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22 Jun 2006 : Column 513WH—continued

Mr. McCartney: I do not think that people understand just how closed a society North Korea is. The regime is not just adamant; it takes collective steps at every level to prevent any information from coming out about what happens there. No one knows the full extent of the situation. As I said, we know things because of the undoubted bravery of men and women living in that country who get the information out and because of the flow of refugees, who travel hundreds and thousands of miles and get through. They do that in the knowledge that they will face the death penalty if they are caught and returned. As I said, that applies not just to the refugees but to the generations that are coming up. If a
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man of our age, Mr. Benton, is caught crossing the border, his children and grandchildren will face the same penalty. That is how brutal this regime is.

There is another aspect to the brutalisation. Not for the leadership the food queues or the malnutrition; these people live a very comfortable lifestyle, and they intend to keep it. That is why this week’s decision in Geneva was so important. For the first time in many years, I am hopeful that new tools are available. If states work with us on an international basis, we can start the process of finding out exactly what the level of abuse and human rights violations is. We can then get North Korea to agree to engage with the United Nations and other agencies in a programme to end the abuse and turn the country around.

John Bercow: I am listening with great interest and respect to the Minister. The Prime Minister told me on the Floor of the House that it was only the absence of television cameras that had allowed the State Peace and Development Council in Burma, as well as many other abusive regimes, to escape scrutiny for as long as they had. Might I make a suggestion, however, which is intended not as a substitute for, but as a complement to, the robust multilateral action that the Minister envisages? Given that there is an African peer review mechanism, might there not be something to be said for a similar mechanism in Asia, not instead of robust multilateral action but in addition to it? Are these characters, as we suspect they are, not only afraid of their own people, and contemptuous of the international community, but afraid of their near neighbours?

Mr. McCartney: I will answer that this way. The Human Rights Council can introduce a whole range of different intervention tools, which is why the early discussions are taking place, although not about the specifics of North Korea. The council’s next two meetings in the next few weeks and months will play a critical role in turning the fine words into practical deeds. A great deal of discussion will take place about the periodic reviews and the work programme, as well as about the situation that we face in a number of states, that, prior to the creation of the human rights council, were already subject to growing concern in the United Nations and on which action has been proposed. North Korea is one of those states.

When I go to the region in the next few weeks, one of the key issues that I will talk to Governments about is what they can do collectively to make good use of the Human Rights Council’s new tools of operation. I take on board what the hon. Gentleman says about that, and he is right that we must find ways to ensure that regions take responsibility. The countries in them have economic, social, religious and friendship ties, just as we do, and they must take responsibility in an effective way. Up until now, some regions have ducked out, but there is no excuse for that now—as if there ever was in relation to North Korea. I can only try to be optimistic that we will engage in a different way—not just supporting resolutions, but trying might and main to get the key countries in the region to take steps with their friends in North Korea to make a palpable difference.

2.59 pm

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate. I can say from my own knowledge that the DPRK is
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probably the worst tyranny that the world has seen since the death of Stalin and possibly a few years before that. We in the Chamber can all condemn the tyrannical regime in the DPRK, but it is important for us to think practically about the possibilities open to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in pursuing these matters. I was intrigued by the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), who asked about the knowledge of the British embassy on the ground in Pyongyang. My impression was always that the diplomats in Pyongyang are generally the least knowledgeable people about day-to-day activities in the country, because they are so restricted in what they are able to see.

Mr. McCartney: We need to be clear that we have in this country and other countries some of the brightest and bravest diplomats, men and women, who out of choice go to some of the most difficult regions and postings. We can be assured that they put great effort into building relationships with the regime and also, in difficult circumstances, into maximising information in this regard. I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman of that. That is linked with information that comes from other sources. I gather that all those countries that are interested in making a difference in North Korea talk together. The picture emerges, sadly, through NGOs, religious groups and the bravery, skill and commitment of the people of North Korea themselves.

Mr. Hands: I agree with the Minister on that point. I do not doubt the motives and ability of our staff on the ground, but my question was more one of practicality. There are practical difficulties if one is effectively locked into a compound for almost the entirety of each week, which was the situation as I understood it until recently and is probably still the case. Especially if one also has great difficulty in gaining access to Western media sources, it is difficult to be fully apprised of what is happening on the ground. That was my point. I was not doubting the professionalism of the staff on the ground.

We have seen from the Foreign Office’s own human rights report, as will be familiar to others in the debate, that the situation in the DPRK is unique. Pretty much everything and anything horrible that has ever happened to human beings—almost in the history of humanity—seems currently to be going on in the DPRK. We have stories of abductions and disappearances, arbitrary detention and imprisonment, political executions, routine use of torture, forced abortions and infanticide, political prison camps, extreme religious persecution, chemical experimentation, sanatoriums for non-conformists and so on.

