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UK should lead the way on North Korea: accountability, information, critical engagement

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist, a former Parliamentary Candidate, and is Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.

Two events took place yesterday which have the potential to contribute to making our world a better place. One was President Barack Obama’s inauguration – or more specifically, his speech. The other was a debate in the House of Lords on the security, humanitarian and human rights situation in North Korea. Both had a ‘carpe diem’ feel to them.

Obama’s speech had the soaring, inspiring rhetoric which we have come to associate with him. But, beneath the rhetoric, it contained some truths that all of us, wherever we are in the world, should internalise and turn into action. He talked about the founding truths of the United States of America, which are universal to all mankind – of all men being made equal, with unalienable rights, including life and liberty. But he added a challenge to us:

"For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth".

In other words, we must work for it.

He turned then from his country to the rest of the world:

“We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully – not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear.”

But with that engagement comes a commitment to freedom.

“We will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.”

His ‘carpe diem’ moment? “We are made for this moment, and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together,” reinforced at the end of the speech by, “let us answer the call of history.”

Out of the glare of the spotlight, and with rather more gritty determination than poetic idealism, Peers discussed what to do about the world’s most oppressed, most closed and one of its most dangerous nations: North Korea.

The debate was introduced by Lord Alton of Liverpool, who for the past ten years or more has shown extraordinary commitment, courage, creativity and leadership on this issue. As Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, he has held numerous hearings where survivors of North Korea’s gulags have given evidence of the horrors they have endured. With Baroness Cox, he has visited Pyongyang four times, relentlessly pursuing what he calls ‘Helsinki with a Korean face’ – constructive but critical engagement with the North Korean regime.

In every discussion with the North Koreans, at every opportunity, often in direct and sometimes in creative ways, he has looked the regime in the eye and confronted them with incontrovertible evidence of their atrocious abuse of their own people. I know, because I have seen it, and have been an accomplice to it. I travelled with Lord Alton and Baroness Cox to Pyongyang in 2010; I armed them with piles of human rights reports.

Yesterday’s debate was an opportunity to shine a light on one of the darkest corners of the world. But it was also an opportunity to suggest to Her Majesty’s Government that there were some practical steps that could be taken – and the United Kingdom could lead the way. Lord Alton painted a picture of the human rights catastrophe in North Korea, and called for the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry to investigate:

“On human rights, according to the United Nations, 200,000 people are languishing in festering prison camps—the kwan-li-so—where 400,000 people have died in the past 30 years. In an evidence session here, Shin Dong Hyok described how he was born and spent 23 years in Camp 14 and was tortured and subjected to forced labour. At 14, he was made to watch the execution of his mother and brother ... The evidence given to our committee ... include accounts of executions, torture, detention, forced labour, trafficking, religious persecution and the “guilt by association” policy, which leads to the arrest, imprisonment and punishment of detainees’ families for up to three generations. We have also heard of women impregnated by Chinese men facing forced abortions or infanticide following deportation by China ... North Korea has never allowed United Nations special rapporteurs on human rights to enter the country, but with 25,000 North Koreans living in the south and an estimated 100,000 living illegally in China, there would be no shortage of evidence for such an inquiry to assess.”

Baroness Cox then provided a catalogue of five shocking testimonies. You can read them all here, but I just quote two. She told the House:

Ahn Myeong-Cheol, aged 37, described how his father killed himself when he learnt that he had been heard criticising the regime, while his mother and brothers were sent to prison camps as a punishment for his criticism. Ahn was “re-educated” and became a prison guard, witnessing guard dogs, imported from Russia, tear three children to pieces and the camp warden congratulating the guard who had trained the dogs. After he escaped, Ahn published They Are Crying for Help, urging the international community not to look away from the human rights violations and crimes against humanity experienced on a daily basis by the North Korean people.

Lee Sung-ae,described how prison guards pulled out her finger-nails, destroyed all her lower teeth and poured water mixed with chillies into her nose. Finally, Kim Hye-sook was sent to gaol aged 13 because her grandfather had gone to South Korea. She spent 28 years in the prison camp; as a child she was forced to work in coal mines and witness public executions. In 2011 she showed the all-party group her paintings depicting the suffering she both witnessed and experienced, ranging from deprivation of food to public executions and even cannibalism. She wept as she spoke about the death of her son in the camp.

