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House of Lords Debate on North Korea Attacks

North Korea
Question

11.39 am

Asked By Lord Alton of Liverpool
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the implications of North Korea’s military action against the Republic of Korea.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I remind the House of my non-financial interest as the chairman of the British-North Korea All-Party Parliamentary Group.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): My Lords, as my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said yesterday, this was a completely unprovoked attack by North Korea on South Korean troops and civilians, which will lead only to further tensions on the Korean peninsula. Such belligerence by North Korea increases its international isolation. The North Korean regime has again demonstrated callous disregard for human life, for international law, and for its own interests. The Prime Minister spoke yesterday to the UN Secretary-General and to President Lee Myung-bak, about the need for the most effective possible international response.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is not this provocative and calculated act, the 150th breach of the armistice since 1958, a sobering reminder—along with the revelation at the weekend of an industrial complex for the enrichment of uranium—of the central importance of engaging China in finding a way forward? Otherwise, are we not likely to face a catastrophic conflict of the order of the one that occurred 60 years ago, when nearly 3 million people died on the Korean peninsula? Has the Minister had the opportunity to reflect on the recommendations in the report which I sent him following the visit to Korea by myself and my noble friend Lady Cox last month, especially on the importance of encouraging China to broker direct talks between North and South Korea with a view to concluding the war? There is neither war nor peace, merely a shaky armistice. Until the war is concluded, it is unlikely that progress on the six-party talks, which have now fallen by the wayside, on human rights or on any other question is likely to occur.

Lord Howell of Guildford: I think the noble Lord already knows that I have read his excellent report, which is a very useful contribution to putting the situation in perspective. Of course, China is in many ways the key to this. They are the ones who will have to decide how to act responsibly in relation to their troublesome neighbour and protégé. We believe that the main thrust is to get the six-party talks going again. They have faltered but they are the right way forward and we will do everything we can to assure, first, that there is the strongest possible response to this latest outrage and, secondly, that the six-party talks are started again so that we can begin to bring some sense to the actions of this unpredictable, erratic and dangerous regime.

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords—

Lord Brett: My Lords, from this side of the House I share the condemnation of the actions of the North Korean Government. Indeed, the Shadow Foreign Secretary issued a statement on that on Monday. I also pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on what is, as the Minister already commented, their excellent report on their recent visit. Can the Minister amplify a little the role that Europe might play in this latest problem and how we might find a way to build some of those bridges? Does Europe have a part to play—again, with China and others—in trying to ensure that the six-party talks continue and that we bring some sense into what is a very dangerous situation?

Lord Howell of Guildford: Certainly, the EU’s voice and weight are always valuable in these situations but our main thrust, at the moment, is in concentrating on getting the six-party talks going. We are not members of those talks but we have an embassy in Pyongyang, as the noble Lord knows, which is a useful gathering and advisory point for this whole process. Perhaps I should elucidate that, at this moment in the United Nations, we are waiting for South Korea to call formally for a meeting of the Security Council—that is: the P5, plus Japan and South Korea, plus two. I believe that they are about to do that but it is a question of getting everything prepared and lined up so that there is a strong and effective response. That is what is going on at the moment but we will certainly consult and move closely with all our EU colleagues in seeing how they can reinforce and make more effective the overall situation.

Lord Howe of Aberavon: Given the gravity of the present situation, my intervention may seem slightly starry-eyed. However, does my noble friend recall the formula put forward by that distinguished Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping for handling the Anglo-Chinese problems over Hong Kong: the forward proposition of one country, two systems? He may recall that but does he know that, quite apart from that, Deng Xiaoping more than once made plain to me his approach to the Korean problem? He thought that the same formula of one country, two systems might conceivably provide an approach towards resolving that problem as it existed even 20 years ago. Granted the dominant influence of China in this context and the fact that we have, as my noble friend said, had an embassy in Pyongyang for 10 years—but not the United States—is there not perhaps some scope for Her Majesty’s Government in seeking to create a bilateral Sino-British initiative, which might contribute in a different way along the Deng Xiaoping lines towards not just a solution of the major problem but resolution of the six-party talks?

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, of course I well recall the Hong Kong process, which has been successful and in which my noble and learned friend played a highly significant and effective part. We have lessons to learn from that and we should see how it could be applied. The difficulty here is that the performance of the North Korean regime is heavily under the influence of China, which would be in a position to bring a sense of responsibility to it. Furthermore, the two systems that we had in Hong Kong were a system as laid down by Beijing and our own patterns of moving towards democracy and anticorruption in Hong Kong. It was an admirable marriage of two systems. However, in this case, the system that is left in North Korea is not a very attractive one; in fact, it is highly unattractive and not in line with the insistence on more peaceful behaviour that is necessary in the region. So I listened closely to what my noble and learned friend said, as he has great wisdom and experience on these matters, but I do not see an immediate analogy or indeed a basis for advice to our friends in Beijing.

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