I mentioned that getting information from the DPRK, especially from within, is incredibly difficult. All reports, including reports coming from aid agencies and human rights agencies, have to be welcomed, but we must bear it in mind that nobody can really be more than 50 per cent. certain of what is happening on the ground in that country. Any information that comes out of the country, as the Minister said, is routinely questioned by the DPRK authorities. For example, witness statements of escapees and underground samizdat-style documents have their authenticity questioned by the DPRK. The regime is particularly afraid of photographs and video from within the country.

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A couple of years back a Japanese TV crew had a video—I cannot remember how they obtained it—of a public execution in North Korea. The video, which was unsurprisingly not of a particularly high quality, was routinely denigrated by the North Korean authorities as a forgery. That was despite the evidence being at least strongly—it is impossible to say “overwhelmingly” in any of these cases—in favour of it being genuine.

I know that many photographs, at least, are genuine, because I was the photographer for some of them. I was in the DPRK for 10 days in September 2003. I am sure that others here have been to the country as well. It is a shame that we are not allowed any visual aids in these debates, because some of the things even that I photographed were quite harrowing and frightening. That was on an orchestrated visit, when for every moment of the day, from the moment that one wakes up to the moment that one is returned to the hotel room, one is constantly accompanied by policemen of the state. I have photos of undernourished children who appear to be doing forced manual labour, emaciated farm animals and thousands of people queuing all night—one cannot actually see that on the photo, of course—for trains that seem never to arrive.

I wanted to give a flavour of the DPRK based on my visit as a private tourist. It is very difficult to go to the DPRK as a private tourist. First, it is necessary to go through an agency in Germany—at least, that was the case three years ago. One has to sign all sorts of papers and is subject to all sorts of investigations to check whether one is a journalist: they are very paranoid about journalists, and many categories of people are not allowed in. People are given a choice: they can either go for five, seven or 10 days. I strongly urge anyone thinking of going not to go for the seven or 10-day option. If people really must go, they should go solely under the five-day option. It is necessary to pay quite a lot of money to the regime for the rather dubious privilege of visiting the DPRK.

When I visited in September 2003, the country had been entirely out of bounds to western visitors for six months, due to what one might call the severe acute respiratory syndrome crisis, or scare, depending on one’s point of view. I was one of the first western visitors there for some time, other than diplomats and those from very specific aid agencies. I shall return to the question of human rights in a moment, but it is important to realise that although visitors to the country only get a limited view of it, their view might ironically be better than that gained by our ambassador or other diplomats during the 10 days they are afforded. Again, I am not denigrating the Government’s efforts.

Visitors are accompanied at all times by people loosely called interpreters or guides. It is reasonable to assume, judging from their behaviour, that they are actually intelligence officers, or closely linked to and monitored by them. Visitors have no say over their itinerary, what they are allowed to photograph, their contact with local people or even their contact with the very few other travellers or westerners who may be there. On my trip, I was one of three visitors, and we were accompanied by two interpreters and a driver. The interpreters spoke reasonably good English and, strangely, had been to quite an interesting collection of countries: Germany, Finland, Russia, China, Bulgaria,
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Turkey and the Seychelles. It is reasonable to assume that such travel possibilities are beyond the means, both financial and political, of normal DPRK citizens. I see the Minister nodding.

Given the defections over the years from the DPRK, it can be assumed that these people are absolute, utter loyalists. They go to extreme lengths to prevent travellers from seeing or recording anything that might give a negative impression of the DPRK. For example, it is necessary to get permission for each photograph taken. If visitors want to photograph anything relating to the general living standard or lifestyle in the country, they have to develop the most elaborate ruse for taking it. With good photography equipment, it is possible to tell the guide that one is taking a photograph of something, while taking one of something entirely different.

The guides would organise a shot by going up to the individuals whom one wanted in an otherwise benign photograph—the Juche monument in Pyongyang, for example—and removing them from the background. It was always the individuals who were shabbily dressed—I mean them no disrespect—or appeared in any way not to be in line with DPRK ideology who were removed.

Virtually everything told us by these interpreters or guides during our trip was a demonstrable lie, but appeared to be less of a lie than the propaganda fed to the ordinary citizens. When we went to what might be called a tourist site, a local guide would take us around and the interpreter would translate. The information that the locals were given was truly mind-boggling and even the stuff the interpreters told us seemed reasonable by comparison.

It was possible to get into serious trouble. A friend of mine with whom I was travelling made what he thought was a joking comment about a roadside statue of Kim Il Sung in a raincoat and hat, which was pretty much his standard garb. It happened to be raining, and my friend said, “It is lucky that he is in his raincoat when it is raining,” but that showed grave respect to Kim Il Sung, and my friend was admonished by one of our guides. It is possible to escape from the guides and have a look around, but I would not recommend doing that, as one tends not to make oneself too popular if one does.

In terms of the economy and general standard of living, North Korea is a peculiar combination of the modern and the mediaeval. Hon. Members should bear it in mind that this information is three years out of date, but I have no reason to believe that the situation has improved a great deal since then. The countryside abounds with oxen and carts only a short distance from seemingly prestigious projects such as hydroelectric dams. Next door to a hydroelectric dam, one could see a group of people seemingly building a small dam out of mud with their bare hands, and around the next corner one could see a modern 10-lane highway entirely empty of motor vehicles. It is a country of bizarre contrasts.

