Baroness Berridge: 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:

Baroness Berridge

My Lords, thankfully North Korea is the only closed country and I think this should give us hope, as many who grew up in or in the era of Eastern Europe and the USSR thought that freedom would never come, but it did. Kim Jong-un’s leadership will end, and through the work of people like the noble Lord, Lord Alton, awareness of the plight of North Koreans has risen dramatically over the last decade.

These unparalleled systematic human rights abuses in North Korea are indeed well documented by the commission of inquiry of Michael Kirby, and in relation to religious freedom violations by the inquiry of the all-party parliamentary group, which was chaired by the noble Lord and published its report last year. The only detail that I can add to that report that moved me recently was to hear that teachers in schools in North Korea are asking pupils to tell them whether their mum and dad have a hidden little black book at home. Unwittingly these children come forward, and of course, what is hidden is a Bible and their parents are arrested and disappear. These reports have shown the need to break the information blockade. There is also a need to prepare the leadership of the future. There may be more that can be done to prepare, and I wish to focus this afternoon on practical solutions and things within our power here in the United Kingdom.

The decision, referenced by the noble Lord, of the BBC to begin a daily short-wave news service is a step forward in breaking this information blockade. It would be helpful to know the detail from my noble friend the Minister. When does the Foreign Secretary expect to be asked to agree to this service and what is the current Foreign and Commonwealth Office position on whether it can extend beyond news to other broadcasts?

There are many interesting studies on the growing cultural, linguistic and religious differences between North Korea and South Korea. In the 70 years since the division of the peninsula, North Koreans have been taught to worship their political leader like a god, but South Korean society is pluralistic and has recently seen a huge growth in the Christian faith in particular. In 1945, only 2% of South Koreans were Christian; now 30% are. Those growing differences mean that the 26,000 or so North Korean refugees in South Korea often find it hard to integrate, and feel like second-class citizens. According to a BBC report late last year, 14% of defectors from North Korea in South Korea who have died committed suicide. I would be grateful if my noble friend the Minister could confirm whether Her Majesty’s Government had spoken to South Korea outlining our concerns around the integration of those refugees into its society. Until the South Koreans address this problem, the push factor forcing North Koreans to flee South Korea will mean that some will continue to arrive here in the United Kingdom, applying for asylum. Australia and Canada, among others, face a similar issue.

Even highly qualified doctors from the north struggle to make the transition to the south. Surely the international community can help with specific plans to skill up professionals for the future of North Korea, and not see those valuable skills go to waste. I can fully understand the comments in the Security Council last November that the international community had struggled to agree a plan of action in relation to the Kirby report. However, a plan to ensure that North Koreans can remain in the region and that those abroad are trained up, ready for reunification, is in the doable category, which is often sparsely populated with solutions to many of the tragic situations that we discuss in your Lordships’ House.

I turn briefly to the leadership of the future. Even if the South Koreans solved the integration problem tomorrow, there would still be approximately 1,000 North Koreans who have been granted refugee status here in the United Kingdom. If North Korea became free tomorrow many might travel there, hoping to be part of the future of the country. Then the Westminster Foundation for Democracy would ask MPs and Peers, via our political parties, to go out there to train up the future politicians. As North Korea is a unique case—we have no access to train people in North Korea—could the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or the human rights and democracy fund merely ask the WFD specifically to see if half a dozen folk among our 1,000 refugees had the potential skills and competence to be future leaders and invest in them here? I am sure that many in your Lordships’ House would respond to the persuasive power of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and be happy to help. That would really cost very little—definitely cheaper than flying us out there, and so much better value for money for the UK taxpayer in the long term. If your Lordships were involved, we could make requests of the royal colleges, Bupa or AXA to train up one North Korean doctor; we would not be requesting them to do something that we had not started doing here ourselves. More things could be done to prepare for reunification than we at first think, and many of our allies—particularly Germany—may have other relevant experience to offer.

I hope that there is a plan for the future under the leadership of South Korea, as well as a plan to bring to justice those who have committed human rights abuses. When nations change, there is often a symbolic moment. In Iraq in 2003, that was the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein. In North Korea when that moment comes, many statues of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un will be toppled. I believe that that will happen in my lifetime, and I hope that we are ready for that moment.

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