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Benedict Rogers: Cameron and Hague should press for justice in North Korea

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

Screen shot 2013-07-17 at 15.47.25Few people know more about North Korea than Lord Alton of Liverpool – and certainly no-one in Parliament. For over a decade, he has championed human rights in North Korea and peace on the Korean peninsula, relentlessly holding hearings, debates and tabling questions. Most significantly, he has visited North Korea, South Korea and the China-North Korea border. His new book, ’Building Bridges: Is there Hope for North Korea?’, is a testament to his skill and dedication and essential reading for anyone interested in the question.

The most extraordinary aspect of David Alton’s approach to North Korea is the way he has managed to pursue engagement with the regime, without ever compromising over human rights. Together with Baroness Cox he has made three visits to the country to talk to the regime, and in October 2011 he made a fourth solo visit, to lecture at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). The lecture, on education, science, ethics and virtue, makes extraordinary reading when one remembers it was delivered in the capital of the most closed and oppressed nation on earth. The venue, PUST, is an equally extraordinary initiative – a privately owned university established by an entrepreneurial South Korean Christian, Dr James Kim, in a country where religion is virtually outlawed.

Two years ago, Lord Alton hosted a visit to Britain by the Speaker of the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly, Choe Tae-bok. Far from being an act of appeasement, this was a rare opportunity to expose a high-level North Korean delegation to the ways of a free society. They witnessed Prime Minister’s Question Time, met the Centre for Opposition Studies and were subjected to tough questioning on human rights, including by a North Korean defector. Due to Lord Alton’s pioneering work, an All Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea was established, and other Parliamentarians have been recruited to the cause. In the House of Commons, Fiona Bruce MP is leading the charge. In January 2012 she introduced a debate in Westminster Hall, shortly after Kim Jong-il’s death. Tonight, she plans to raise North Korea again, in the end of term debate.

So what should Britain be doing? To give the Government credit, it has already done quite a lot. For five years, my colleagues in Christian Solidarity Worldwide and I campaigned for a UN commission of inquiry, to investigate crimes against humanity, following our major report in 2007. We established a global coalition. In January this year, I wrote calling on Britain to take the lead. Behind the scenes, Britain responded, and helped secure this significant step forward. The inquiry, led by a well respected Australian judge, will report in March 2014, and the task now is to ensure it receives all the resources it needs to conduct an effective investigation.

What else? In his book, David Alton not only provides a helpful analysis of Korean history and an assessment of the human rights crisis and humanitarian and security challenges, he also offers ideas on ways forward. His essential concept can be summed up in his phrase, “Helsinki with a Korean face”. By this he means adapting the approach taken with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, and applying it to North Korea. That approach involved combining a robust stance on security with a willingness to look the other side in the eye across a table, and to put concern for human rights firmly on the table.

As President Reagan said in Berlin in 1987, “freedom and security go together ... the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace”. To take Reagan’s next words and adapt them to North Korea, we should be doing all we can to “tear down” the “wall” that surrounds North Korea. Refusing to talk does not get us anywhere, but engagement must be critical and constructive, and must avoid appeasement. It is no easy task, but if we could do it with the Soviets, surely we should try it with Pyongyang.

In 2010, I travelled with Lord Alton and Baroness Cox to North Korea. I wrote about it here. At no point did they flinch from raising the toughest issues – executions, torture, North Korea’s gulags. While it yielded no immediate, tangible results, it at least meant that North Korean officials were confronted with the ugly truth – and had a chance to hear something other than the daily propaganda diet they are otherwise fed. We should persist with this approach. As Lord Alton writes, “North Korea is a signatory to four international human rights treaties ..... Constantly asking North Korea how it honours its treaty obligations would be a good start to raising the subject but its treatment of civilians in its prison camps should always be the top priority.”

North Korea is already the most isolated country in the world. Our objective should not be to isolate it further, to push the door even more tightly closed and turn the key. It should be to prise the door open, using every tool available to us. Those tools include international pressure, investigation and accountability, public awareness, and critical engagement. And perhaps most important of all, we must break the information blockade. As scholar Andrei Lankov argues in his new book, “the only long-term solution, therefore, is to increase internal pressure for a regime transformation, and the major way to achieve this is to increase North Korea’s awareness of the outside world.”

This can be done in several ways, including academic and cultural exchanges that expose North Koreans to the ways of the free world. “There is no doubt that the top functionaries in Pyongyang and the spoiled brats of the Pyongyang government quarters will be the first to take advantage of international student exchanges or overseas study trips,” Lankov acknowledges. “However, to be frank, they are exactly the type of people who matter most”. Change is most likely to be led, he argues, by “well-informed and disillusioned members of the elite”.

In addition to such exchanges with decision-makers, Britain should invest in developing the skills of North Korean refugees. The Foreign Office should increase engagement with North Korean refugees in Britain, using them as a valuable source of information and ideas, and helping them develop skills which they can use to campaign for change in their country, and to help rebuild their country when change comes.

Distribution of DVDs, audio, video and written information and entertainment on USB sticks, and radio broadcasts should be increased. In particular, the BBC should move ahead with plans for a Korean language service to broadcast into North Korea. A sustained campaign has resulted in a willingness by the BBC to consider this. It appears now to be a question of resources. If we are serious about trying to break the information blockade in the world’s most closed country, the resources should be found. Despite its part in the Korean War, Britain is not hampered by the political baggage of the United States and South Korea, so the BBC may be listened to in North Korea more seriously than Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and the South Korean-based defector-run stations.

The desperate plight of North Korean refugees in China also needs increased attention. China’s inhumane policy of forcibly repatriating North Koreans, to certain imprisonment, torture and sometimes death, must be challenged. The recent decision of Laos to send North Korean refugees back should be highlighted. China argues North Koreans are economic migrants not refugees, but even those escaping economic misery are fleeing the regime’s policies, including its grim caste system. Furthermore, whatever their reasons for leaving North Korea, all North Koreans become ‘refugees sur place’ on account of the certain fate that would await them if returned.

High-profile cases of foreigners such as Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American jailed for 15 years earlier this year, should be highlighted, both because of the injustice each case entails, and as a way of shining the spotlight on the plight of the estimated 200,000 people in the prison camps. The plight of abductees kidnapped by North Korean agents should not be ignored. As Lord Alton writes, “the issue of human rights and their violations deserves to be the world’s number-one priority.” What is needed for North Korea is a major public campaign, a mass movement, combined with increased efforts by Britain and others in the international community. It is long overdue.


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