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22 Jun 2006 : Column 519WH—continued

Mr. McCartney: We have to be frank. We have to build a personal relationship. We have an excellent relationship with the Chinese at every level, and we use our growing friendships to be frank and to try to
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engage on such issues in a practical way. When I met the ambassador and the Vice Foreign Minister this week, I was frank and open; they quite respect having someone behave in that way with them. In answer to the hon. Gentleman, we will have to keep asking the Chinese to let the UN High Commissioner for Refugees into the border areas.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in saying that I gave an estimate. At any time, the number may be higher than that. The difficulty is that until the high commissioner is allowed access to the border area between China and North Korea, I can give only an approximation. Whatever the number, we know that those who seek to cross the border are in deadly danger.

Mr. Hands: I thank the Minister for that intervention and those reassurances, which will be helpful in all discussions with the Chinese.

Finally, I wish to discuss briefly one aspect of human rights under the DPRK regime that is peculiar and possibly unique to it, and that is the use of the food supply to deny people their basic human rights. Regrettably, everything I have said so far has probably happened before in human experience—there is no doubt that interfering with the food supply has—but the DPRK has taken barbaric means to control its population through food.

As I mentioned earlier, any visitor to the country will notice the contrast between Pyongyang and the rest of the country. Bear it in mind that even as a visitor one is allowed to go to only 10 or 20 per cent. of the rest of the country. One can only imagine what it is like, for example, in the far north around the borders with China. That area is strictly and totally out of bounds for all visitors.

It is well known—the Minister referred to this—that about 1 million people, or 5 per cent. of the population, died in the famines in the DPRK in the mid to late 1990s. The estimates vary, but those are reliable estimates—it may have been fewer people or rather more. What is less well known is that the authorities used the deliberate withdrawal of food as a means of political and religious oppression.

One of the odd features about the DPRK that has attracted some comment from Human Rights Watch in particular is the way that food is distributed through the PDS, or public distribution system, which is totally a command economy way of administering food and has been nothing short of disastrous in terms of ensuring that food reaches people. During and towards the end of the famine, it seemed—as with most things to do with North Korea, one always has to preface comments with “it seemed”, as nobody can be entirely sure—that the rules of the PDS were relaxed somewhat and limited market forces were allowed to take hold. People were allowed to travel within small areas to small markets. Obviously, almost by definition, one has to travel to a market.

Regrettably, since 2005, it seems that all the market forces that were coming in have been reversed. The World Food Programme has been expelled and it seems that North Korea is going back to the old PDS. The report that WFP published just before it was expelled in 2005 showed that following the full return of the PDS, some households that it surveyed were receiving
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far less than the average target ration of 500 g per person per day, which is an amount that nutritional experts regard as the minimum to maintain a normal level of health. As Human Rights Watch stated:

Although the environment and the general poverty of the country certainly contributed to the famine, a critical factor has been the Government’s willingness to sacrifice the rights and lives of those whom they perceive as disloyal or class enemies, such as the families of defectors, dissidents and so on. I was planning to read some eye-witness accounts from Human Rights Watch, which put out an excellent publication on the use of food in the DPRK as a means of political restriction, but time is moving on.

As I said, it has been reported that the PDS was reinstated in full on 19 August 2005. That will lead to more food disasters and repression. It appears that grain markets have been banned again since October 2005. What is important in the human rights context is that food rationing has been the single most important way of controlling the population in North Korea. Different ration levels are set according to age, but most importantly according to one’s loyalty to the regime. That must make it the most fundamentally pernicious regime today—the word “bestial” used by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) is right. If any of us had the choice of speaking out politically, or on any topic, and having our food supply cut off, we would find that very difficult.

The restrictions brought about by abolishing the small markets seem to have been a means to regain political control over the population. That is the strong feeling coming from escapees from North Korea. The small markets that were set up allowed a certain amount of social interaction across the country, which the DPRK regime strongly condemned. The regime has even made the official admission that prisoners—by which I think common criminals are meant—get a far lower daily ration of food than the regular population. I do not think that anyone in this House would say that common criminals should have the same privileges as the rest of us, but nevertheless a daily ration of 200 g of food, compared with the official ration of 700 g for regular workers, strikes me as being the thin end of the wedge of severe repression.

I expect that all the hon. Members taking part in the debate will have seen repressive and horrible regimes at first hand. I have certainly seen a few. However, none of those other regimes of the recent past or present has anything on the regime currently in full sway in North Korea, where people are deliberately starved to death because of their political views or, even more bizarrely, because of the views of a member of their family at two generations’ remove. There can be nothing in the world today as evil, bestial or beastly as the regime in North Korea, or the DPRK.

