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Margaret Beckett: I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend, who is exactly right. The purpose of
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sanctions being taken against North Korea is to get them to return to the six-party talks and abandon their course of action, and not in some way to punish them for what they have done.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that a failure by the Security Council to impose serious sanctions would send a green light to Iran, suggesting that it could proceed with impunity with its aspirations for nuclear weapons? Does the Secretary of State accept that if the North Korean regime is likely to collapse some time over the next few years, it might be better if it collapsed sooner rather than later, before it could threaten its neighbours with nuclear weapons? Does not this point to very effective sanctions, including oil sanctions, being imposed at this stage?

Margaret Beckett: The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a valid point. As I said to his right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks, the international community will look at the full range of sanctions that are available. I would certainly be reluctant to agree with any proposition that there was anything to encourage the Government of Iran, which I believe has uniquely supported and encouraged North Korea down a similar route. We strongly take the view that this should not be viewed as a green light to anyone, and that the international community must act with resolve. However, it is important to preserve not only that resolve, but international unity.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): North Korea is patently unwise to starve its people for this nuclear weapon, which actually puts the country more at risk rather than less. However, may I say to my right hon. Friend that she has a bit of a blind spot if she does not believe that President Bush’s “axis of evil” speech and the subsequent war against Iraq did anything to encourage North Korea to adopt this course of action? May I also say that although I do not object to sanctions, I am opposed to chapter VII actions that could lead on to military action? Cannot my right hon. Friend see that that would only make matters worse?

Margaret Beckett: I am afraid that my hon. Friend is mistaken in thinking that all this followed on from or was exacerbated by anything that President Bush or anyone else in the international community has said. If I may say so, I believe that it is something of a blind spot when people fail to recognise that this is a road down which North Korea has been treading, for reasons of its own, for a very long time. I understand my hon. Friend’s concern about chapter VII, but the wording refers to a threat to “international peace and security” and I cannot think of a clearer threat to international peace and security than the one that we have just seen.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): Will the Foreign Secretary send the strongest possible message of support to the South Korean Government and President Roh? I have the honour of representing the largest Korean community in the UK, and my
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constituents are desperate to know that the British Government will stand firm with the South Korean Government. Will the right hon. Lady tell President Roh that the UK Government—unlike some people in Washington—in no way consider his sunshine policy of engagement with North Korea to have been at fault?

Margaret Beckett: We very much support the Government of South Korea and fully sympathise with the terrible anxiety that they are feeling. I am sure that it will encourage the hon. Gentleman’s constituents to know that part of the action that the South Korean Government are presently undertaking is, as I said to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, to consult on the widest possible basis and to draw all parties and all former presidents into talks in order to achieve a complete national consensus on how best to deal with what amounts to a very grave threat to South Korea in particular, as well as to others in the neighbourhood.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that there have been two American policies on North Korea? The first, pursued by Madeleine Albright and President Clinton, was one of rapprochement. It included the denuclearisation of the peninsula, and was very successful. Following that came the very damaging policies of President Bush, which wrecked the policies of rapprochement and increased the tension and fears, however ill founded, of North Koreans. It is right that our policies should be robust, but should not they also be intelligent and independent?

Margaret Beckett: I hear what my hon. Friend says, but I have to say that although there may be days when people in the House feel that it is time to have a go at the United States, this is not one of them. If we want to have a go at anybody, let us have a go at North Korea. This is North Korea’s policy, and that country is pursuing it wantonly. As everyone in the House well knows, in the process of spending on its nuclear weapons programme, North Korea is effectively persecuting its own people, who are undergoing terrible suffering. That is not something for which we should be seeking to find any kind of excuse or rationale. The example that I would put forward here as relevant to North Korea is that of Libya, which gave up its nuclear weapons—and quite right, too.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I was just about to ask whether Libya had any lessons for North Korea, in the way in which Britain and the US have behaved to a country that takes a more enlightened view and changes course. Instead, may I ask whether the role of the A. Q. Khan network in supplying nuclear information to North Korea has, in the view of the Department, brought forward the ability of North Korea to carry out that test at this time?

