HC Deb 22 June 1953 vol 516 cc1479-85
46. Mr. A. Henderson

asked the Prime Minister if he will now state what steps are being taken by the United Nations authorities in Korea to prevent the further release of North Korean prisoners of war except in accordance with the recently signed agreement at Panmunjom.

48. Mr. Donnelly

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a further statement on the Korean truce talks.

The Prime Minister (Sir Winston Churchill)

Since the answer is rather long, I will, with your permission, Sir, and the indulgence of the House, make a statement at the end of Questions.

At end of Questions—

The Prime Minister

With permission, I will now make the statement in answer to Questions Nos. 46 and 48.

A meeting of the principal negotiators was held at Panmunjom on 20th of June. The Communists handed over a letter from their two Commanders-in-Chief addressed to General Mark Clark. This communication made a number of observations about the recent escape of Korean prisoners and asked several questions. The United Nations Command are now considering this communication.

The details of this deplorable occurrence are now well known. Since the major events on 18th of June there have been break-outs on a smaller scale at other camps. The latest information available to me, which is necessarily approximate, is that out of about 33,000 North Korean prisoners likely to be placed in the custody of the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission after the conclusion of an Armistice some 8,000 to 9,000 remain in the camps. These are now under United States guard.

Nothing could be further from the truth than to allege, as has been done, that the United Nations Command have connived at these happenings. The United States Government have publicly announced that they regard the action taken by the Government of the Republic of Korea to be in violation of the authority of the United Nations Command to which the Republic of Korea had agreed in July 1950. They assert that on behalf of the United Nations they have conducted the negotiations for an Armistice in good faith and have acted in good faith. President Eisenhower has communicated with President Syngman Rhee in this sense.

The views of Her Majesty's Government have been made known to the Government of the Republic of Korea in the following note of protest which Her Majesty's Minister has delivered to that Government today: 1. Her Majesty's Government have been shocked to read the statement of the President of the Government of the Republic of Korea of the 18th of June in which he stated that he ordered, on his own responsibility, the release of certain Korean prisoners. They have noted with deep concern the consequent escape of thousands of these prisoners from a number of camps under the United Nations Command. 2. As a member of the United Nations, whose military forces are participating in the Korean action, Her Majesty's Government strongly condemn this treacherous violation of the authority of the United Nations Command to which the Government of Korea had agreed in 1950. Moreover, Her Majesty's Government understand that during recent weeks the Government of the Republic of Korea have actually reaffirmed this position by assurances to the United Nations Command that no unilateral action of this kind would be taken by them. 3. Her Majesty's Government are anxiously watching the course of events which are fraught with serious possibilities. Unless there is a Government in the Republic of Korea which will co-operate loyally with the United Nations Command, the security and welfare of its people, as well as all the gains which have been made by the sacrifice of so many, including the gallant Republic of Korea Army, will be jeopardised. The United Nations Command are thus confronted with grave and serious problems. We remain in the closest touch with the United States Government and Commonwealth Governments. The House will not expect me to take this matter further today while difficult negotiations and consultations remain in progress, but I shall be glad to make a further statement as soon as I am in a position to do so.

Mr. Henderson

Has the Prime Minister's attention been drawn to the further statement of President Rhee to the effect that, even if there be a truce, he and his Government will carry on the war in Korea? May I ask him if he will again reaffirm that it is the unchangeable policy of Her Majesty's Government that this fighting should be brought to an end as soon as a proper truce agreement is arrived at; and although President Rhee expects to receive moral and material support from the Allies, even if he carries on the war on his own, that the aid being given by this country is limited to the war carried on under the auspices of the United Nations and not for the purposes of the South Korean Government alone?

The Prime Minister

That raises all sorts of complicated issues. For a long time the United States have been doing their utmost to strengthen the South Korean Army in order to relieve the very heavy burden which has fallen upon themselves. The problem there is one really of a most serious character and full of danger, and we have to be very careful in making statements which perhaps would not take fully into consideration the difficult issues involved. But we are absolutely resolved to act in good faith, and we have the fullest agreement with our great ally across the ocean on that aspect.

Mr. Attlee

Is it not a very serious feature of these events that action seems to have been taken by the Government of Korea in a sphere in which one would have understood the whole of the operations were under the Supreme Military Commander? It is rather disturbing that after the major escape these other escapes should have continued, which seems to show a great lack of discipline on the part of the South Korean forces who are, presumably, an integral part of the United Nations Forces operating there?

