Benedict Rogers, Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and East Asia Team Leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, returns from five days in Pyongyang with Lord Alton and Baroness Cox and advocates a peace conference facilitated by the United Kingdom, and a “Helsinki Process with a Korean Face”.
North Korea has one of the world’s most deplorable human rights records, is one of the world’s most isolated nations and is one half of the world’s most dangerous peninsula. That is why I travelled to Pyongyang last week with Lord Alton and Baroness Cox, to meet the regime.
Our visit came at a historic time. A week earlier, military parades marched through the streets of Pyongyang celebrating the 65thanniversary of the founding of the Workers Party of Korea, and the world’s media was given unprecedented access. Earlier in October, Kim Jong-Il’s son, Kim Jong-Un, was made a four-star General and Vice-Chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission at the age of 27, a clear sign that he is being prepared as the successor, to perpetuate the world’s only dynastic dictatorship.
This year also marks some important anniversaries: the tenth anniversary of diplomatic relations between the United Kingdom and North Korea, and the sixtieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War – a war in which three million Koreans died, along with thousands of American, Chinese and other nations’ troops. Over 1,000 British soldiers were killed in the Korean War, more than Iraq, Afghanistan and the Falklands combined.
We went to North Korea at a time when tensions on the Korean peninsula are at their highest for many years. Earlier in the year, the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel, the “Cheonan”, led to the loss of 46 lives. Within 48 hours of our departure, North Korean soldiers opened fire across the border at the 38th parallel, the first skirmish since 2006.
The North Korean regime stands accused of crimes against humanity and criminal involvement in narcotics, arms sales and money laundering. Over recent years, I have met exiled former prisoners who have survived the country’s notorious gulags, with horrific stories to tell.
Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a prison camp, and saw his mother and brother executed. He was cruelly tortured, and roasted over a hot fire. When he escaped with a friend, his friend died when he ran into an electric fence. Shin Dong-hyuk climbed over the fried corpse to continue his escape.
Jung Guang-il was subjected to “pigeon torture”, whereby he was handcuffed with his arms tied behind him to an object, making it impossible for him to stand or sit. He said he felt as though his bones were breaking through his chest while the rest of his body was paralysed. After nine months in prison, his weight fell from 75kg to 38kg. All his teeth were smashed by guards during beatings.
When Lee Sung Ae was jailed, all her nails were pulled out with pliers, all her lower teeth were destroyed and guards poured water, mixed with hot chillis, up her nose.
All three of these former prisoners have testified at hearings in both the British and European Parliaments. Evidence has been documented in Barbara Demick’s superb book Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea, in films like Kimjongilia and Yodok Stories, and in reports such as David Hawk’s The Hidden Gulag, DLA Piper’s Failure to Protect, Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s North Korea: A Case To Answer, A Call To Act, and by the United Nations. Former UN Special Rapporteur Vitit Muntarbhorn, who was never allowed to visit the country, concluded that North Korea’s human rights record is “abysmal” due to “the repressive nature of the power base: at once cloistered, controlled and callous”.
He has said that the exploitation of ordinary people “has become the pernicious prerogative of the ruling elite”, and that abuses are “systematic and pervasive”, “harrowing and horrific” and “egregious and endemic”. He has called on the international community to “mobilise the totality of the United Nations to promote and protect human rights in the country,” to take up North Korea’s human rights crisis “at the pinnacle of the system”, and to take action to end impunity. North Korea’s human rights record is, he says, “sui generis (in its own category)”.
In the face of this tragic situation, which has the potential to be catastrophic, indifference and inaction are not an option. The dangers of tensions escalating into a full-scale war exist – one accident, or one small act of provocation, could tip the balance, with disastrous consequences. A war between the North and South would draw in the United States and China, causing the suffering of millions. At the same time, like Hitler’s concentration camps and Stalin’s gulag, the prison camps of North Korea are a gross affront to the world’s conscience. As Lord Alton told the House of Lords in 2003, introducing the first debate on North Korea in Parliament in decades:
“The threat to international security posed by North Korea may best be considered by way of pernicious actions against its own citizens. North Korea’s Stalinist dictatorship has treated its own people with unbelievable brutality and viciousness. The people are starving, the hospitals are without medicine and a whole generation has grown up stunted and mentally retarded because of malnutrition.”
The North Koreans, unsurprisingly, protested to Lord Alton about his speech, and denied the allegations. But they also did something unexpected – they invited Lord Alton and Baroness Cox to visit the country. As a result of their 2003 visit, the two peers formed the All Party Parliamentary Group for North Korea, and further parliamentary delegations followed. In 2004 the Speaker of North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly visited the United Kingdom for the first time. I remember attending a public meeting in Parliament, in which this senior North Korean official was subjected to tough questioning. He was taken to observe Prime Minister’s Questions, met the Archbishop of Canterbury and visited Cambridge University. Lord Alton and Baroness Cox made a second visit to Pyongyang last year, and published a report which they called Carpe Diem: Seizing the Moment for Change, which followed their first report North Korea: Finding a Way Forward. Now, their third report, based on the findings of our visit last week, has been released – Building Bridges, Not Walls: The Case for Constructive, Critical Engagement with North Korea.
Five days in North Korea is a surreal experience. At times I felt I had walked straight into the pages of George Orwell’s 1984. Everywhere one goes, pictures of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jung-Il are there, staring down at you, like Big Brother. And of course everything is thanks to either the “Great Leader” or the “Dear Leader.” When film footage of father and son appeared on a big screen at a concert, followed by footage of tanks and missiles firing, I sat on my hands and refused to clap, surrounded by rows of applauding North Korean soldiers. At other moments, I found myself talking to senior officials from the regime and to our excellent interpreters and minders, and recognising them as hospitable, gracious and intelligent people trapped in an evil system. One of them had watched Yes, Minister.
