HL Deb 12 November 2003 vol 654 cc1361-4

3.7 p.m.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare a non-financial interest as chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the nuclear weapons programme in North Korea, and when they anticipate the resumption of the six-nations talks.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government believe that North Korea has been pursuing two separate programmes for the production of fissile material, through the enrichment of uranium and the processing of plutonium. We assess that North Korea has sufficient fissile material for one or two nuclear weapons and the technical capability to produce them. The Government fully support the six-party talks process, and hope that a second round of talks will be held within the next few weeks.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Following the visit that the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and I made to North Korea six weeks ago, has the Minister had a chance to reflect on the statements that were recorded in the report that we submitted to her from some of the most senior figures in North Korea? They would be prepared to renounce their nuclear programme and submit to a process of verification in return for recognition of their sovereignty and a commitment to peaceful co-existence on the peninsular.

Does the Minister agree that the way forward to reform and change in North Korea lies through a Helsinki-style process of engagement, rather than military action? Will this issue be discussed this week by her right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary while he is in Washington, or next week by the Prime Minister with President Bush when he is in London?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for the report that they sent, and for establishing the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea. Of course, I agree that the right way forward is to do what can be done through the negotiations of the six parties. One of the problems has been, as I am sure the noble Lord knows, that press reports from North Korea have repeatedly tried to make this into a bilateral issue with the United States of America. We do not believe that it is. It is a multilateral issue, because issues about non-proliferation are of very wide concern in the international community.

The precise agenda for President Bush's visit next week is still under discussion, but I am sure that issues relating to weapons of mass destruction and what can be done to strengthen our position over non-proliferation will be discussed. In that context, I should have thought that North Korea would be bound to feature.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there are many urgent problems in North Korea which cannot be fully addressed until there is agreement on the priority process of denuclearisation, which increases the urgency of need for progress on that issue? For example, when the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and I were there recently, we were told that in some places it is not even possible to provide the minimum food ration of 600 grammes of rice a day. In some places there is no healthcare provision at all.

On a slightly more encouraging note, is the Minister aware that aid organisations told us that there is progress by the authorities in access and accountability? Will Her Majesty's Government consider sympathetically proposals from British aid organisations to provide humanitarian relief to ease some of the appalling suffering of many people in that country today?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree. As we discussed in the debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on 13th March, the problems around the nuclear issue have deflected a great deal of attention from the humanitarian consequences of what is happening in North Korea. I agree with the noble Baroness that there is a whole range of appalling issues; she pinpointed that of malnutrition.

The main humanitarian donors to North Korea are the United States of America, South Korea and the European Union, which contribute about 9 million dollars a year. We contribute about 20 per cent of that. In addition to that aid through the European Union, DfID has agreed £400,000 to support the Red Cross disaster preparedness programmes. If the noble Baroness wishes to draw my attention to specific projects, I would be very glad to hear from her about them.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead

My Lords, does the Minister recall our debate in March when many references were made to religious freedom in North Korea? Is she aware of the recent positive developments that have taken place, such as the opening of a Protestant seminary and the construction of a new Russian Orthodox church? Does she agree that we should do all in our power to encourage and persuade the authorities in North Korea to continue to recognise the need for religious freedom? Does she agree that, if possible, the six-party talks should include a reference to people being able to worship freely?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, indeed, I recall the debate; I also recall that my noble friend Lord Clarke gave us some compelling details about religious persecution. The FCO human rights report for this year outlines our concern about the lack of religious freedom in North Korea. The resolution on the DPRK adopted by the Commission on Human Rights this year also expresses deep concern about the all-pervasive and severe restrictions on freedom of religion in the country. I hope that my noble friend has also focused on those issues, but I agree with him. When we have managed to get further with the six-party discussions, a great deal more attention must be focused on the lack of religious freedom in North Korea.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, does the Minister agree with the remarks of the former Secretary of Defense, William Perry, in the Clinton administration, that this is perhaps the single most dangerous issue about weapons proliferation to be found anywhere in the world? Could she also say whether the six-nation talks will consider the possibility of resuming the supply of light water for reactors that cannot be used to create nuclear weapons? The Minister may recall that the programme was cut off by the present American Administration, which led to a strong sense of crisis in North Korea.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, it is invidious ever to say that one weapons programme in any part of the world is definitively more dangerous than another weapons programme in another part of the world. The fact is that little by little we have discovered more of what is going on in North Korea. I am bound to point out to the noble Baroness that little by little we have also uncovered quite a lot about what is going on in Iran at the moment. I would not wish to be tempted into a definitive position about which situation is worse.

Of course, not only is the development of nuclear capability dangerous—both through plutonium and uranium, to which I referred in my initial Answer—but missile capability and the reach of missiles, which we are rather sure now have a reach of anything up to 10,000 miles, are very difficult questions. As I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, I hope that the issues about the United States of America will be touched on in the forthcoming discussions.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, following the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, does; the Minister share my view that the extreme danger of the North Korean nuclear situation is not always fully appreciated? It has now reprocessed its 8,000 spent fuel rods. It has probably got nuclear weapons already, or certainly has enough plutonium to build them. In this agonising situation, can we play the role of honest broker, as our Japanese friends have suggested? Are the reports from Beijing and Sydney this morning that the six-nation talks will definitely go ahead before Christmas right, although Pyongyang is still insisting on certain conditions to be applied? What are those conditions?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we were all encouraged to hear that those participating in the six-nation talks believe that they will go ahead. Again, I hesitate to use the words, "definitely before Christmas". As we all know, a great deal can go wrong in international relations, particularly when there has been the degree of misunderstanding over some aspects of the talks that we have experienced recently. As I said in my initial Answer, we very much hope that the talks will go ahead; we very much support that; and we believe that that is likely to be true.

As regards the spent fuel rods, there is no hard evidence to suggest that processing has been completed but, obviously, we are concerned about the implications. The processing of spent fuel would serve only to increase the DPRK's isolation from the international community. It simply represents another step in the wrong direction for the DPRK.