Mr. McCartney: Do they have a congestion charge?

Mr. Hands: The Minister makes a fair point. I think it is the last country in the world that would need a
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congestion charge, although one might argue that Ken Livingstone could become quite popular over there with some of his other policies, but that is diverting a little into London politics.

It is interesting that virtually nothing seems to have been built in the DPRK since about the late ’80s. The Ryugyong hotel in Pyongyang—which would have been a prestigious, modern hotel for westerners—has been left uncompleted, and no work has been done on it since about 1990. It is impossible, on a tourist visa, in pretty much any country, but especially in one such as the DPRK, really to get a feel for how the regular citizen is, but one does get a few snapshots.

At times, one’s visit can take on a farcical aspect: one can be totally overfed for the 10 days one is there. One day we were given a 10-course meal, while in the next room a lecture was being given by the World Food Programme to people who appeared to be local dignitaries. Of course, we were not allowed to know what the lecture was about. On two or three occasions, we were taken to restaurants in Pyongyang, which was a surreal experience because there was nobody else in the restaurant—just us being given quite reasonable food—but one was always concerned about what ordinary people were getting, especially given the reports. At no point were we able to view a food outlet, despite numerous requests to our interpreters.

The quality of life in Pyongyang was noticeably much higher than that in other cities and in villages. When I say that, I refer to people’s general appearance and whether they looked to be well fed. There was no way that one could actually talk to any of the citizens. The reports from various western sources that only the most loyal members of the regime are allowed to live in Pyongyang seemed to be correct. If one looks around one can see that anybody like the elderly or young is ruthlessly taken out; pregnant women are taken off the streets. I heard about that before going into the country and was slightly sceptical, but in the 10 days that I was there, I did not see a single pregnant woman on the streets of Pyongyang.

All kinds of other curiosities, which we do not have time to go into, abound in the countryside, such as strange, uninhabited watchtowers above the fields. The interpreters told us that they were to prevent farmers’ crops from being stolen, which I thought might, for once, have been some honesty from them. It is a country of energy shortages and power cuts.

I thought it important to get into the debate some atmosphere about the country, because it is a most bizarre place to go to. One can drive around on uninhabited highways on land that has been turned into long, totally flat stretches to make the highways. It is quite clear that the main purpose behind anything that seems to work properly or well is purely for military purposes. It is not a particularly fortunate parallel, but the Swiss have a similar policy of turning highways into runways.

John Bercow: My hon. Friend said that he did not see pregnant women in the streets during his visit. Is it not part of the hypocrisy of the regime that although it has ratified the United Nations women’s convention, it does not adhere in any sense to the letter or the spirit of it? Is it not the case that women who are in detention,
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including pregnant and elderly women, are forced to work from early in the morning until late at night in the rice fields and in prison factories?

Mr. Hands: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. That is certainly so. Ironically, despite the fact that the DPRK has signed various United Nations conventions on the treatment and equality of women, it is almost certainly the worst country in which to be a woman. It is an appalling regime in which to be a woman, but the infanticide, the forced abortions and the labour that has to be carried out make it truly horrendous.

I wish to mention a couple of other points. First, Christians are receiving harsher treatment than others; they are suffering torture and execution as a direct consequence of their faith. Secondly, returning to the subject of women, there is growing concern about the organised trafficking of women across the border into China for marriage or prostitution, a subject that was raised in an early-day motion late last year.

The Minister said that 100,000 DPRK nationals are to be found in the Chinese border provinces, and I have seen reports of 200,000, but many are essentially persona non grata. They are not wanted by the Chinese, and the DPRK would like to get hold of them again. They face a terrible fate if they ever return, and their families are already being punished.

I have information showing that although there are 200,000 such people in the border areas of China, only 6,000 have made it to South Korea. One might want to ask the Chinese about their approach to the problem. China is not unique in having to deal with a large refugee flow from a neighbouring country. It may have no particular responsibility for it, although one could argue that it has influence. Nevertheless, I wonder what the Chinese are doing with those people and why only 6,000 have reached South Korea, which is their country of ultimate choice.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I hope to make some more of this point later, but China regularly repatriates people to North Korea. It knows only too well what will happen to those people, and it picks particularly on Christians, who receive the most heinous treatment. It is not good enough for the Chinese to say that it is not their problem. It is their problem and at the very least they could allow those people to stay in China and not repatriate them to North Korea.

Mr. Hands: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Is his constituency pronounced “Strowd” or “Strewd”?

Mr. Drew: It is “Strewd”. Don’t start me on that.

Mr. Hands: Okay. The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point about the attitude of the Chinese. I would be interested to hear from the Minister. I would also like to hear how he handles conversations with regimes such as China, which have a poor human rights record. Compared to the DPRK, one might say that it has an almost exemplary record, but how does one criticise China’s human record at the same time as that of the DPRK?

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