Lord Alton: BBC World Service and North Korea

As Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, I welcome today’s announcement by the BBC of a Korean-language World Service. The announcement follows many years of work by the APPG and others, and we congratulate the BBC and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on making the correct decision for the people of North Korea.

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Lord Alton of Liverpool (Credit: Human Atlas)

In July 2014, I initiated a wide-ranging House of Lords debate on the BBC World Service. In that speech, my colleague, Lord Eames, stated:

‘I visited North Korea…From a most unlikely source, there was a remark that will live with me for a very long time. Obviously, I cannot disclose the complete circumstances, but the words speak for themselves. “Where”, he said to me, “is the BBC?”. If you knew the person who said that, the circumstances and the position that he held, it would set the balance right of many of the impressions that we have of what is going on in North Korea. Those words speak louder than statistics, transmission problems and the facilities needed, and I convey them to the House with great feeling’.

North Korea is a country where access to foreign media is prohibited and accessing such media is punishable by barbaric sentences. Today, the BBC and the United Kingdom Government have taken a stand against the censorship and repression practiced by the North Korean Government. Free speech, objective news, and voices from the outside world will now travel from London to the darkest corners of North Korea.

Over the past decade, the APPG has listened to many calls from exiled North Koreans to send information to their compatriots north of the 38th parallel. This call has now been heard. A mistake which has often been made is to believe that to engage with North Koreans, one must deal with the North Korean Government. Our approach at the APPG has differed. We have instead listened to the knowledge and stories of the 30,000 North Koreans who have escaped their homeland. Some of these exiles have bravely addressed our group in Parliament and their stories have undoubtedly inspired today’s BBC service and will go on to challenge a sixty year old status-quo on the Korean peninsula.

The work of the APPG has long-established the increasing desire of North Koreans to know what is happening in the world outside. Escapees say that significant numbers risk imprisonment and even execution to consume foreign media. But try as they may, the North Korean Government has been unable to put the information genie back in the bottle.

In 2014, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry, chaired by Justice Michael Kirby, detailed ‘an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought’ as well as ‘the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association’ in North Korea. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights insists that citizens have a right to access news and information.

For the people of North Korea, I am pleased that breaking their information blockade and upholding their given rights is to become a central pillar of UK foreign policy and BBC practice. From the Soviet Union to Burma, the BBC has shown that broadcasting can inspire and broaden the horizons of the repressed.

Facing the challenge of North Korea is an urgent diplomatic and political problem, but it is also a moral obligation. A BBC World Service in the Korean-language should come as a sledgehammer to the North Korean Government’s information blockade and inspire those who will one day lead a new North Korea into the light.

Event: While They Watched


The All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea will host a screening of the documentary film ‘While They Watched’ on November 17th at 17:00 in Committee Room 17, the Houses of Parliament.

Using interviews, archival and observational footage, Director Jake J. Smith’s film draws on the power of hindsight and stories from former North Korean gulag soldiers and propaganda agents, ex-leaders of the ‘underground railroad’ through China, professors of Korean history, activists, NGO leaders, and exiles to question whether the international community has done enough to challenge the Government of North Korea.


According to Smith, who will be taking questions following the screening:

“The message of this film, and the questions it asks will hopefully touch a nerve with audiences. The defectors’ lives and stories are sometimes so dreadful it’s difficult to accept how this continues to be allowed to occur in the 21st century. We can’t choose where we are born. I count myself lucky to be born in a ‘free’ country and I feel it’s the responsibility of free peoples to help those who are powerless to help themselves.

After reading about North Korea in books, the media and from talking to people here in Korea, I knew I wanted to make a film about the country and it’s people. During my research deeper questions kept creeping into my mind about our relationship to the stories I was reading. The way I decided to construct this film pushes the boundaries of documentary filmmaking, without diminishing the seriousness and extraordinary courage of the activists and defectors who participate in the film.

The decision to set the film in the future was made to compel viewers to ask themselves what they can do today to relieve the continuing humanitarian catastrophe happening in North Korea. By the end of the film I want the audience to be inspired to help change the present, and create a better future for the North Korean people.”

Attendance is free and open to the public. The Houses of Parliament can be accessed via the Cromwell Green visitor entrance.

