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22 Jun 2006 : Column 525WH—continued

Detention takes various forms. In North Korea, it may involve incarceration, but more often than not involves forcing people to what I would call hidden
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parts of the country, where they undertake the most physical of work and almost certainly disappear without recognition, so that we never know what has happened to them. The prisons are renowned for being overcrowded and they always operate a very strong work regime. As the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham said, the treatment of prisoners meets none of the conventions. There are forced rations and cruel treatment for those who do not behave as the regime wishes. People are pushed out of the main centres to so-called detention settlement camps, where they are kept out of mischief, so to speak, by being used in all sorts of ways including for very physical labour.

As I said, human experimentation was the basis of the Olenka Frenkiel programme of about three years ago. That was frightening because there was no way for the world to bring pressure, notwithstanding my right hon. Friend the Minister’s discussions during his visits. The most alarming thing is that we are unable to do much about the issue because North Korea is such a closed society. If it was a question of exposing the practice within the country itself and getting people to take action to stop it from happening, that would be appropriate. Sadly, that is impossible, so all our evidence is second-hand, although I have met people who say that their families have been subjected to experimentation, which is justified on the basis that it is about trying to discover new medicines and new ways of using chemicals. We all know that it is about something else.

Execution is commonplace in North Korea and used for all sorts of reasons. It is used as a threat, and people are held on death row for considerable periods. Execution is a very haphazard process, with the sentence sometimes being carried out years after the individual was convicted of an offence.

My main concern is the lack of religious freedom. As far as I am concerned, Christians are the most vulnerable group. Just as in China Falun Gong seems to be the major opponent of the regime, for some reason the DPRK has fastened on to the notion that Christians have become the major power group opposing the regime and those who are most likely to want to replace it. There is no evidence of that; no one has been able to bring to my attention attempts by Christians to mobilise in such a way that they could even demonstrate, let alone to organise more effectively to threaten the regime. It is unclear why the Christian community is so disadvantaged, but anyone who knows anything about North Korea will be able quickly to identify all sorts of ways in which Christians have been discriminated against and worse.

John Bercow: Will the hon. Gentleman agree, and underline, that the rights of Christians should properly concern us all, irrespective of whether we are Christians and of whether we have a religious affiliation? Should not the denial of women’s rights be a matter of concern to men, the denial of the rights of ethnic minorities be a matter of concern to those who do not belong to one, and the denial of the rights of gays be a matter of concern those who are not gay? On precisely the same principle, the denial of the rights of Christians should properly preoccupy us all. It is not a minority concern.

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Mr. Drew: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. As a Christian, I make no apology for taking up the cause of Christians abroad. However, to be fair to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, my dealings with the organisation have made it absolutely clear to me that it works for repressed minorities—Christian or not—which is why I am always happy to be associated with it. As an organisation, it is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it indifferent to people’s beliefs. It will take up the issue of those abroad who are being repressed.

I know that the hon. Member for Buckingham does not just speak the language; he genuinely believes that that is what we should all be doing. Debates such as this are useful because they enable us to take up such points because we have a direct belief in what we are doing, or because we are representing those who have no voice. Christian Solidarity Worldwide describes itself as the voice for the voiceless. We are discussing those who are more voiceless than any, which is why it is so important that we can argue their case.

The regime takes such a hard line on both abortion and infanticide. Sadly, it is common in the country for women to be forced to have abortions; children are also taken away. If women are forced to have an abortion or their children are taken away, those with religious beliefs suffer particular issues of conscience and loss of responsibility. I am not saying that any mother or father would be affected less, but the fact that such matters are well reported, well documented frequent events is something that needs to be highlighted and which must never be ignored.

There is little evidence that the regime is improving. There is no evidence that it is getting worse, which is something, I suppose. The fact that there is some engagement, including in this place, is a positive sign, but I fear that the wider issues relating to the potential nuclear threat will result in our attention being taken from something on which we should always spend our time. The title of today’s debate is crucial—it focuses on the human rights situation. We can talk about macro-power politics and we shall do so, but it is important that this afternoon we have talked about the human rights of people who have no voice and who have no opportunity to make the position known themselves. Some people have escaped, but they live continually in fear because of what will happen to their relatives if their whereabouts are discovered.

The debate has been useful. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister can take from the Chamber the fact that, when he meets the various different players, there is a strength of feeling that we want the regime to be put under pressure. We want it to change and we want the people to come to expect a degree of fairness in treatment that so far has always been denied them.

3.53 pm

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): I am grateful to you for calling me to speak, Mr. Benton. I wish to observe a normal dictum that I have learned during the cold war: the more the country protests its credentials in its title, the more likely it is to be tyrannical. I shall not therefore during the debate refer to the country in question as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, on the basis that that is an entirely inaccurate
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title, whereas North Korea sums up more accurately the reality of the position—at least because it is further north than South Korea.

John Bercow: When I was first taking an interest in politics in my early teens, I asked my father, whom I fear the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) would have regarded as an incorrigible cold war warrior, why the German Democratic Republic was so called. My late father—as he now is—succinctly replied, “Ah, son, it is called that precisely because it isn’t.”

