Human Rights in the DPRK

FCO Minister Hugo Swire spoke about the human rights situation in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea during a Westminster Hall Debate.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Hugo Swire

I congratulate my Honourable Friend, the Member for South West Bedfordshire, for securing this debate. I pay tribute to his work, and that of the North Korea All Party Parliamentary Group, in raising the profile of human rights issues in North Korea and seeking to give ordinary North Koreans a voice.

My interest

Human rights in North Korea is an issue that has occupied a great deal of my time and one that I discussed only yesterday with our Ambassador to Pyongyang, who I know is also going to meet the All Party Parliamentary Group next week. As I have said before to this House, I believe the situation in North Korea is without equal in its scale and brutality. No one who has read Lord Alton and Lady Cox’s book, Building Bridges, can fail to be moved by the suffering of North Korea’s people or to recognise the urgent need to end this suffering.

HMG Concerns

The Government also remains deeply concerned about the DPRK’s development of nuclear and ballistic missile programmes in wilful disregard of UN Security Council Resolutions. Its behaviour poses a threat to regional stability and to the global non-proliferation regime. And its willingness to sell conventional arms to anyone who will pay - fuels conflict around the world.

HMG action on human rights

But we have never shied away from challenging the DPRK’s human rights record: the UK played an active role in supporting the Commission of Inquiry, hosting a visit which allowed DPRK refugees in the UK to provide evidence to them. I myself met Justice Kirby on that visit. It is deeply regrettable that he has been subjected to personal abuse from the regime in Pyongyang.

Following the Commission’s report in February, I issued a statement welcoming the spotlight it shone on appalling human rights violations and called upon the DPRK government to address them urgently.

We worked with the EU, Japan and others to ensure the UN Human Rights Council adopted a strong resolution, recommending that the Commission’s report be forwarded to the UN Security Council for consideration of appropriate action, including referral to an appropriate international justice mechanism. I have made clear that the UK sees the International Criminal Court as the most appropriate option for this.

We took a similarly strong position in New York last month, when the Commission gave an informal briefing to UN Security Council members – the first time members of the Security Council have ever considered the issue of DPRK human rights, although both China and Russia were notable by their absence.
And we again took a tough line at the DPRK’s Universal Periodic Review on 1 May, using our role as a member of the “troika” to counter any exaggeration of DPRK engagement with the Review’s recommendations.

We will continue to keep the spotlight on North Korea: when the DPRK Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman presents his report to the Human Rights Council in June; when Ministers meet at the UN General Assembly in September; and through a tough UN General Assembly Resolution in the autumn.


With an UNGA resolution behind us, we could work with likeminded partners to gather the nine votes necessary to put DPRK human rights on the Security Council’s agenda. But we are realistic about the prospects for holding individuals to account before an international justice mechanism, at least in the short term. Because the DPRK is not a signatory to the Rome Statute, a referral to the International Criminal Court requires a UN Security Council Resolution – as would the creation of an ad hoc tribunal. We expect both would be blocked by China and Russia.

But we will not give up

But this does not mean we should give up. We will continue to work to change the position of those members of the international community – and there are too many of them – who will not condemn the DPRK’s human rights record. The DPRK’s response to the Commission of Inquiry’s report shows they are sensitive to international criticism. So we will ensure there is no let up.

We will also pursue another of the Commission’s recommendations, endorsed by the Human Rights Council - the creation of a new body to continue the Commission’s work of documenting human rights violations - so that when conditions do allow for criminal investigations, there will be up-to-date, credible evidence for prosecutors.

Critical engagement

And alongside our efforts to ensure DPRK human rights remains high on the international agenda, the UK will continue to use our policy of critical engagement to raise our concerns directly with the North Korean authorities.

Critical engagement means robust exchanges that leave our DPRK contacts in no doubt about our views, not least about their appalling human rights violations. It means raising specific cases, like the 33 people reportedly sentenced to death for alleged contact with Kim Jong-uk, a South Korean national who entered the DPRK for missionary purposes and has been convicted on charges of espionage. It means reminding the DPRK that, in the modern world, even they cannot keep their misdeeds hidden and that, if the rest of the world really is wrong about their political prison camps – their gulags - they have the means to disprove the claims by providing access to independent observers.

Those we speak to may be able to do no more than repeat standard lines, but what we say is repeated up the chain to those with real power.

We are expanding our engagement, but cautiously, not least because we do not want to give the impression of rewarding the DPRK when there is nothing to reward. For example, we took an important step earlier this year when we accredited a non-resident Defence Attaché to Pyongyang and gave the DPRK Attaché in Moscow similar status. This is opening up new opportunities for engagement with a different part of the DPRK system. We have also provided training to improve DPRK officials’ understanding of international economic standards.

And through our contacts with NGOs, with the All Party Parliamentary Group and with DPRK refugees we are ready to look at how we can support others who want to engage directly with the DPRK.

Influencing North Korean government and citizens

Critical engagement means finding ways to inform DPRK citizens, especially officials and others with influence, about the UK and its values, so they recognise the benefits of working with the outside world, rather than remaining isolated. This is a policy aimed at long term, incremental change – we are honest enough to acknowledge nothing the UK says or does will lead to an immediate improvement.

But we have a responsibility to use our Embassy in Pyongyang to do the things that many of our partners cannot. To exploit what the US Special Envoy for Human Rights in the DPRK, Ambassador Bob King, described to me in a meeting we had in London last week as our “advantage”. And to take forward the Commission of Inquiry’s recommendation that states and civil society organizations foster opportunities for dialogue and contact in areas like culture, good governance and economic development.

For example, through the British Council and educational immersion programmes, we have provided thousands of North Koreans with their first access to a foreigner and an understanding of British culture and values. Sustained engagement by the UK and other European countries and NGOs has resulted in modest improvements in the treatment of disabled people, with a particular boost given by the participation for the first time of a DPRK athlete in the Paralympic games in London in 2012.

BBC World Service

My Honourable Friend has suggested that the introduction of a BBC World Service Korean language service would be a further way in which we could inform DPRK citizens about the outside world. The BBC World Service is operationally, managerially and editorially independent but we kept in close contact with them during their review last year and are satisfied that it was a thorough consideration of all the options. And, while the World Service Board concluded that it was not currently possible to offer a meaningful and cost effective Korean language service, they have undertaken to keep this decision under review. We have passed on to the BBC the European Alliance for Human Rights in North Korea’s report “An unmet need”. We understand they will complete their response in the next few weeks. We will continue to engage with them and bring to their attention any changes in circumstances that might affect their assessment of the viability of a Korean language service.

UK Aid

My Honourable Friend also raised the question of food aid. The Department for International Development has no plans to start a bilateral aid programme in North Korea. But UK aid does reach the DPRK through our contributions to multilateral agencies, which is the most viable way to get aid to those who need it. For example, in 2013 the UK share of contributions to the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund – which supports projects such as Nutrition Support for Children and Women - was 23.5%. And the UK’s share of the EU budget, including EU humanitarian support for the DPRK, such as that provided in response to last year’s floods, was over 15.5% in 2013.


Let me conclude by reiterating the Government’s desire, shared by my Honourable Friend, the Member for South West Bedfordshire, to see concrete progress on alleviating the appalling human rights situation, ending the climate of impunity and bringing those responsible to account. Our commitment to long term change through engagement will never prevent us speaking out about the terrible crimes being committed in the DPRK or seeking justice for the thousands of victims.

I thank my Honourable Friend for the opportunity to debate these issues today, and the other Honourable Members for their contributions.

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Published 15 May 2014