Event: Exiled North Korean Activism

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea will hold two presentations on November 8th at 17:00 in Committee Room 21, the Houses of Parliament.

First, in partnership with the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea, the South Korea-based National Students’ Council of North Korean Human Rights will address the Group. Consisting of 32 chapters at 28 universities across South Korea, the Council hosts conferences, seminars, exhibitions, and a Human Rights Week to engage young people in the quest for the improvement of North Korean human rights.

The guest speaker will be Ji Young Lee, a 29-year-old North Korean exile. As a former member of staff at the Ministry of State Security in North Korea, Lee saw first-hand how the North Korean state systematically violates human rights. Lee will talk about her work today and her experiences of discrimination in North Korea. 

The second presenter will be Seung Hoon Chae, a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. Chae will speak on the causes behind the activism of North Korean refugees.

Whereas previous studies of the North Korean diaspora have often sought answers from the refugees’ experiences in the home country, Chae will suggest that reasons for ‘voice’ need not be grounded upon reasons for ‘exit’. Thus a ‘political’ refugee is not necessarily more political in the host country, and an ‘economic’ migrant may realise, post-exit, new political potentials for changing his home country. Based on 83 structured interviews and qualitative assessments of 13 semi-structured interviews, Chae will present a case study of North Korean refugees in the UK to suggest that the voices of North Korean refugees are determined more by who a person is today than who that person was at the point of exiting North Korea.

Attendance is free and open to the public. Please arrive at least 30 minutes before the start of the event to clear security and make your way to the Committee Room. The Houses of Parliament can be accessed via the Cromwell Green visitor entrance.


Event: North Korea’s Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground is Transforming a Closed Society


Jieun Baek, a Ph.D. candidate in Public Policy at the University of Oxford, will address the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea on November 2nd at 17:00 in Committee Room 11, the Houses of Parliament.

Jieun Baek is the author of North Korea’s Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground is Transforming a Closed Society (which will be published by Yale University Press in November 2016) and a former research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. Baek received her BA in Government and MA in Public Policy from Harvard and has worked at Google, where, among other roles, she served as Google Ideas’ North Korea expert.

In her talk, Jieun Baek will draw on interviews with North Korean exiles from all walks of life, ranging from propaganda artists to diplomats, to discuss how North Korea’s information underground — the network of citizens who take extraordinary risks by circulating illicit content such as foreign films, television shows, soap operas, books, and encyclopedias — have fostered an awareness of life outside North Korea and affected the social and political consciousness of North Koreans.

Attendance is free and open to the public. The Houses of Parliament can be accessed via the Cromwell Green visitor entrance.

A Letter to North Korea’s Exiles

Fiona Bruce MP (Credit: Human Atlas)

What more is there to say about the Government of North Korea, a regime that wantonly starves, enslaves, impoverishes, and exterminates its population to maintain the legitimacy and rule of a system? To suffer for one’s family or for one’s cause is one matter. But to suffer for the Supreme Leader-centred system: that is another matter entirely.

As a serving Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom and a Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, I have witnessed Pyongyang’s march toward ever increasing capacities of evil. My journey has been marked by scores of exiled North Koreans who have visited London to tell of the horrors of starvation, poverty, imprisonment, and physical abuse and violence. I have heard of the state’s psychological weapons of war that have led to North Korean children being forcibly aborted and women and men being humiliated and compelled to give their minds to the Kim-family cult.

When I listen to exiled North Koreans, I always hear of a sense of betrayal. As exiles, you will have escaped the grip of the North Korean system, but you will have been forced to pay a heavy price for your freedoms. Many of you will have experienced brutalities that I will never comprehend. You will all have been separated from your families or have heard of suffering that befell family members. Those of you who now shed light on life inside North Korea or those of you who once worked for the North Korean government may now live under constant threat. And you will all have now realised a very stark fact: the system that raised you also betrayed you.

It may be of little consolation, but five-thousand miles from the Korean peninsula in London, your stories and your voices are heard. Through reports, oral testimonies, and exiled media outlets, such as New Focus, the awful realities of life inside North Korea — once dismissed as fantastical — are no longer hidden or denied.

