The current threat posed by North Korea

The current threat posed by North Korea

Taken from a House of Lords debate and contribution by Baroness Cox, 14th December 2023

The full text available through this link

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Swire, for enabling us to have this debate and to discuss the current threats to peace, security and human rights posed by North Korea. I have been in North Korea three times, as my noble friend Lord Alton mentioned. I will never forget one occasion when I went for a walk in Pyongyang and I heard the footsteps of my minder following me. After about 10 minutes, the footsteps accelerated. He caught up with me and he said, out of breath, “I can’t keep up with you. You are going to have to walk alone”, which was wonderful. I walked through Pyongyang without a minder, and it was poignant how many people wanted to come up to speak to me and how they shared with great openness their deep concerns. It was a very special occasion.

I am delighted that there are today representatives of the diplomatic corps of the Republic of Korea here and an escapee from North Korea, who himself suffered great torture. We know that people who have escaped from North Korea have great courage; it is a great privilege that you are here and we hope that you will find this debate encouraging.

Today’s discussion is very timely. In March 2024, it will be a decade since the United Nations Commission of Inquiry concluded its mandate to ensure the full accountability of violations of human rights in North Korea. As some of us will recall, that inquiry visited London for an evidence-gathering session, where exiled North Koreans, including many who had found refuge on these shores, shared their harrowing experiences. In its conclusion, the inquiry found that

“systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been … committed”

in North Korea, which

“In many instances … entailed crimes against humanity”.

These issues have been raised by other noble Lords, but I repeat them because they need to go on the record and be emphasised. The inquiry concluded by stating that the human rights situation in North Korea was without

“any parallel in the contemporary world”.

As we prepare to mark the 10-year anniversary of the inquiry’s report, we must be realistic and sober in our reflections. It is no great secret that impunity prevails in North Korea today and there is still no serious prospect of implementing many of the inquiry’s core recommendations to ensure that those most responsible for crimes against humanity are held accountable. Justice may be a long game, but I think we would all have hoped for greater movement in the past decade.

The UN inquiry recommended that the Security Council refer the situation in North Korea to the International Criminal Court. It recommended that a United Nations international tribunal be created, and that the Security Council impose targeted sanctions against alleged perpetrators of crimes. These recommendations have never been implemented. Given the role of China and Russia in the Security Council, we may never see them implemented. Therefore, new approaches to ensuring accountability, including the United Kingdom’s global human rights sanctions regime, must surely now be considered. I hope the Minister will comment on what steps are being taken to ensure that accountability can become a reality. The current situation of prevailing impunity in North Korea poses an acute challenge to the legacy of the inquiry, to the UK’s foreign policy and to international justice, but ultimately to North Korea’s victims, some of whom have found refuge here in the United Kingdom.

Before I move to speak further about some of the egregious violations in North Korea and their impact on communities, I will clarify why the issue of human rights matters in the context of this debate and global peace and security. Traditionally, there has been a separation in policy for North Korea, meaning that human rights issues and what are commonly termed peace and security issues, which refer to the country’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, are addressed separately. As my noble friend Lord Alton has argued many times, there can be no tangible political progress on human rights or peace and security in North Korea unless both issues are approached collectively. I am heartened to see this is now reflected at the Security Council, where the United Kingdom, the United States, the European Union and other like-minded states have begun to break down these barriers and approach human rights and peace and security for North Korea as a single issue. The previous United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea highlighted the imperative for the international community to pursue leverage on human rights in a consistent, principled and effective manner. This included mainstreaming human rights into peace and security diplomacy. It is vital that this approach prevails.

I do not wish to dwell on this issue of policy, but I will clarify how the two issues are closely linked. We know from the testimonies of former officials that North Korea operates a slush fund, where state resources can be diverted to fund its weapons programmes. In turn, it is these weapons that threaten regional and international peace and security. According to the United States State Department, North Korea spends 35% of its gross national income on its military—a total of $3.6 billion. Some $620 million of this military budget is spent on nuclear weapons. Where does North Korea, a country isolated from the international economy, find such extraordinary amounts of money to bankroll its weapons of mass destruction programmes?

We know North Korea raises funds through theft and extortion. In 2020, the United States Department of Justice charged three North Korean individuals for stealing over $1.3 billion in cash and cryptocurrency from banks and business around the world. What is less well known is that North Korea diverts resources to its weapons programmes that should be spent on feeding and sustaining its population. North Korea is, quite literally, taking from the poor to feed its insatiable desire to build weapons that are capable of killing millions. According to the World Food Programme, over 40% of the North Korean population are undernourished. It would cost $79 million, which is just 2% of North Korea’s estimated military budget, for North Korea to meet the financial requirements of its food security, agricultural and nutrition sectors, and to eliminate chronic food insecurity for its population, yet it chooses not to do so. We can see that North Korea is sacrificing the basic and fundamental human rights of its population to fund its military machine. In this respect, human rights violations have become a generator of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction.