Mr. Browne: Indeed. That was the point that I was making. In most countries that have respect for their own citizens, that is self-evident to anybody who chooses to observe the countries that the hon. Gentleman is describing. If they must proclaim such things in their title, that tells people much more than I suspect their rulers are aware of themselves.

I want to make a couple of observations about people who spoke before me. I give great credit to the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), who is a regular attender of debates on countries in far-flung parts of the world and is extremely well informed about a great number of them. The debate was considerably enhanced by his observations and the relating of the experiences from his visit three years ago to North Korea. Throughout his fairly lengthy speech he kept protesting that he needed to speed up and that he was doing the Chamber a disservice by delaying us unduly, but he was mistaken in that assumption. I would have been more than happy to hear him talk at greater length about his experiences, because I thought his contribution was extremely enlightening and added greatly to our ability to understand the situation in North Korea.

I am, by instinct, a reasonably consensual figure in politics. I thought that today’s debate was likely to be an entirely consensual one. If I had to pick a subject on which I thought it most likely that every Member of a democratically elected House in a liberal-minded country was likely to agree, it would be human rights in North Korea. I could not envisage there being any scope for even nuanced disagreement in our willingness to condemn the situation.

I do this with a degree of reluctance, but I must say that I was genuinely shocked by some of the tone of the speech by the hon. Member for Halifax. I do not doubt her honourable intentions, but I do not think that any Member who chooses to examine these matters rationally can equate in any way the behaviour and conduct of the United States of America, which, after all, is a country that was born on respect of individual rights and on the citizen’s having a pre-eminence over the state, with the behaviour of the current regime in North Korea.

I understand that some people have grave reservations about the current Government of the United States, and I share some of them, but for what it is worth I strongly advise the hon. Lady that in this House we must be extremely cautious about giving any succour to, or seeking to excuse in any way, the conduct of North Korea, however uncomfortable we may feel with some of the other countries, such as the United States, that have a direct interest in matters in the Korean peninsula. We would send out a mixed and dangerous message from this House if that were not the case.

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The other point that I wish to touch on is the nuclear weapons issue. I do so briefly because it is not strictly speaking within the subject of today’s debate.

Mr. McCartney: I just want to say that I raised that issue because the North Koreans continually use the nuclear issue as an excuse not to debate human rights and as a way of deflecting from their appalling human rights record. They refuse to tackle it on the basis that the question of human rights represents an undermining of their internal security.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the Minister, because that was precisely the basis on which I was going to touch briefly on this subject. Although nuclear weapons are in many respects a separate issue from human rights, one cannot divorce the two completely, not least because North Korea and its regime have far more pressing concerns than developing a nuclear capacity, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham and others said.

Other hon. Members spoke at some length about the violations of human rights in North Korea. I do not wish to repeat everything that they have said, but it is worth momentarily dwelling on some of those violations. There is no freedom of the press in North Korea, which is a situation familiar to many millions of people the world over. However, as in other regards, the North Korean situation is particularly extreme. All televisions and radios are fixed so that they can show only state channels. There is an oppressive desire on the part of the regime to ensure that nobody is able to adjust his transmitter in any way to receive any other message. The point was made earlier in this debate that it is hard to know what is happening in a country. We are often frustrated here about inaccuracies in the media. In fact, however, we owe them a debt. One forgets how little one would know without the information that comes from the media. It is difficult for people in North Korea to have a sense of the regime under which they live when the only contact that they are able to have is by word of mouth with people immediately around them. Even then, they have to be extremely cautious about whom they speak to and on what terms.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) spoke eloquently and passionately about the absence of religious freedom, and the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) made the excellent and strong point that we should all be concerned by the oppression of minorities, even if we are not ourselves members of those minorities. Others have also spoken at great length about systems of detention, the conditions in prisons, torture, and the use of the death penalty, including in public places.

The situation is as bad as that anywhere in the world. It should cause all of us great concern. However, some would say that, in some circumstances, one can trade off human rights for an efficient, well run state. I do not agree, but I can see the point. An interesting moral question is arising in countries such as China, where we are embarking on an experiment in economic liberalisation while there is, in many regards, an absence of political liberalisation. The improvement in the living standards of many people in China is not yet accompanied by the
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quality of life in other respects that we take for granted in western countries. That is not the case in North Korea. There is no trade-off. Not only is the situation, in terms of human rights and civil liberties, atrocious by anybody’s standards, but the living standards and economic well-being of the people of North Korea—I hesitate to call them citizens, on the basis that they enjoy no benefits of citizenship—are also woeful.

One can attribute the levels of hunger there partly to deliberate political malice or to incompetent administration. However, as I understand it, of the 24 million or so people who live in North Korea, roughly half do not have enough food—that is a failed state by any standards—and approximately a third are malnourished by the criteria that are used by international agencies to measure shortage of food. As the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham mentioned, in the late 1990s, approximately—we are likely never to know an exact number—1 million people died in the famine in North Korea. We are considering a country with an appalling human rights record and an appalling economic record, which ought to give us great cause for concern.