3.27 pm

Mrs. Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab): I, too, welcome the debate. For far too many people the DPRK is a far-off country of which they know little. As the Minister said, North Korea is a country where aspects
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of the human rights situation give rise to serious concerns. Reputable human rights organisations such as Amnesty International have documented those concerns well, as they have for other countries.

It would be regrettable and counterproductive if Her Majesty’s Government were to confine our relations with the DPRK to megaphone diplomacy, but I welcome the Minister’s remarks. It would be worse still if we were to lay ourselves open to the charge of cynically flagging up human rights as a means to put pressure on North Korea in its disputes with the United States. Whatever the reason for the debate, it is clear that if isolation, criticism, pressure and blockade by the west could achieve positive change in Korea, we have had more than 50 years to enable that policy to succeed.

Mr. McCartney: On a point of information, it is the regime that has isolated itself from the international community, rather than the international community isolating the regime. The international community is desperate to end that isolation, so that we can help to restore normal rights to the citizens.

Mrs. Riordan: I thank my right hon. Friend for those comments, and hope that we shall continue to give that engagement a chance. I recently had a constructive exchange of views with Ambassador Ri Yong Ho of the DPRK and found him to be very concerned about the threat of war on the Korean peninsula and deeply anxious to find ways to improve his country’s relations with the United Kingdom.

For the people of North Korea the horrors and memories of war are very real. After all, combined North Korean and Chinese casualties in the conflict of 1950 to 1953 are estimated at 3.8 million. General MacArthur proposed to drop some 50 atomic bombs on North Korea and north-east China. As that was just a few years after the atomic incineration of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it could not be considered an idle threat. Indeed, the then Labour Government dispatched the Foreign Secretary to Washington urgently to dissuade the Americans from that course of action.

Since 1999, South Koreans have lodged complaints with the Seoul Government about more than 60 alleged large-scale killings of refugees by the US military in the 1950-53 conflict. The army report of 2001 acknowledged that investigators had learned of other, unspecified civilian killings, but said that they would not be investigated. No wonder Ambassador Ri said, “Nothing can be worse than a war. We know what a war is like.”

Mr. Jeremy Browne: Will the hon. Lady reassure hon. Members that she is not drawing some moral equivalence between the United States, either in the 1950s or today, and the current regime in North Korea?

Mrs. Riordan: That is certainly not the case. The comments by the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) said a lot about the atrocities against women, and I notice that I am the only woman taking part in the debate. I am trying to say that I do not want the threats being made now to be replaced by another war, because it is women and children who usually suffer most in such conflicts. What are the
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Korean people to think when the war against Iraq was prefigured by President Bush’s characterisation of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as the “axis of evil”?

The most important remark that Ambassador Ri made to me in our conversation was, “We are not applying for membership of the nuclear club. We are not seeking a permanent nuclear power status.” That is unlike our country, the United States, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Israel.

As a long-time supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, I am doubtful that nuclear weapons can ever guarantee a country’s security. If the Government want to play a constructive role on the Korean peninsula—as I believe we can—we should help to find ways to end the deadlock in the six-party talks, which represent the only realistic prospect of securing a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.

The Nobel peace laureates said:

In addition, they said:

I commend to the Government that balanced approach.

At the start of the new century, the Government took a bold step to establish diplomatic relations with North Korea. I see that as one of our positive achievements, in which we can take pride. We should build on it, not waste the opportunity that we have created. We should take further steps to enhance channels for dialogue and engagement, such as exchanging students, encouraging investment and trade, and developing dialogue between the politicians of our two countries and the two Governments on human rights and all other issues.

John Bercow: Let me put it like this: I understand the hon. Lady’s aversion to war; I respect her long-standing support for CND, though I do not share it; and I note her opposition to sanctions. That said, and on the premise that she is as passionately committed to respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms as I am, how, in practical terms, does she think that our Government and other Governments can persuade the Government of North Korea to stop abusing their citizens and to start respecting them?

Mrs. Riordan: By encouraging the six-party talks, which have fallen apart. In those talks, agreements were made between the North Koreans, but not by the US. We have to engage in that dialogue again. We should get all the parties sat down together and take it from there. That offers a better framework for resolving the issues that cause us all concern than a confrontational approach, which has singularly failed to work.

3.35 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to take part in this debate. I shall try to keep my remarks brief, partly because I need to leave slightly before the end, for which I apologise to all hon. Members, particularly to Front Benchers and to you, Mr. Benton. No discourtesy is intended, but I have to get a train.

