reason for that is plain. It is not only about the history and the responsibility of any Minister who holds this post but about the growing concern across this House and in the other place at the systematic information coming from religious and other groups about the deteriorating situation.

One aspect of North Korea’s human rights record that is of concern to us is the abduction of foreign nationals, notably the Japanese nationals abducted in the 1970s and 1980s. Some were returned to Japan after 2002, when the North Korean Government admitted to the abductions. However, the fate of others remains unclear. In my meeting with the Japanese Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs in Geneva on Tuesday, I offered to visit the families of some of those abductees when I am next in Japan, I hope in the next couple of months. The Vice-Minister was keen that I should do so—subject, of
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course, to the wishes of the families. In the near future, I shall also visit South Korea, which has similar concerns about abductions of its nationals.

We have done what we can to help. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West pressed the issue during his visit in 2004. Since then, we have worked with Japan and others to ensure that the issue is addressed in the international forums, in which North Korean human rights are increasingly under discussion.

For many years, the international community has provided extensive food aid to North Korea, at one point feeding perhaps a third of the country’s population. In September 2005, the North Korean Government claimed that harvests had improved so much that aid was no longer required. The United Nations and aid agencies did not share that view. Nevertheless, the World Food Programme was obliged by the North Korean Government to shut down most of its operations in December last year.

Given those circumstances, the United Kingdom also had to suspend further funding. We stand ready to resume humanitarian assistance if and when the North Korean Government are willing to accept it and the monitoring that must go with it to ensure effectiveness and accountability and that the food goes to those who require it.

Last month, the World Food Programme resumed some of its activities on a much-reduced scale. It remains to be seen how effective that will be. Concerns obviously remain that not enough food is reaching vulnerable groups, including small children and the elderly.

Relations between the United Kingdom and North Korea are bound to be constrained while such major concerns remain. Human rights are not the only concern. North Korea’s nuclear weapons programmes and missile development also stand in the way. The nuclear weapons programmes are a serious violation of its obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and its International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards agreement, as well as of commitments undertaken in agreements with the United States and South Korea.

Six-party talks, involving the US, China, South Korea, Japan, Russia and North Korea, have been under way since 2003 to try to resolve the issue, under energetic Chinese leadership. I discussed the issue of North Korea with the Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister in Geneva on Tuesday, and with the Chinese ambassador yesterday. North Korean engagement with the six-party talks has been frustratingly sporadic, and the talks are currently stalled as North Korea refuses once more to return to the table.

In September 2005, North Korea signed up to a joint statement of the six parties to the talks, in which it undertook to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes and to return, at an early date, to the non-proliferation treaty and International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. The United Kingdom and the international community expect that undertaking to be honoured without further prevarication.

It should be obvious to North Korea that it has nothing to gain from a nuclear weapons programme. We hope that it will step back from that misguided path, and devote its energies to restoring life to a shattered economy and hope and dignity to a despairing population.

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Finally, to answer the question put to me by the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), I have spoken twice to the Chinese and once to the Japanese, and will be visiting the region in the next few weeks. I have yet to speak to a Russian counterpart, but that will happen too. I have also answered a parliamentary question. That will appear on the Order Paper in the next day or so.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Is the Minister to have any discussions with the South Koreans? Times Online reports that South Korea sent 350 tonnes of fertiliser and 500 tonnes of rice last year—when North Korea had a relatively good harvest—but its spokesperson, Yang Chang-seok said that if North Korea were to test-fire a missile, that would have an impact on rice and fertiliser aid. The firing of missiles will have a real effect on the lives of the people of North Korea. Can the Minister comment on that?

Mr. McCartney: I shall be visiting South Korea in the coming weeks as part of my regional engagement. Meanwhile, I have almost daily contact with departmental officials both in the countries concerned and back here, and constant contact with the Governments of all the countries that will be most affected by any missiles that are launched.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that quite the most egregious human rights abuses are perpetrated by this bestial regime, and that access even to the most basic services is determined by the Government on the strength of their assessment of citizens’ loyalty to the state, and that the Government of the DPRK is not a signatory to the International Criminal Court, can the Minister tell us what levers are available for the international community to pull, beyond continued passing of resolutions and very laudable and justified attempts at negotiation?

Mr. McCartney: That is a fair question. The establishment this week of the United Nations Human Rights Council means that we will have the capacity over the next few weeks to obtain agreement on a range of tools not hitherto available. The only tool that we have had in the past has been resolutions. Some resolutions are won, some are lost, but in reality, in the case of the North Korea, they have little or no practical effect. What can and should have effect, if agreement is reached on the work programme of the new council, is the potential for countries that are close to it—either geographically or in terms of long-term relationships—to work with it. Such countries could pressurise North Korea to allow access to the United Nations and to a professor whom I have asked to come to the United Kingdom and who is waiting to work in North Korea. Alongside that, logistical support goes into providing a programme of work to allow the Government of North Korea to start reversing the process of attacking their own citizens and creating a climate to introduce proposals for a fair, open, accessible and independent legal system and all the panoply of a normal democratic state.

I gave the example of Nepal in my speech to the new Human Rights Council on Tuesday. Huge strides have been made in Nepal because it agreed to allow the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, other
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agencies and non-governmental organisations to come in and work with it. A lot remains to be done, but what has happened is dramatic; dramatic change is taking place and we now see a common approach within the country, where we can assess the move to democratic accountability, deal with issues of conflict and provide conflict resolution.

Along with the United Nations, we are now introducing a transparent process of demilitarisation involving the Maoists and the state. The Maoists are coming in from the conflict to work with the state. The state is refurbishing every democratic aspect, and addressing issues around men, women and children. All of that goes with what we needed to do in Nepal. It has now come back into the international community; indeed, it is now a member of the Human Rights Council. It is possible, working with other countries and the United Nations, and using other tools, for a country to transform itself. Things do not have to be this way in North Korea.

The big issue is that on every occasion so far, North Korea has rebuffed any access, at any level, for any United Nations agency or NGO. Even when people such as ourselves are in the country and we provide the evidence to North Korea, it rebuffs any opportunity to take action that would reduce even in a limited way the abuses against its own people. Why is that? Like most of these countries, it is afraid of its own citizens.

In the 21st century, we are talking about one of the world’s failed Governments, who are so frightened of their own citizens that their citizens are frightened of them. Until we can get the mechanisms in place, countries, some of which I have mentioned, will have an obligation to work with the United Nations to turn their friendship into more than just a friendship. They need to create a practical programme of action so that North Korea begins the process of allowing its citizens to play a full and active part, so that they can to go to bed each night and get up each morning without fear of action being taken against them, their families or their communities.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: In preparation for this debate, either the Minister or his officials doubtless had discussions with our ambassador in the DPRK. Is the Minister satisfied that the Foreign Office knows the full scale of the human rights situation in North Korea, given that there is not a free and fair press? Do we in the west have the full picture of what is going on in North Korea or is even our ambassador denied knowledge of the full extent of it?

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