I want to touch on four matters that I hope the Minister will address. Perhaps they will point the way forward in some way. The great difficulty that we have is that we can all regret, or even express fury at, the absence of human rights, but it is always easier to talk about that than it is to do anything about it. In that respect, one has sympathy with the Minister and the officials at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The first matter is the United Nations, which the Minister mentioned in his opening remarks. It struck me, which is why I intervened at the time, as absolutely extraordinary that 21 countries were less than emphatic in their condemnation of the North Korean Government. I was not previously aware of that figure.

It seems to me that as a basic starting point we have to try to ensure that there is as much consensus, preferably unanimity, in the international community as possible. The regime should be confronted in every single way with its own despotic tendencies. If we cannot even get other countries to agree to that proposition, we have a long way to travel. It puts us in a difficult, invidious position if we are seen as western countries preaching our values to countries in Asia or elsewhere. We must be cautious to avoid that trap and to make it evident to North Koreans and others that such values are universal and not solely western European or north American.

Mr. McCartney: It is encouraging that on each occasion when we have returned to the United Nations, more countries have joined the banner—not just countries with so-called western values but countries around the globe. Large countries, small countries, emerging countries, least developed and developed countries, and those with emerging economies have made a single commitment to assist North Korea into the international fold and provide its citizens with the rights that we take for granted.

Mr. Browne: I am grateful to the Minister for making that intervention and indicating to the House that progress is being made on the matter. The concept of an international community, and the ability of the international community to resolve the difficulties that
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confront humanity as a whole, is severely tested by such a case. If we cannot reach consensus on progress toward dealing with human rights abuses in North Korea, it is hard to see what subjects we will be able to achieve consensus on.

The hon. Member for Buckingham raised the second of my four points in an intervention. It is about peer review by Asian neighbours, and it is an extension of my first point. Although I hope and believe that Britain ought to give moral leadership in world affairs, I still think that it is probably beneficial in many parts of the world for the greatest pressure to be exerted on rogue states by their immediate neighbours—people with whom they might feel the greatest sense of compatibility. There is merit in the argument that other Asian countries should judge North Korea closely and with the high degree of scrutiny that we would wish. That might have a greater impact on the Government and people of North Korea than if the message were delivered by people from western Europe or Europe as a whole.

My third point is about China. I touched earlier on an interesting moral dilemma: to what degree do we co-operate with a country whose human rights record is far from perfect in order to engage with and improve a country whose human rights record is even worse and more atrocious? It is a difficulty that diplomats in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office face all the time, because there are very few countries, if the total number is considered, which we could say with absolute comfort and certainty that we are happy to deal with. I spoke earlier about the admiration that I have for the United States in many regards, but large numbers of states in that country still use the death penalty, of which I strongly disapprove. There are moral dilemmas and no moral certainties in diplomacy and world affairs. We must be pragmatic—try to ensure that we make progress and not make perfection the enemy of improvement.

In his closing remarks, will the Minister deal in greater length with his relations with the Chinese Government and Chinese Minister? He has already spoken on the subject, but the hon. Member for Stroud raised concerns about the actions of the Chinese Government. China is a huge power: 1.3 billion people, a growth rate of about 10 per cent. and increasing economic power. It is a country respected around the world, and it ought to be able to exercise leverage within the Asian continent. I hope that the Chinese will give a lead in improving the situation in North Korea.

My final point is that I should be interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on the United States Government’s approach to North Korea. The President of the United States famously described North Korea as one of the three members of the axis of evil. The current United States Secretary of State has also identified North Korea as a country about which she is particularly concerned in the context of world affairs.

I do not think anybody is seriously—at least at this stage in the British Government—contemplating military action against North Korea, although if I am wrong in that regard I should be grateful for clarification from the Minister. None the less, the United States seems to be enthusiastic in taking a proactive part to ensure that liberal values are spread around the world, and has taken to inspecting North Korea closely and putting pressure on the regime there.
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I should be interested to hear the Minister’s views on the extent to which he thinks that there is compatibility of interest between the positions of Britain and the United States on North Korea, and on where he thinks that there are areas of departure in approach between the two countries.

We may all disagree on how to achieve a better world for the 6 billion or so people who live in it. There are often no perfect solutions, but there is a fair degree of consensus in the House on foreign policy subjects such as this. We regularly discuss parts of the world that are in desperate circumstances, and they are a reminder to us of how fortunate we are in the United Kingdom to live in a country where we enjoy freedom of the press, free elections, a free judiciary, free religious practice and all the other freedoms that one associates with tolerant liberalism.

Because we benefit from and enjoy such privileges, it is our duty to shine a strong searchlight on countries where the features of everyday life that we take for granted do not exist. There cannot be a better example of such a country than North Korea, and so there cannot be a worthier subject for debate in this Chamber than how to improve the circumstances of the people who live there.

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