Margaret Beckett: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman if I stole his thunder, or his line; I recognise his experience on these issues. It is hard to answer the question whether the A. Q. Khan network made an appreciable difference to the time scale of what North Korea has been able to do. I can certainly say that the issue of that network and the supplies that it was
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putting out lends strength to our argument that this is something in which North Korea has been engaged for a very long time.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): It was rather shaming to hear that it was the fault of Britain and the United States that the nuclear test took place—the point of view of the Liberal Democrat Front Bench spokesman and some of those on our Back Benches. That really is a new axis of idiocy. We have the big advantage of an embassy in Pyongyang, put in place by the Labour Government in 1998. Will my right hon. Friend pay particular attention to the concerns of Japan and South Korea, which are only a small step away from developing their own nuclear capability unless action is taken against North Korea? May I suggest that the responsible Minister might be dispatched to the three capitals of Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo to report back to the House on these grave developments?

Margaret Beckett: I recognise the point that my right hon. Friend makes about the grave concern felt, especially in South Korea and Japan. I will consider his suggestion, but we may pick up as much in New York about the concerns in those capitals as through visits to them at this point. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks referred to proliferation dangers, one of which is the concern that others in the region will begin to consider their own position. That is something that we must try to avoid at all costs.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): In relation to the United Nations Security Council and the effectiveness of the UN, does the Foreign Secretary endorse the comments by John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN, that this issue would by implication be a test for the UN? Will she give every encouragement to ensure that the UN, in this instance at any rate, acts with both force and unity?

Margaret Beckett: Yes, I accept that this is an issue on which the UN needs to act with unity, but also with strength. That is something that we will try to deliver. Those with many years of experience in such matters have said to me of late that the permanent members of the Security Council are going through a period of what might be described as unusual unity. That is wholly to be welcomed. It is also something to be worked with and strengthened. I may not express matters as ambassador Bolton does, but I share the view that it is important that the UN gets this right.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): In the Government’s view, is the six-party talks process suspended or dead?

Margaret Beckett: It would be a grave error to suggest that the six-party talks are dead. Everyone is trying to encourage North Korea back into the six-party talks, because of the belief that that is the best way to address the range of issues that have been raised for those in the neighbourhood.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): How long does the Foreign Secretary think that it would take for
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the sanctions package that she proposes to get North Korea to give up its weapons in a way that we can verify?

Margaret Beckett: We have not yet finalised the sanctions package, so it is not easy to assess how long it might take to have effect. I suspect that North Korea will not lightly relinquish the course of action that it is pursuing, which is why I said to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks that I think it right for the Security Council to discuss a substantial range of measures. It is also something to bear in mind when a decision is made about what measures are adopted now.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con): During the cold war the nuclear powers agreed a series of memorandums to try to prevent exactly the sort of thing that happened two days ago. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that all current members of the nuclear club are subject to those memorandums? How does she expect to exert some sort of control over North Korea?

Margaret Beckett: No, I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the confirmation that he seeks. Certainly there are memorandums in existence, although I cannot recall the precise network. There might be a slight misunderstanding here. We are not trying to encourage North Korea to sign memorandums and agree to be of good behaviour; rather, we are trying to encourage it back into a process of denuclearisation of the area—that is, to give up and demolish any missiles or weapons that it has developed.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): I have visited the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It is probably the most repressive regime in the world, but the level of opposition there remains quite strong. That is evident in the number of people fleeing the country; in effect, they are voting with their feet. What efforts have the Government made to support opposition groups, both in the country and outside it? Does the Foreign Secretary support regime change in Pyongyang?

