Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist, a former
Parliamentary Candidate, and is Deputy Chairman of the Conservative
Party Human Rights Commission.
Few 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
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
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
judge, will report in March 2014, and the task now is to ensure it receives
all the resources it needs to conduct an effective
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
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
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
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.