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I understand what my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) says, but it is fair to say that we are dealing with a particularly difficult regime that is not going to work by the normal rules of engagement, although I am always one for dialogue. Unlike the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), I have not had the opportunity to visit North Korea. I know that a visit is planned, but sadly it seems to be at a time when I hope to be leading a delegation to Sudan, which, as the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) knows, is a passion of mine. My knowledge of North Korea may have to remain somewhat distant, although I think that I know something about the regime.

I declare something of an interest, in that about two and a half years ago Christian Solidarity Worldwide asked me to go to Geneva to meet various individuals who had left North Korea. We gave evidence jointly with Olenka Frenkiel, who, as some Members may know, produced a televised report on North Korea, alleging, with a degree of certainty, that the regime uses chemical punishments, gas chambers and the like. That has never been refuted to our satisfaction. In Geneva, we gave evidence to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and it was good to see the number of people who came to talk and to listen.

My right hon. Friend the Minister mentioned that 21 countries voted against the EU resolution. I do not understand how any country can vote against indicting the regime and continuing to put pressure on it until it comes into the common fold of humanity. It should deal with its own people in a more legitimate way and deal with the rest of the world in a way that allows us to begin to have a proper dialogue with it. Anyone who has been reading the papers in the past few days will know that North Korea apparently has a new missile system up and ready to go; that holds some fears for me, if not anyone else in this Chamber. I have asked a parliamentary question on what the Government are doing about that, so I shall not labour the point now, but that question needs to be answered, because we have to recognise that we are dealing with a nuclear power with increasing capacity to launch weaponry. That does not bode well for the future.

Today, however, we are here to discuss human rights. As always, I draw my evidence from those who know, and those who have been there. I am particularly grateful to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which briefed me and which was responsible for me going to Geneva, but I am also grateful to the noble Lord Alton, who has done exceptional work with his team, and who has been responsible for getting a dialogue going. It was interesting; when the all-party group was set up I, for one, thought that it would just pillory the regime and use every opportunity to draw in evidence with which to attack North Korea on whatever grounds it wanted, but to be fair, a dialogue has been started. As a result, Lord Alton and Baroness Cox have been to North Korea on a number of occasions, and in return we have had North Koreans here in Parliament, through the Inter-Parliamentary Union, to talk about parliamentary courtesies. I do not know how far we got in trying to explain our regimes to one another, but we certainly did each other the courtesy of trying to engage. Although at the most superficial level, that was engagement none the less.

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In the time that remains, I want simply to embellish what has already been said. Christian Solidarity Worldwide has made it clear for a long time that North Korea is the most difficult regime with which it deals. Anyone who knows anything about Christian Solidarity Worldwide will know that it goes into the most disadvantaged, dangerous and difficult parts of the world; none the less, the regime in North Korea stands out as the most difficult. Christian Solidarity Worldwide has conducted a lot of research over the years, speaking to émigrés in various countries who have escaped—I use the word “escaped” deliberately—from North Korea, and it continues to lobby on behalf of those who remain and, indeed, those who are threatened with the possibility of having to return because they are in China or another country that threatens to extradite them.

The headlines are precisely as we have heard. The general repression and the way in which North Korean society operates are based on fear, which cows everyone other than those in the fortuitous position of being within the regime or in its pay. What has struck me when I have met people from North Korea is their eternal optimism that things will be better one day and that they will once more be part of humanity. That is what they want. Those people live in a complicated part of the world. I have also met people from South Korean, which is not ideal model of democracy. Eventually, however, the two Koreas will have to undergo some form of realignment, so that there is respect for each other’s peoples and for the democratic principles under which both should operate.

North Korea still works under the cult of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. That makes things difficult, because people who go against the regime also go against the cult of the leadership. They might do that because of their religious inclinations or simply to express their human rights, but when pressure is put on them it is aimed very much at the personal level, and that is often the justification for the way in which they are treated. We have been talking, as the hon. Member for Buckingham says, about bestiality—physical mistreatment of the worst kind—but a lot of the pressure is psychological. People are made to feel that they do not belong and that the fact that they are in prison or in seclusion is entirely due to their inability to exist in the wider community. That, of course, is soul-destroying and completely unacceptable.

The methods of interrogation employed are well known and brutal. People are obviously asked not only to admit guilt, but, above all, to give information. That is one reason why those who are forced back from China—I make no apology for raising this again—are often useful to the regime, which can discover the methods that they used to get out of the country in the first place and try to shut down all the escape routes. That is highly dangerous, not only for the individuals who are repatriated, but for those who might be seeking to escape. As we know, torture is readily used, and that is well documented. There is also an absence of any form of trial.

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