Margaret Beckett: Perhaps this is not the right day to dwell on the issue of regime change, but the Government do what we can in North Korea, through relatively small-scale programmes of assistance and support. If the hon. Gentleman’s visit was recent, he may know that the programmes run there by our Department for International Development have been stopped or scaled down because of the difficulty of making sure that they can be monitored properly, given the restrictions on freedom faced by opposition groups, non-governmental organisations and so on. Those restrictions make matters extremely difficult in North Korea, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we continue to try to build good contacts with people of good will where we can.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Does not the nuclear test in North Korea show the strategic foresight of Japan, Australia and South Korea in developing a ballistic missile defence shield? North Korea already has effective missiles, and is trying to develop ones with
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a longer range. Is it not time the House had a debate about the use of a ballistic missile defence shield, as well as about the necessary diplomacy and sanctions mentioned today?

Margaret Beckett: That is a very interesting question—and I am sure that my colleague the Secretary of State for Defence has heard it.

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Iraq and Afghanistan Update

3.57 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I should like to start by expressing my deepest condolences to the families and friends of the brave servicemen who have lost their lives since I last spoke to the House on 24 July. Five soldiers have died in operations in Iraq, all of them killed in action. Twenty seven personnel from all three services have died in Afghanistan, with 11 killed in action and 16 lost in other incidents, including those killed in the RAF Nimrod crash on 2 September. Others have been wounded, and our thoughts should be with them also.

I turn first to Iraq. The House will be aware of the escalation of sectarian violence in recent months, particularly in and around Baghdad. The combined Iraqi and American Baghdad security plan, about which I was briefed in Baghdad in August just before it began, is a major initiative aimed at improving security for all the communities in the city. The security element is closely followed by co-ordinated projects to improve basic services, backed by more than $400 million of funding. In those areas that have been cleared of terrorists and sectarian gangs so far—with 1,700 weapons seized—citizens are reporting better security and are starting to see improvements in their daily lives. That said, however, the overall level of violence across the city, including sectarian killings, remains unacceptable—there was further evidence of that today—but the plan is still in its early stages and there is impressive commitment from American, coalition, and Iraqi forces.

In the UK’s area of operation in south-east Iraq, the biggest challenge lies in Basra city. Two weeks ago, Iraqi and UK forces began a large-scale operation moving through the city sector by sector, strengthening security and improving basic services. One important element of the operation is a renewed effort to improve the capacity of the Iraqi police and to address infiltration by militias. The operation also includes clean-up projects, agriculture projects and projects to improve basic services, including bringing clean drinking water to a part of the city that has never had it before.

Elsewhere in the south-east, in September Dhi Qar became the second province to be handed over to the Iraqi authorities, following al-Muthanna in July. We should congratulate the Iraqis on that achievement, and of course our international partners.

In terms of future planning for the UK in Iraq, I can confirm that the force package for the next routine roulement in November, in which 19 Light Brigade takes over from 20 Armoured Brigade, is essentially what I outlined in my announcement to the House on 18 July. I also draw the House’s attention to my written statement on 11 September, which confirmed a temporary deployment of 360 troops, including specialists such as engineers to help deliver the Basra projects I described earlier, and elements of the theatre reserve battalion, to provide support during the
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roulement period. Excluding the temporary deployment, this will leave our force level in Iraq at approximately 7,100.

We should be in no doubt that this is a decisive period in the future of Iraq. There is much debate, here in Britain, in America and of course in Iraq, about the best way forward, but all agree that military means alone will not be decisive. This is especially true now, when it is clear that sectarianism and the struggle for power have emerged as a major threat to Iraq’s security. What is required above all is a political solution. That must include a genuine effort at national reconciliation, drawing all Iraq’s communities into a political process and away from violence. Prime Minister Maliki and his Government are trying to deliver that. We and our coalition partners must do all we can to support them and to strengthen their resolve—but so, too, must the international community as a whole and Iraq’s near neighbours in particular.