North Korea’s vast penal system is perhaps the clearest example of how the state diverts resources away from the most vulnerable to fund its weapons programmes. Created under the Soviet Civil Administration in November 1945, the North Korean penal system is comparable to the infamous Soviet gulags. The purpose of the North Korean penal system is to isolate persons from society whose behaviour conflicts with upholding the authority of the supreme leader. Detainees are re-educated through forced labour, ideological instruction and punitive brutality for the purpose of compelling unquestioning obedience and loyalty to the supreme leader, both while the individuals are in detention and after they are released. Many detainees in the penal system have no formal convictions, have experienced no due process and have committed no crimes. Simply reading the Bible or watching a foreign film may lead to a lengthy prison sentence.

We cannot know the true scale of the prison population in North Korea, but if we take the US State Department’s lowest figures of 80,000 detainees in the political prison system we can start to understand its scale and question how North Korea can afford such a vast system. Australia and North Korea have roughly the same-sized populations. We know that Australia spends 250 US dollars per day on each of its prisoners to meet their basic human rights, such as food and clean conditions of detention. If we imagine that this basic cost of $250 per day per prisoner was being spent by North Korea on 80,000 prisoners, it would spend over $7 billion a year on prisoners alone, which is twice its military budget. Based on reporting from the non-governmental organisation Korea Future and its North Korean prison database, we can confidently assume that it is spending nowhere near that figure.

In its report from March this year, Korea Future detailed the case of a North Korean man in his 40s who was arrested for helping people escape the country. Throughout his sentence of seven years and nine months in a re-education camp, he was denied food as a form of coercion and punishment. Pressed into forced labour, he was typically provided with a meal consisting of roughly 4.3 ounces, or 120 grams, of corn each day. When he did not meet his forced labour quota, his food was reduced to just 80 grams, which contained inedible elements such as corn husks, small fragments of stone and wooden twigs. To survive, the man was forced to catch and eat insects such as cockroaches, and small rodents. That is just one of thousands of cases documented by Korea Future. We heard about those situations when we were in North Korea.

If North Korea is not spending its resources to ensure the basic and fundamental rights of its most vulnerable, where are those billions of dollars being spent? To quote our ambassador, James Kariuki, at the UN Security Council in August this year:

“The North Korean authorities divert resources from peoples' basic economic needs toward their illegal nuclear and ballistic weapons programmes ... We urge North Korea to prioritise the well-being of its citizens over the development of its illegal weapons programmes".

This example demonstrates why my noble friend Lord Alton and many others have argued that we cannot separate our policies targeting human rights and peace and security in North Korea. The two issues are mutually interdependent.

I end by discussing another human rights issue that poses a very real and present threat in North Korea—the persecution of religious communities. First, I commend the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea on its tireless work on this issue and many other human rights issues. It seems remarkable today but, at the creation of the North Korean state in the 1940s, religious communities, including Buddhism and Christianity, were part of the fabric of society. Many had played a role in the struggle for Korean independence from Japanese colonial rule during and following World War Two. The Protestant community in what is now North Korea was estimated to be 200,000-strong in 1945. Despite suffering waves of persecution throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Korean Catholicism had an estimated community of 55,000 adherents. Yet under the Soviet Civil Administration and later the North Korean state, these religious communities were targeted by persecution, discriminatory legislation, arbitrary arrest, exile and murder.

Tens of thousands of Protestants were killed or fled to South Korea. Those who survived were forced underground in the late 1950s and early 1960s, leading to the creation of the present-day underground churches in North Korea. Catholics suffered an even worse fate. According to the former archbishop of Seoul and apostolic administrator of Pyongyang, by 2006 there were no known Catholic adherents remaining in North Korea and no remaining Vatican-recognised institutions of the Catholic Church. All that remained were “show churches” in Pyongyang, used to try to mislead foreign delegations. In reality, Catholics have effectively been eliminated from North Korea.

A report by the law firm Hogan Lovells, which was commissioned shortly after the 2014 UN commission of inquiry, found evidence to suggest that this persecution of religious communities in North Korea may even amount to what can be called genocide. More recent evidence lends weight to this legal opinion. In its 2021 report entitled Persecuting Faith, the non-governmental organisation Korea Future documented 167 cases of serious human rights violations perpetrated against Christians in North Korea between 1997 and 2018. Indefinite life sentences and death sentences were handed to Christians simply for being Christian. Victims were generally aged between 20 and 59, but it is shocking that even a child aged two was also a victim. Korea Future found that, in 11 cases, the victims were believed to still be held in detention in North Korea; their fates are unknown.

It would appear that there is sufficient credible evidence to show that human rights violations perpetrated by North Korean officials are neither arbitrary nor random, and are purposely directed at the destruction of Christian and other religious communities. These findings are supported by testimonies, internal government documents, and statements from former high-ranking North Korean officials who have defected.

This brings us back to the question of how we can ensure regional and global security from North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and how we can increase the security of the North Korean people. The first step in any response must include efforts to ensure accountability and deter future acts of violence and aggression. In doing so, we should deploy all available options in our foreign policy toolbox, including bilateral diplomacy, consensus-building at the Security Council in New York and the Human Rights Council in Geneva, and the United Kingdom’s global human rights sanctions regime.

It is the prospect of using targeted human rights sanctions that I will end on. The global human rights sanctions regime was established in 2020. The regime allows the UK Government to impose sanctions in response to certain serious human rights violations around the world. The regime is intended to target not individual countries, but individuals or organisations involved in serious human rights violations. It is with that message to my noble friend the Minister that I conclude.

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