HC Deb 17 December 1952 vol 509 cc1397-402
Mr. Hale (By Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he will state the circumstances in which some 86 prisoners of the United Nations forces in Korea have been killed and 120 wounded in the prison camp on Pongam Island; what United Nations forces were involved; what is the reason for failure to maintain discipline in a prison camp; and what steps he proposes to take.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Anthony Nutting)

The House will have seen from the United Nations Command communiqué which has been published in the Press that this riot occurred in a camp containing men who had previously been classified as prisoners of war but were now re-classified as civilian internees.

These men were moved to Pongam, where the riot occurred, from Koje last June. They are all declared Communists who have opted for return to Communist control on the conclusion of an Armistice.

The trouble started in the usual way when some 3,600 of the camp's population in six different compounds began mass demonstrations in defiance of orders. Moving according to plan and formed into three ranks with locked arms, they defied their guards, while others behind them hurled showers of stones which prevented the United Nations troops from restoring order. Orders to disperse followed by warning shots had no effect on the demonstrators; and when these three waves of prisoners continued to advance, it became necessary for the guards to open fire in order to prevent a mass break-out. 82 prisoners were killed and 120 wounded. Thereafter order was restored.

A board of investigation from the Headquarters of the Commanding-General Korean Communications Zone has been appointed and is conducting a formal investigation on the spot. I understand that only U.S. and South Korean forces were involved.

Her Majesty's Embassy in Washington have asked the State Department for a full report. Meanwhile, I have nothing to add to the information released in the communiqué of the United Nations Command.

Mr. Hale

While I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for that answer at fairly short notice, and while we await the fuller particulars which we hope will be forthcoming, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that it has been said in some newspapers that machine guns were employed on men who were locked arm in arm and were singing songs. Is this not an unprecedented event, which, on the face of it and subject to investigation, appears to give rise to an intolerable situation, which will affect our cause throughout Asia?

Major Legge-Bourke

On a point of order. In his reply, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs has said that no British troops were involved in this matter. Is it in order for any hon. Member to ask further questions on this matter, as it is no longer the responsibility of Her Majesty's Government?

Mr. Speaker

It is true that Questions are, as a rule, limited to matters for which the Minister being interrogated has administrative responsibility, and I think there cannot be in this case any administrative responsibility on the part of the Foreign Office for this incident. However, the Foreign Office is entitled, and frequently does for the information of hon. Members, to give information on matters occurring in other parts of the world where British interests of either life or property are involved. From the information I have received from the answer today, I should think there is little to be gained by further questions on this matter.

Mr. H. Morrison

I appreciate your point, Mr. Speaker, and certainly I would not wish to push the matter unduly, but in so far as this is United Nations action and we are parties to United Nations operations in Korea, surely Her Majesty's Government share joint responsibility for these operations with other nations who are parties to United Nations activities in Korea?

Mr. Speaker

It is because this incident took place apparently under the United Nations Command that I passed the Question as in order. I am not saying that the Question was out of order in any way, but I am pointing out that the administrative responsibility of the British Government is interrupted by the interposition of the United Nations Command.

Mr. Hale

On that point of order. I was in the midst of putting a supplementary Question when I was interrupted by the hon. and gallant Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke). May I put it to the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs that he will clearly have to consider how far British forces can continue to operate in United Nations forces if incidents of this kind are likely to recur? Will he therefore tell us what steps he has taken to get the fullest information at the earliest possible moment and to see that no harm shall be done?

Mr. Nutting

I have said that we have asked our Embassy in Washington to ask the State Department to furnish us with a full and early report on the incidents which have taken place. I am grateful to the hon. Member for saying, and I agree, that we should reserve judgment upon these incidents until we have full information. May I say that the troops involved in these guard duties are carrying out an extremely difficult task under extremely difficult conditions? I would put it to the House that if 3,600 fanatical Communists advance upon their guards and outnumber them with improvised weapons, in defiance of orders and warning shots, then I think the use of force is unavoidable.

Mr. Noel-Baker

May I ask the Under-Secretary of State two questions on the United Nations aspect of the matter? The first is: Can he confirm or not confirm the report that the prisoners had made a plan for a mass escape? If so, what bearing has that on the obligations of the United Nations Command under the Prisoners-of-War Convention? Secondly, in the light of these serious incidents which have happened over a period of time, would it not be much more satisfactory for all concerned, and especially for the United States, if the responsibility for the management of these prisoners-of-war camps were shared more widely among nations which have troops in Korea?

Mr. Nutting

In answer to the first supplementary question, it is true that we were informed—the United Nations Command were informed—that there was a plan for a mass break-out, and the way in which the demonstration started certainly confirmed that a mass break-out was intended by these 3,600 Communists. It is true also that under Article 32 of the Geneva Civilians Convention the use of violence against civilian prisoners is prohibited, but in the circumstances in Korea, circumstances to which I have referred in my answer, we do consider that the detaining Power is entitled to take into account the measures which are sanctioned by the Prisoners-of-War Convention for dealing with attempted escape by prisoners of war, Article 42 of which sanctions the use of force as an extreme measure. In answer to the second supplementary, I really think it is a little early to jump to the conclusion that because severe measures have had to be taken to put down mass rebellions of this kind we should suggest now that the management and control of these prison camps should be handed over to other nations.

Mr. A. Henderson

Would the Under-Secretary consider suggesting to the United States Government that in these circumstances an officer other than an American officer should be included in the investigating board?

Mr. Nutting

No, Sir. We wish to study the full report which we expect from the United States Government, and I would ask the House to reserve judgment upon this issue until the full report is available.

Mr. Driberg

The Under-Secretary of State has just asked that we should reserve judgment until we receive the full report. Would the hon. Gentleman bear in mind that on previous occasions he and the Foreign Secretary have asked us to suspend judgment and await reports which they said would be furnished to the House as soon as the reports came through? I think that in one or two cases we have not yet had those reports. Would he not consider during the coming Recess issuing a White Paper embodying in precise and objective form reports of all these far too numerous incidents?

Mr. Nutting

I will place in the Library a copy of the communiqué on this incident, which is all the information that we have at the moment. As to reports on previous incidents, we have pressed the State Department on several occasions since my right hon. Friend gave the undertaking, to endeavour to get information available to the State Department, but so far we have not got those reports. We shall continue to press the United States Government to furnish us with them.

Brigadier Medlicott

Is it not clear that we have a duty to give all the support we can to the United Nations in their extremely difficult task in Korea? Is it not extremely undesirable that questions should be put from the other side of the House which presuppose and prejudge the issue and suggest that we are always in the wrong?

Mr. Nutting

Yes, Sir. That has been the purport of the answers which I have given to supplementary questions this afternoon.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

All the information that the Minister has has been given.

Mr. S. Silverman

On a point of order. You have told us, Mr. Speaker, that all the information has been given that can be given, and that you think it undesirable to put further supplementary questions. May I suggest to you that the information that has been given to us so far has been wholly on the basis that all that we were dealing with was prisoners of war in a prisoner-of-war camp, whereas in fact, as the Under-Secretary has stated perfectly clearly in his original answer, we are not dealing with prisoners of war at all but with civilian internees who, presumably, have been unlawfully removed from North Korea and taken away, quite contrary to the—[HON. MEMBERS: "Speech."]—and unlawfully detained with our approval on the island? We have not been given all the information which the hon. Member must undoubtedly have, as to how it came about that these people were mixed up in prisoner-of-war camps and are now being treated as though they were prisoners of war, subject to military discipline.

Mr. Speaker

The Minister has stated that he has given the information which he possesses and that he is asking for a further report.