Let me turn to Afghanistan. The achievements and losses of our forces in Helmand province rightly have been the focus of our attention in the last two months. The work our forces are doing there is difficult, dangerous and exhausting. I salute them, particularly the men and women of 16 Air Assault Brigade, who are coming home, having been relieved by 3 Commando. I shall be visiting them tomorrow to thank them in person, but today, on behalf of the whole House, I should like formally to record our recognition of the bravery, professionalism and sacrifice of that brigade and all those from across the three services who supported them during their tour—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear”.]

On this, the fifth anniversary of our intervention in Afghanistan, we should reflect on the progress our efforts have brought about: 2,000 schools built; 5 million children in school, a third of them girls; more than 70 new hospitals and clinics; and 4.5 million refugees returning home. This is not a failing mission.

NATO, in the shape of ISAF—the international security assistance force—under the leadership of General Richards, now has responsibility for the whole of Afghanistan, but as we know, the summer has seen fierce fighting and as I made clear in a speech last month, the persistence of the Taliban was greater than expected. Such is the nature of operations: the enemy always has a vote—and we have adapted. But let me repeat: the force package we deployed, which we have strengthened further over the summer, was designed to deal with violent resistance, and in every encounter with the Taliban our forces have defeated them. Moreover, by attacking us directly, the Taliban have taken heavy losses, both in northern Helmand and against the Canadians in Kandahar. We have sent a clear message that we will not be beaten in combat—a message not lost on the local population. That has strengthened the position of local leaders, some of whom are now pursuing peaceful negotiations with our commands and with the Afghan Government.

In Afghanistan, we have now reached a key point in the campaign. On Sunday, I spoke to General Richards and he described the situation as a window of opportunity. If we can build upon the blow we have delivered to the Taliban and if we can quickly deliver real, concrete changes to the lives of ordinary Afghans through development and reconstruction, we can begin
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to generate the lasting support that the Government need. So we are moving forward, but I have consistently made clear the challenges that we still face.

The assumption of complete military command for Afghanistan is a significant achievement for NATO, but it is also a significant test. There are still shortfalls in the planned force structure. Caveats on the use of some forces remain. I have been in frequent, often daily, discussions with the Secretary-General and fellow Defence Ministers to reinforce the message that, as an alliance, we must live up to our commitment to Afghanistan, sharing the burden and, as important, sharing the risks. I ensured that this subject was top of the agenda at the NATO summit in Slovenia two weeks ago, and I will continue to press for urgent action.

We have made some progress. Some caveats are lifting—the Poles have confirmed they will provide a battalion, and the Canadians plan to put further troops into the south. Importantly, General Richards judges that he has the forces to maintain the relatively stable security situation that now exists, but I will continue to push for his requirements to be met in full, as a matter of urgency.

In Helmand, the UK task force also faces challenges. The battles that we have fought in the north of the province have brought us to the relative stability that we have seen in recent weeks. Taliban activity is down and engagement with local leaders is growing, but we must capitalise quickly with progress on reconstruction. We are rebalancing our forces, taking advantage of the steady improvement in the Afghan army and police to concentrate our forces on the central area surrounding the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. That should increase the scope for other Government Departments to act in safety, and it should also increase the confidence of local enterprises and international NGOs to begin the reconstruction that is at the core of our strategy.

Back in the UK, the main challenge for me, for my Department and for the joint headquarters and the chiefs is to give our troops the resources that they need to get the job done. That is a relentless task, but we are rising to it. We have now almost completely deployed the reinforcements that I described to the House on 10 July, with the last elements due in Afghanistan in the next few weeks. That includes two more Chinook helicopters and more flying hours for helicopters across the fleet; more capacity to train the Afghan national army; engineers to take forward development; and more infantry.

On 24 July, I announced a new package for protected vehicles for both Afghanistan and Iraq, including 100 new Mastiff and 100 additional Vector vehicles, funded by new money from the Treasury. We continue to invest heavily in force protection, including countermeasures to protect vehicles against attack, defensive aids for aircraft and personal body armour. I believe that we have shown that we can be responsive to the requests of commanders, and we will continue to be responsive.

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