The Prime Minister

I am not so sure it is a great lack of discipline. It may be a highly particularised form of secret, and, as I hold, treacherous action. The United States have a very heavy burden to bear and they had moved, in the course of the last year, about 13,000 of their troops from guarding the prisoner cages to holding the line—which are not too many men—and this has led them, under every kind of honourable assurance, to entrust a large proportion of these duties to South Korean troops, who have, on this occasion, in my opinion, misconducted themselves, but under the orders of their own Government. The matter is obviously very serious. We cannot cast away the whole fruits of these years of fighting and ask the Americans, and so on, and our own people, who shed their blood, to treat it as if it were nothing. It seems to me that great firmness should be shown and very close contact between the United Nations partners who have actual combatant forces in the field.

Mr. Donnelly

Will the Prime Minister accept that there is support from all parts of the House for the very strongly worded protest he has delivered? In saying that, may I also ask if the attention of the right hon. Gentleman has been drawn to the Press reports that President Rhee is now seeking to recruit some of these escaped prisoners into the South Korean Army? Without going too far into that, would the right hon. Gentleman at least agree that the United Nations Command should not accept the support of these troops in the South Korean Army, and that the United Nations Command will act vigorously by taking these troops from the South Korean Army and putting them back in the prison camps?

The Prime Minister

I should think that that was a very sensible line of action.

Miss Lee

Is the Prime Minister aware that, no matter how strongly worded a protest may go to Mr. Syngman Rhee, there will still be a great deal of world opinion baffled by the failure of the intelligence service—we are included, but America has had the main burden—and in those circumstances would the right hon. Gentleman go further than making a protest? Will he ask for a commission of inquiry to find out how this treacherous act took place, hoping that in the course of the inquiry it will be made absolutely clear that no American, British or other personnel were involved?

The Prime Minister

This matter has been mentioned in the United States. I really think that we must place our confidence in them. They are very likely to examine the details of the precautions taken and the efficiency of their intelligence, but I cannot feel that we ought to intervene on that aspect when so many other matters, on which we have a greater claim to be heard, press for attention.

Mr. Usborne

Can the Prime Minister assure the House that it is not now the view of Her Majesty's Government or of the United Nations that Korea can or should be united by force? Can he give us that assurance, because it was not long ago that the Foreign Secretary said that the original intention of the United Nations, that Korea should be unified, still stood?

The Prime Minister

I think the words "by force" were not included. There was an idea that when there was a settlement, as we hoped there would have been by now and as there would have been but for this act of bad faith, then the United Nations and the United States would help to build up the ruined, shattered area of North Korea and in so doing would try to bring about by peaceful methods the unity of that body, but we have not committed ourselves, that I am aware of, in any way, to go forward and conquer the whole area of Korea and place it under the authority of Mr. Syngman Rhee.

Mr. S. Silverman

Has the attention of the right hon. Gentleman been called to General Mark Clark's explanation that he did not take any steps to prevent the escape of which there had been a rumoured intention, because he relied absolutely upon the assurances he had received from Mr. Syngman Rhee that there was no such intention? Having regard to the fact that these assurances proved absolutely worthless, will the right hon. Gentleman say what steps would be taken to make sure that if an armistice were now signed on further assurances of that kind, there were no breaches of them?

The Prime Minister

It has been a great strain keeping all these troops in action all the time, and I can quite see why it was thought better to put these extra 13,000 Americans in the line. Now we do not know quite what will happen. It might be that reinforcements would be needed in Korea in order to enforce a policy of peace and good faith.

Mr. Paget

However much one may deplore the action of the South Korean Government, does not the action of these prisoners themselves, coupled with the events in Berlin, throw an interesting light on the popularity of Communism? Further, why were not these people allowed to escape 12 months ago when it would have involved no breach of faith?

The Prime Minister

The question of the popularity of Communism is one which, no doubt, could be discussed with great freedom in all parts of the House, but the balance of opinion, I believe, would lie on its growing unpopularity. I think that we would complicate any discussions on that subject which might take place by trying to mix up what has happened in Korea with what has recently happened in Berlin.

Mr. Noel-Baker

I do not ask the Prime Minister to go further than he has gone today while negotiations are going on, and I do not ask him for an answer to what I am going to say, but I should like to ask if he will consider whether, if an early truce should not happen owing to the action of the Korean Government, he will propose to the President of the Assembly of United Nations that he should summon a meeting in order that the South Koreans may understand the opinion of the other members who are all vitally concerned and in order that the Korean people may know that they have no support from world opinion?

The Prime Minister

That is a very thoughtful and lucidly expressed question, and it falls to me to express my gratitude to the right hon. Gentleman for the fact that I do not need to give him an answer.