HC Deb 07 May 1952 vol 500 cc383-7
Mr. C. R. Attlee

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs if he has any statement to make on the present Korean negotiations for an armistice.

Mr. Eden

Yes, Sir. The United Nations Command have now made public the terms of the offer which the United Nations negotiators made to the Communists on 28th April in the Korean armistice talks.

The United Nations Command, for its part offered to agree that the armistice provisions should make no reference to the reconstruction or rehabilitation of airfields. As the House will remember, this is a question to which the United Nations Command has hitherto attached very great importance, in view of its responsibility for the security of United Nations forces after the conclusion of an armistice.

It has nevertheless been found possible to abandon our insistance on this point, provided a satisfactory solution can be obtained on the other outstanding questions. This proves once again the willingness of the United Nations Command to stretch the limits of concession to the utmost in their earnest desire to reach a just and honourable settlement.

Secondly, the United Nations Command have expressed their readiness to accept the Communist nomination of Poland and Czechoslovakia for membership of the neutral commission for the supervision of the armistice, provided that the Communists would accept the nomination by the United Nations Command of Sweden and Switzerland in the same capacity. I think that the House will feel that this solution, to say the least of it, would not be likely to load the scales against the Communists in matters of armistice supervision.

Finally, the suggested solution provides that the United Nations Command would exchange the 70,000 persons approximately who do not refuse to be repatriated, for the 12,000 men of the United Nations Command whom the Communists state they are now holding as prisoners of war.

Following an armistice, the United Nations Command would still be willing to permit any suitable international body, or joint Red Cross teams together with observers from both sides, to interview persons held by the United Nations Command who have indicated that they would physically oppose repatriation. If it were then found that there were additional persons who would not so object, these would be promptly returned to the Communists.

In this connection I think the House will wish to hear briefly how the investigation was conducted which established that only about 70,000 out of the 132,000 prisoners of war held by the United Nations Command would not violently object to repatriation.

Written notices were posted in the prisoner of war camps, and announcements were made over the public-address system there, to the effect that all prisoners were to be interrogated by impartial United Nations Command personnel to decide who would want to be repatriated and who had compelling reasons for refusing repatriation.

The extreme importance of the decision and its likely effects on prisoners' families within Communist territories were emphasised. The fullest publicity was given to an official statement issued by the Communist authorities on 4th April offering an amnesty to all returned prisoners of war whatever their conduct in camp.

Prisoners were then interrogated individually and privately by interrogators carefully selected by the United Nations Command, and only those who expressed their determination to resist repatriation were excluded. There was thus no question of pressure being put on prisoners not to return.

In view of the scrupulous fairness of this interrogation, and of the offer made by the United Nations Command to the Communists for subsequent re-checking by independent bodies with Communist observers present, I am sure the House will feel that the United Nations Command has had no alternative but to resist the forced repatriation of Communist prisoners of war who have shown such a strong determination to remain in the free world.

I will not dwell on the practical difficulties of forcibly repatriating more than 62,000 men, many of whom could be expected to attempt suicide on the way. It would, I think, clearly be repugnant to the sense of values of the free world to send these men home by force. It would make a deplorable impression on fair and liberal-minded opinion all over the world and would go far to cancel out the effect made on world opinion by the evident firmness of purpose underlying the United Nations resistance to aggression in Korea.

The Communists were invited to consider this offer as a whole and not as a series of proposals, each open to separate discussion. It represents the limit of possible concession. At the same time it is a just offer, which the Communists could accept with confidence, provided they are, as I assume them to be, no less sincere than the United Nations Command in their wish for a settlement of the Korean conflict.

The Communist negotiators have not accepted this offer. They have instead put forward a counter-proposal under which the nomination of the Soviet Union as a neutral nation is withdrawn, but at the same time they have continued to reject the right of prisoners of war to decline repatriation after an armistice.

This is, of course, the essential point of principle on which the United Nations Command are not prepared to compromise. The United Nations Command have shown great patience in explaining and discussing their proposal in further closed plenary sessions.

The time has now come when it is right that the world should know the terms of the United Nations Command's offer and the nature of its reception. The United Nations Command will, as always, be ready to carry on the meetings with the Communist negotiators and ready to continue the search for acceptable terms for an armistice; but it must be clearly understood that the United Nations Command will not agree to force prisoners of war to be repatriated against their will.

Mr. Attlee

The House is obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for that statement. I am sure that it would be quite wrong to force prisoners to go back if they did not wish to go. May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether consideration has been given to the very long drawn out nature of these negotiations? Although we are all anxious for an armistice, I should have thought that it was impossible to continue month after month with nothing being done.

Mr. Eden

I find myself in full agreement with what the Leader of the Opposition has said. Now, of course, the differences at issue are narrowed to the particular point of the prisoners, but I think the general sense of the House clearly shows that there is no further concession that we can make on this issue. It is also true that there is no other outstanding point, and, therefore, I hope that wiser counsels—or, should I say, more humane counsels—will prevail with the Communists.

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson

My right hon. Friend used the figure of 12,000 as prisoners of war who are held by the Communists. Does that include the South Koreans?

Mr. Eden

That is the prisoners of the United Nations Command not including the South Koreans.* I think I ought to add this, that in the screening and investigations of prisoners of war no representatives of the Chiang Kai-shek régime or the Nationalist Government of China took part. I think it is desirable that the House should know that point. It was done with as much scrupulous fairness as possible.

Mr. Mayhew

The House is clearly united that there must be no question at all of the forcible repatriation of prisoners of war, but since after nine months or so the issues have been narrowed from quite important ones to a single point, may I put this to the Foreign Secretary? *See correction, 8th May, col. 571 We have had considerable experience of this problem in connection with the Polish displaced persons. It is not merely a matter of principle between forcible repatriation or not. There are thousands of people in these conditions, who have genuine reasonable grounds to fear reprisals when they return home. They must not be sent back, but equally there are thousands of people who are genuinely afraid of being sent back owing to false reports and false propaganda and in some circumstances better standards of living where they are. There are certain things which we did—[HON. MEMBERS: "Question."] Then may I ask the Foreign Secretary [HON. MEMBERS: "Speech."] I think this is important and I am trying to be helpful. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider whether the same administrative action can be taken with the Korean prisoners as was adopted for the Polish displaced persons, which went further than the statement he made, and allowed, under safeguards, Communist representatives to address the prisoners, and also the prisoners who have returned to North Korea to come back and tell their friends about their experiences? In this way we increased the number of Poles who went back to Poland.

Mr. Eden

If the hon. Member will study my reply, which is a lengthy one and difficult to follow, he will find among the offers made was that there should be representatives from the Communist side who would go and see these prisoners▀×

Mr. Mayhew

As observers?

Mr. Eden

Certainly, and speak to them if they so desire after the armistice. We think it right that the armistice should be agreed first and then there will be full freedom for any investigation.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Awbery.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

On a point of order. Is it not in order for some one from the minority in this House who objects entirely to the Korean war and wants it ended immediately to put a question to the Government?

Mr. Speaker

I was not aware of the hon. Member's views on the subject. I only thought that we had a long statement and a certain number of supplementary questions and that we might pass to the other business of the House.