To be frank, global recognition of the horrors that you once faced in North Korea took far too long to arrive. But today, the evidence against the North Korean government is so overwhelming that no amount of tourist attractions, paid for by the blood of twenty-five million citizens, or attempts at dissuasion by Pyongyang or its apologists can disguise the brutal reality of life under the Supreme Leader-centred system.

As exiles, you function as vital relays between hope and despair for your countrywomen and men who remain in North Korea. Every time you contact a remaining friend in North Korea, send money back to family members, or another compatriot flees, the foundations of the Kim dynasty erode ever more. The Kim dynasty is not simply based on the perpetuation of violence, it is also sustained by propaganda that justifies the cult of Kim. It is vital that we continue to break down this communications barrier.

It is my contention that the exiled North Korean community deserves more credit than it has received. For all of the good work of the United Nations and the international community, we must never forget that it has been the tireless work of exiles that has kept the candle burning for North Korea. The world has taken much from your community, and we must remember to repay your sacrifices. The All-Party Parliamentary Group has always welcomed, and will continue to welcome, you to London to tell your stories to the British public and politicians.

As I look forward, I see reasons for hope. Forces such as the blackmarket, foreign media, and the growing ability of ordinary North Koreans to make contact with the outside world are eroding Pyongyang’s ideological grip on its citizens. The exiled North Korean community that once stood in despair now rallies against those who abused, tortured, and killed their very own.

I have previously written of my hopes for the 30,000 exiled North Koreans who now live in the Republic of Korea. The National Assembly has passed the North Korean Human Rights Act and it is my hope that exiles will play a leading role in the Act’s implementation. Without the input and leadership of those who have experienced North Korea, we are all doomed to repeat the failures of the past.

Time waits for no man and change in North Korea cannot wait. I believe that North Koreans will soon be freed from their shackles and the exiled community will surely play a large role in this momentous task.

[The above op-ed was first published in Korean by New Focus on September 21st]

Fiona Bruce MP is Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, and a serving Conservative Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom.

APPG Event: Breaking North Korea’s Information Blockade

On May 19th, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea will host an event in partnership with No Chain, titled Breaking North Korea’s Information Blockade.

We will hear from North Korean exile, Jung Gwang Il, who will talk about his organisation’s role in smuggling information into North Korea and the methods that North Koreans use to access foreign media.

Formerly a regional manager of a North Korean trading company, Jung Gwang Il was suspected of spying for South Korea and arrested by North Korea’s Ministry of State Security in 1999. Detained in Hoeryong prison camp, Jung was beaten and tortured, living without his teeth – all of which were broken by prison guards – for four years. After forcing a confession and without trial, Jung was sent to the infamous Yodok concentration camp. Witnessing torture, starvation, and innumerable deaths, Jung was released on 12th April 2003 and escaped to China on the 30th April. One year later, Jung arrived in South Korea and now advocates for the rights of North Koreans.

The event will take place at 17:00-18:30 in Committee Room 17, the Houses of Parliament.

Attendance is free and open to the public. The Houses of Parliament can be accessed via the Cromwell Green visitor entrance.

Violence against Women and Girls & the Sustainable Development Goals

On the 27th April, Fiona Bruce MP, Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, spoke briefly at a Westminster Hall debate on Violence against Women and Girls and the Sustainable Development Goals.

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Fiona Bruce MP; Deuk-Hwan Kim, Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of the ROK in the UK and NI; and Shin Heisoo, United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (Credit: Human Atlas)

Fiona noted:


I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Will he join me in condemning the state-sanctioned violence against women and girls in North Korea? Technically, that country joined in support of the SDGs last autumn, but it operates violence against women and girls as a tool of oppression. Even the UN has described it in a report as having human rights violations that ‘reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world’.

Those violations include: sexual violence; exploitation; rape; forced abortion; human trafficking; institutional, economic and psychological violence; slavery; and torture, even until death. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the UK must use what limited engagement it has with North Korea—it is mainly via the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—to press for change? Also, will he join with me and other parliamentarians in putting on the record that the abused women of North Korea are not forgotten here?

This was the first time that the issue of VAWG committed against North Korean women and children had been raised in the Houses of Parliament since the APPG’s dedicated conference in February.