So what could the United Kingdom do in response to such barbarity? From the debate, and from my own advocacy work, I would draw out four recommendations:

  1. Lead an effort at the UN Human Rights Council in March to secure the establishment of a UN Commission of Inquiry into crimes against humanity in North Korea. Christian Solidarity Worldwide first called for this in our report in 2007, North Korea: A Case to Answer, A Call to Act. Since then, momentum has grown. A coalition of over 40 human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, was formed in 2011, called the International Coalition to Stop Crimes Against Humanity in North Korea. International human rights lawyer Jared Genser argued the case in the Washington Post yesterday. The chief prosecutor of Slobodan Milosevic, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, and leading international legal expert, Professor William Schabas, have backed the campaign for an international inquiry. The UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in North Korea has called on individual states and the international community to “undertake a comprehensive review of the relevant documents, to assess the underlying patterns and trends, and … consider setting up a more detailed mechanism of inquiry”. And most recently, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has called for a full independent international inquiry. The current composition of the Human Rights Council means this year is our best chance of securing such an inquiry. The resolution on North Korea at the General Assembly was passed without a vote, meaning that even North Korea’s few allies are getting tired of defending them. Taking the initiative and showing leadership on an issue of such profound moral, political and strategic importance would cost the United Kingdom little, and win David Cameron plaudits. Just as Tony Blair was the prime minister who established diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, David Cameron could be the prime minister who held the regime to account.
  2. Break the information blockade. North Korea is the world’s most closed nation. No Internet, except for the very few at the top of the elite. No free press. Plenty of propaganda. A hermit kingdom sealed off from the rest of the world. And yet, radio is a medium more and more people have access to, and there are radio stations run by defectors broadcasting from Seoul, and Voice of America and Radio Free Asia from the US. But South Korea and America carry enormous political baggage for North Koreans, whereas Britain is generally respected and appreciated. Senior people in the North Korean regime speak of their love of our history and literature. One very senior leader is a Byron aficionado. So why does the BBC World Service not have a Korean language broadcast, which could reach listeners in North Korea? Its Burmese service has been highly respected over the years; its broadcasts into the Soviet Union made a difference. The BBC should establish a Korean language service, broadcasting into the world’s most closed nation.
  3. Urge China to stop repatriation of North Korean refugees. China is in violation of international law. I have written about it here. Not only is it breaching the 1951 Refugee Convention’s principle of ‘non-refoulement’, it is disregarding the principle of ‘refugees sur place’. The United Kingdom must not simply ‘raise’ this with China – it should explore what mechanisms there could be for putting international political and legal pressure on Beijing, if it does not change its policy. China’s new president Xi Jinping should be left in no doubt that it cannot be in his country’s interests to be complicit with North Korea’s crimes against humanity. Its respectability and reputation are at stake.
  4. Humanitarian assistance and critical engagement. North Korea is the world’s most isolated country. Our objective should not be to further isolate it, it should be to prize it open. That’s where Obama’s engagement approach in principle should be applied in practice with North Korea. The Koreas are still technically at war – with only a fragile armistice, not a peace agreement, in place. Obama’s pledge – that “we will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully – not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear” – is relevant to North Korea more than it is anywhere else. For internal political reasons, Obama probably won’t have the courage to show such leadership on North Korea. So why doesn’t David Cameron? He could broker an initiative that could pave the way for a Korean Peninsula peace process. But, as Lord Alton said last night, it must be along the lines of the Helsinki Process with the Soviet Union – with human rights and freedom centre-stage:

“Britain has diplomatic relations with both sides and should build on the successful 2011 visit of Choe Tae Bok, the Speaker of the North Korean Supreme Assembly, who expressed interest in both our Northern Ireland peace process and the Hong Kong formula of two systems in one country. As the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan clearly understood, advocating the use of soft power should not be confused with being a soft touch.”

Similarly, food should never be used as a political weapon. If people are starving, we should try to help. There are valid questions about monitoring and ensuring that humanitarian assistance benefits those we want it to benefit – but we should at least try.

For too long, North Korea has been put on the too-difficult pile. North Korea's people have suffered, out of the glare of the world's television cameras, a litany of horrors: total oppression, absolute denial of freedom, the uncertainties and insecurities of a state of war, bizarre propaganda, starvation, chronic poverty, isolation from the rest of the world. The time has come for someone, somewhere, to, in Obama's words, "answer the call of history" and set in train a series of actions that could begin to "carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom". That precious light needs to be carried into the darkest place on earth.

Obama may not be the man to do it. David Cameron, on the other hand, has an opportunity. Yes, he and William Hague have a lot on their foreign policy plate already: Algeria and Europe, to name just two of the challenges of this week. But they could not just answer the call of history, but earn a place in history, if they seize the moment and say yes: we will hold the Kim regime accountable; we will support the spread of information into North Korea; we will urge China to live up to its responsibilities as a world power; and we will talk face to face with Pyongyang, we will not let people starve, and we will use our place as a nation with influence that far outstrips its size, to hold a torch for the 24 million people who live in darkness.

Lead the way, UK, for NK, and we can hold our heads high.


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