The following speech was delivered in the House of Lords on January 21st 2016:
My Lords, I warmly congratulate my noble friend on his tireless work on North Korea, and on opening this debate with characteristic comprehensiveness. I have had the privilege of travelling to DPRK with my noble friend three times, and of meeting many refugees and escapees, whose heartbreaking accounts of horrific violations of human rights remain ingrained in my heart and conscience.
In addition to echoing the serious concerns highlighted by my noble friend and other noble Lords, I wish to highlight specific concerns regarding infringements of freedom of religion and belief, including the recent arrests of two foreign nationals. First, Hyeon Soo Lim, a South Korean-born Canadian Christian, is a 60 year-old pastor. He is a Canadian citizen, but he was sentenced last December to life imprisonment with hard labour, accused of using religion to overthrow the state and harming the dignity of the supreme leadership. He had previously made many visits to DPRK and engaged in humanitarian work supporting an orphanage, a nursery and a nursing home. A CNN report emphasised: “It is this tremendous love for the people of the DPRK that motivated Mr. Lim to travel (there)”. Unusually, he was recently able to give an interview to CNN, in which he described being forced to work for eight hours a day digging holes. He is believed to be in poor health, but all he asks for is a Bible and letters from his family. I understand that Canadian government officials have so far been denied access to him. Secondly, a Korean-American pastor, Kim Dong Chul, has been arrested on spying charges.
The arrest and detention of these two foreigners is deeply disturbing as they illustrate the Pyongyang regime’s attitude to human rights and religious freedom. I ask the Minister: what response is the United Kingdom making to these arrests, and, particularly given our diplomatic presence in Pyongyang, what support has the UK given to the efforts of Canada and the United States regarding these two cases? More generally, what more can the United Kingdom do to address the violations of freedom of religion or belief in the DPRK?
On the same topic, I highlight serious concerns about a recent statement by the World Council of Churches. On 28 October last year, the WCC’s Forum for Peace, Reunification and Development Cooperation on the Korean Peninsula issued a Pyongyang appeal following a visit to DPRK. I entirely support efforts to pursue constructive and critical engagement with the DPRK. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Alton and I have participated in such direct engagement during our visits, so I endorse some of the WCC’s recommendations, particularly for exchanges between North and South Korean citizens, cultural and academic exchange, and engagement.
However, I and many others are deeply concerned that the WCC’s statement and an accompanying report issued by the Asia secretary of the Church of Scotland’s World Mission Council ignore the horrific human rights violations and the severe persecution of Christians, documented by the UN commission of inquiry report. Instead, the WCC’s statement calls on “all churches, church-related organizations and people of good will around the world” to resist “the confrontational misuse of human rights” avoid “the promotion of enemy images” and lift economic sanctions. The WCC describes North Korea as “a society that is visibly advancing, demonstrating great resilience and self-reliance despite the longstanding and recently strengthened international sanctions”.
In an article published on the Church of Scotland’s website, Sandy Sneddon describes visiting tourist and cultural sites in Pyongyang, including a Protestant church. My noble friend and I visited this Protestant church and three other churches in Pyongyang—another Protestant church, a Catholic church and a Russian Orthodox church. While we welcome their existence there, they are tightly controlled by the regime, and are widely believed to exist largely for the benefit of foreign visitors. In the rest of the country severe violations of freedom of religion or belief are well documented. The UN commission of inquiry concludes that “there is an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as the rights to of freedom of opinion, expression, information and association”.
The regime, according to the UN inquiry “considers the spread of Christianity a particularly severe threat” and, as a result “Christians are prohibited from practising their religion and are persecuted”. Severe punishments are inflicted on “people caught practising Christianity”.
The WCC report makes no reference to the UN inquiry. As my noble friend highlighted, it concluded that “the gravity, scale and nature” of the violations of human rights in North Korea “reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”. It claims the systematic and widespread violations, described as “unspeakable atrocities”, are continuing “because the policies, institutions and patterns of impunity that lie at their heart remain in place”. They amount, according to the inquiry, to “crimes against humanity in international law”, and these crimes “clearly merit a criminal investigation”.
In conclusion, I ask the Minister for reassurance that the brutal violations of the rights and freedoms of people of DPRK, including freedom of religion and belief, will be at the centre of any engagement with Pyongyang by Her Majesty’s Government, alongside the priority concerns about the security situation.