I saw flickers of hope and light in a dark land, in the form of British Council teachers and a remarkable South Korean Christian who has established North Korea’s first privately-funded university, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), with a faculty of American, British and Dutch professors. I would never have believed such things were possible. Even the regime’s language indicates some change, emphasising not the “military-first” policy of the past but the goal of building a “dignified” and “prosperous” nation.
But there were two things that became absolutely clear to me. First, that the current, fragile Armistice – a situation that is neither war nor peace – is a completely unsatisfactory recipe for continued instability and the risk of war. And second, that we have to get in there and engage with the North Koreans, robustly, critically and intelligently, to open up hearts and minds. We have to distinguish between the people and the system, and extend a hand of friendship to the people on both sides of the 38th parallel. To continue to isolate the so-called “hermit nation” will cause simply more suffering for its people.
As a former combatant country in the Korean War, with a special relationship with the United States, the United Kingdom is well-placed to try to facilitate a peace conference, with the co-operation of China and perhaps hosted in Beijing. A neutral country such as Switzerland or Sweden could play an important role too. The North Koreans say they want a peace agreement, so let’s take them at their word and put it to the test. What have the South Koreans and the United States got to lose by talking. They don’t have to sign a treaty until they are satisfied with the terms, but to come to the table risks nothing.
In January this year North Korea actually made such an offer, of unconditional talks, and the United States rejected it. As one Western military observer told us, “if your adversary offers to talk, it is morally wrong to refuse. The unpredictability of the situation lies with the closed-ness of the system, but if we open a bit, the unpredictability will dissipate. The North Koreans are eager for outside contact.”
On human rights, it is time for a dual-track approach: targeted pressure, combined with principled engagement. In terms of pressure, of course targeted sanctions must remain in place until there is meaningful change, and the United Nations should establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity. There may be a case to be brought to the International Criminal Court. At the same time, policy-makers must show some creativity in finding ways to engage in dialogue.
This is what Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan did with the Soviet Union, when they established the Helsinki Process. The plight of Soviet dissidents was constantly on their agenda, and they confronted the Soviets with individual cases. Now we need “Helsinki with a Korean face”. We must move away from our single-issue politics of denuclearisation, and recognise that the nuclear conundrum will never be solved unless peace, and human rights, are addressed. Peace, human rights, poverty and security are inter-related, and all must be on the table.
Last week in Pyongyang, Lord Alton, Baroness Cox and I put this idea into action. In every meeting, we summarised our concerns about North Korea’s public executions, torture in the prison camps, child labour, trafficking of women and sexual slavery. We urged officials to invite the new Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in North Korea into the country, to open prison camps to international monitors including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and to introduce a moratorium on executions. We presented them with a list of countries that have abolished the death penalty, and those that have ceased to use it in practice. The list included some of North Korea’s major trading partners. We cited Shin Dong-hyuk’s testimony, and when they attempted to dismiss such reports as “lies” told by “criminals”, we asked how a person born in a prison camp could be a criminal? We gave them reports from the UN and Human Rights Watch, as well as copies of William Hague’s biography of anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce.
The pile of reading material left in every meeting weighed a lot. Some of our conversations were heavy, and the temperature dropped to below freezing at times, but at least we tried. It is too early to tell whether our approach had a catalytic or soporific effect, but the alternative, to not talk, will lead nowhere. Do not underestimate the moral power of standing face-to-face with another man, looking him straight in the eye, and telling him you know his government is committing these violations. At least then, he knows you know and maybe, just maybe, he is given some pause for thought.
The British Government, which has pledged to put human rights at the heart of foreign policy, has a unique opportunity to drive this agenda forward. It is what North Korea expert and human rights campaigner David Hawk calls “a fundamentally new and untried approach”. In his paper Pursuing Peace While Advancing Rights: The Untried Approach to North Korea, he writes:
“For the last twenty years, the paradigm that has guided approaches to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) is that the pursuit of peace – either in the form of diplomatic discussions centering on North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs or in the form of extended social, economic, and political engagement aims at fostering improved relationships between the DPRK and other nation-states that intersect in Northeast Asia – requires that human rights concepts be kept off the table and that North Korea’s potential partners in the pursuit of peace and reconciliation affect a deaf, dumb, blind and mute posture toward the systematic, severe, and widespread human rights violations in the DPRK.
"Over the last two decades …. there have been recurring cycles of provocation, confrontation, and crisis alternating with negotiations and engagement. Throughout, these two contrasting approaches to North Korea – negotiations, reconciliation, and engagement in the pursuit of peace in ways that rebuff human rights considerations, or alternatively, the raising of human rights concerns about North Korea in the absence of an attempt to reconcile and engage the DPRK – have both failed. …. [There is] an alternative that would pursue peace, engagement, and reconciliation in association with the promotion and protection of human rights: a fundamentally new and untried approach.”
David Cameron has an opportunity to take up this agenda when he visits China next month. President Obama has an opportunity to finally earn his premature Nobel Peace Prize. The world, and the people of the Korean peninsula, have an opportunity for peace and the beginnings of change. We have an opportunity to draw North Korea in from the cold. The North Koreans are knocking, hesitantly, at our door. Will we have the courage and wisdom to answer?