Lord Alton: An assessment of the security and human rights challenges on the Korean Peninsula following North Korea’s recent nuclear test

The following speech was delivered in the House of Lords on January 21st 2016:

Lord Alton

My Lords, 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the division of the Korean peninsula. That division was the prelude to the 1950-53 war, which led to the deaths of about 3 million people, including 1,000 British servicemen.

Throughout the intervening seven decades, the danger of a repetition of that carnage has hung like a pall over the region. For more than 10 years, during which I have chaired the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, that group has tried to shine a light on security threats and the day-to-day egregious violations of human rights. These are themes of the Question before your Lordships today. I am particularly indebted to all noble Lords who will participate.

North Korea’s failure to make constructive moves on these questions was thrown into sharp relief by the unverifiable claim in North Korean state media on 6 January that it had conducted its first hydrogen bomb—thermonuclear weapon—test. Ban Ki-moon described these actions—this fourth nuclear test—as “a grave contravention”.

When the Minister replies, I hope that she will give us her own assessment of the test which has taken place, and perhaps say how long she thinks it will be before we know whether this was fusion rather than fission and whether hydrogen isotopes were used in the nuclear chain reaction. Also, how far away do we think North Korea is from miniaturising a nuclear weapon and from utilising its submarines to launch nuclear attacks? These have obvious security implications for the United States of America and Europe, as well, of course, for North Korea’s regional neighbours.

What we do know is that Chinese citizens living in the neighbouring Jilin province, which I visited, felt the buildings shake and residents feared an earthquake. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban-Treaty Organization reported seismic signatures with a magnitude of 4.85, consistent with previous North Korean nuclear tests. Whether a hydrogen bomb or not, this action is yet another road block in securing a lasting peace and it represents a serious international security threat and destabilises the region. In addition, it is in flagrant violation of the United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1718, 1874, 2087 and 2094. I should be interested to know from the noble Baroness what more the Security Council will be saying about this.

I hope that she will tell us what response the Foreign and Commonwealth office received from the North Korean ambassador when he was summoned to the Foreign Office on 7 January, and what the Foreign Secretary had in mind when he told the House of Commons that North Korea will “face increasing isolation and further action by the international community”.

I wonder whether the Foreign Office sees this test as an act of defiance by Kim Jong-un and an attempt to bolster his authority. What does it make of the continuing systematic executions, including members of his family? In 2013 his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who was seen as reform-minded and close to China, was executed. Jang had questioned an ideology which has paralysed economic development and incarcerated hundreds of thousands of citizens, which has conferred pariah status on the country. He was close to China and admiring of its reform programme. His death was followed by the execution of around 70 officials in the last year. North Korea’s Defence Minister, Hyon Yong-chol, was shot with an anti-aircraft gun from close range in April. It was then reported that North Korea’s vice-premier Choe Yong-gon was executed by firing squad this year, after showing discontent with Kim Jong-un’s policies.

Kim Jong-un knew these men well, but this did not save their lives. In this reign of terror, killing those who are not part of your circle is even less of an issue. The purges, the reign of terror, the falsifying of history, the show trials, the network of gulags—where an estimated 200,000 people are incarcerated—the 400,000 said to have died in the prison camps in the last 30 years, and the attempts to obliterate religious belief and all political dissent bear all the hallmarks of a regime that has carefully studied, admires and imitates the visceral brutality of Joseph Stalin. The authoritarian dynastic regime in North Korea ruthlessly crushes dissent, and through its policy of guilt by association, collective punishment and the execution of men like Jang is trying to ensure that there is no Kim Dae-jung, Lech Walesa or Dow Aung San Suu Kyi able to become a focal point for opposition.

We can see these killings either as a display of strength or the actions of a weak regime, paranoically trying to cling to power at all costs. Of course, the creation of mass fear is a time-honoured technique of dictators from Nero and Caligula to Ceausescu and Stalin. But China’s role in all this is surely crucial. I wonder how the Minister evaluates the extent of China’s influence on the regime. It previously described North Korea’s actions as “brazen”, but notwithstanding the presence of a senior Chinese emissary at last year’s Workers’ Party anniversary celebrations, what do we make of China’s relationship with North Korea today? Will China’s irritation be reflected in energy assistance to North Korea, or will she be dissuaded through fear of regime collapse and the flow of refugees across its 800-mile border with North Korea?

If North Korea is in total contempt of its obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and by its refusal to permit full access by the International Atomic Energy Agency, its contempt for human rights puts it in a league of its own. The publication of the United Nation’s Commission of Inquiry report into human rights violations in North Korea, described by the commission as “without parallel”, was a defining moment. In that 400-page report, it said that North Korea’s crimes against humanity are sui generis. It stated: “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”.

It is in breach of pretty well all of the 30 articles in the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

Hea Woo, a Christian who escaped from one of the camps, gave graphic and powerful evidence at one of our Westminster hearings. She described routine torture and beatings and how prisoners were so hungry that they were reduced to eating rats and snakes or even searching for grains in cow dung.

I ask the noble Baroness how we have taken forward the Commission of Inquiry report and its call for the prosecution of those responsible? Why, of the 2016-17 FCO fund for human rights and democracy, which has been doubled to £10.6 million, has just £4,261 been spent in Pyongyang in nearly two and a half years? Can she also say what we have done to raise the plight of the more than 50,000 North Korean workers sent overseas to around 20 nations, where they are treated as virtual slave labour but earning the regime $300 million annually? What action are we taking on companies, third-party banks and countries which are breaking sanctions and providing revenues to this regime? Crucial to transforming North Korea will be the breaking of the information blockade. I applaud the decision of the BBC to commence broadcasts to the peninsula and hope that we will be given an update on this important development.

Does the Minister accept that hand-outs can bolster this regime? Although food should never be used as a weapon of war, it is worth saying that North Korea’s food gap could be closed for something in the order of $8 million to $19 million. That is less than 0.2% of its national income, most of which is currently being used on military programmes.

Last year, following an influx of food aid, the regime sent groups of students around to destroy private agricultural plots. The regime’s opposition to reform has led to starvation and death. People suffer while the regime spent more than $1 billion on the launching of two rockets in 2012 and 2013, $200 million on Kim family celebrations, and $300 million on luxury facilities, including ski resorts and riding grounds.

North Korea is surrounded by three of the world’s largest economies, yet close to 70% of the population suffer from malnourishment. It persists with its vast and brutal network of concentration camps, and millions of women are subjected to unimaginable levels of sexual and other violence while children are indoctrinated and forced to endure manual labour.

Since 2000 we have had diplomatic relations with the DPRK and in that time the regime has conducted four nuclear tests, launched unprovoked military attacks on South Korean targets, has bolstered its standing army—one of the largest in the world—and has been condemned for the worst human rights record in the world. It is not unreasonable to ask how and in what ways we think we are making some kind of difference. I look forward to the debate that will follow and to the Minister’s reply.

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