HL Deb 03 February 2004 vol 656 cc547-50
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 British North Korea Parliamentary Group.

The Question was as follows: To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the security and human rights situation in North Korea.

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

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government fully support the six party talks process, which began in August 2003. The agreed objective of those talks is to rid the Korean peninsula of nuclear weapons, peacefully and through dialogue.

On human rights, we are concerned about reports of continued, serious violations of human rights in North Korea. We raise these issues regularly in our dealings with the North Korean authorities in London and in Pyongyang.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and welcome the strong approach that the Government have adopted. What assessment have they made of the BBC television documentary that was broadcast on Sunday evening, which documented examples of lethal chemical weapons tests against civilians? Does she agree that the best way forward in North Korea is to continue the process of engagement and dialogue, so that the dangerous nuclear stand-off and the serial human rights abuses can be consigned to the past?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I wish that we were able to engage on these serious allegations of human rights abuses. I saw part of the programme to which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred and I—like, I suggest, many others who saw that programme—was completely appalled at the practices outlined in the documentary. I share the noble Lord's concerns about the cruel and inhuman treatment in those kinds of facilities.

Yesterday, we made representations to the embassy in London as a result of that programme. The embassy denied that any such activities take place in North Korea. It refuted all the allegations made. We have requested a meeting next week with the ambassador on wider issues of human rights. Although the North Koreans are finding it hard to engage with us, we shall persist.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, the Minister may be sceptical about the allegations of the development of chemical and biological weapons made in the programme, although less so when they come from the BBC than when they come from 10 Downing Street. The programme displayed an atmosphere of collective paranoia. Does she not agree that the people of North Korea seem to be convinced that they need these weapons of mass destruction to defend themselves against American aggression? Therefore, apart from the six nation talks at high level to try to remove nuclear weapons from the peninsula, does the Minister think that the western world should campaign to open up North Korea, so that the people can see for themselves that no one has aggressive intentions against them?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords. I confess that I am slightly taken aback by what the noble Lord said. I am sure that he is not trying to play politics with questions of human rights. I do not know whether the noble Lord saw the programme. If half of what was alleged in the programme is true, I suggest to him that there can be no possible excuse for such experimentation involving whole families being herded into rooms and subjected to lethal conditions. It was disgusting and appalling to see.

As to the threat to North Korea, the issues of its security are being addressed through the six party discussions. We learnt this morning that it is proposed that the talks will be resumed on 25 February. I hope that that is something that your Lordships will be pleased to hear.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, does the Minister know the results of the recent visit by five American observers to Yongbyon nuclear facility in North Korea, with regard to the obvious security threat from its nuclear programme? Does she consider that it would be appropriate for a comparable British delegation to visit North Korea to discuss these serious human rights issues, which concern us all?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I understand that the visit provided no conclusive evidence about the state of North Korea's nuclear programmes. Such evidence could be provided only by a comprehensive inspection by international monitors, which would require the full co-operation of the DPRK authorities. It is an area on which we must do more work.

As to the question of whether non-governmental groups could engage on human rights issues, the problem is that the Government of North Korea will not engage. I welcome interest taken by anybody who tries to get to the bottom of these issues. It is important that, despite the non-engagement, we do not let up on the dialogue.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the role of China in the human rights situation is wholly deplorable? It arrests refugees from North Korea, and imprisons them or returns them to face torture or, possibly, death. It even imprisons international humanitarian workers. Can it be made clear to China that if, as appears, it wants to earn the respect the international community, it must work at it?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we expect all countries with whom we engage to respect human rights. Regrettable as some of the practices are in a number of different countries around the world, in respect of China at the moment we very much rely on its engagement in the six party talks. It is a very difficult situation. The fact is that until we can engage properly on a nuclear issue, we are very unlikely to make real progress on human rights issues. That, of necessity, is where we start with the nuclear issue but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton, reminded us, we must not lose sight of the deplorable state of human rights in North Korea.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick

My Lords, will the Minister give some thought as to the possibility of using the mechanisms of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, which has rapporteurs for dealing with these kinds of allegations, as a way of starting a dialogue with the North Koreans which might be a little more difficult to fend off than just bilateral approaches?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we supported the 2003 UN Commission on Human Rights resolution that calls for access to the country by independent monitors and for engagement by North Korea with the UN human rights mechanisms. That is something that we very warmly support. We want to pursue a dialogue with North Korea on human rights as I have indicated, including with its national commission on human rights. However, I must re-emphasise to your Lordships that this is not for want of trying. The fact is that North Korea simply refuses to engage. We shall continue to raise all our concerns and we shall also raise those concerns when the Supreme People's Assembly delegation visits the United Kingdom between 15 and 18 March this year.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, does the noble Baroness recall saying last November that the Government's judgment is that North Korea has the fissile material with which to make one or two nuclear weapons, has the technical ability to make them and can also make missiles that will travel 10,000 miles? Am I alone in finding it rather surprising that in this situation the United States is taking rather a leisurely attitude towards the problem? If I am right, what is the explanation for that?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I do not think that the United States is taking a leisurely attitude. The fact is that the North Koreans have so far publicly acknowledged one plutonium-based programme. They admitted in discussions with United States officials in October 2002 that they had also pursued a clandestine uranium enrichment programme. The international community is seeking to resolve this issue through the six party discussions. Those six parties include not only the United States and North Korea but also South Korea, Japan, China and Russia. The first round of talks that began in August last year sadly did not get very far but the second round of talks is due to begin towards the end of this month. This will be a very long process, but it is one in which the North Koreans are proposing to be engaged.

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