North Korea (Hansard, 16 January 1997)
HC Deb 16 January 1997 vol 288 cc517-24

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ottaway.]

8.7 pm

Mr. Harold Elletson (Blackpool, North)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of the Government's policy towards North Korea and to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for agreeing to reply to the debate. It is appropriate that we should discuss Korea tonight, 200 years since the first contact between Britain and Korea and less than two weeks before the scheduled tripartite meeting between the two Korean Governments and the United States, at a time when uncertainty shrouds the intention of the North Korean leadership and unrest in South Korea attracts the world's attention.

Over the past six months, events on the Korean peninsula have thrown into sharp focus the very different destinies and prospects of the peoples of North and South Korea. They have shown the nervousness and instability that exists in much of south-east Asia because of the Korean situation and they have demonstrated the shock waves of destruction that might accompany the death throes of the North Korean regime.

North Korea is the world's last remaining Stalinistic dictatorship. It sits uneasily on the Pacific rim among tiger economies and emerging super-powers, frightened of their intentions and envious of their achievements. It glowers menacingly at its southern neighbour across the demilitarised zone, and at its old enemy to the east across the sea of Japan. To the north and west lie its former comrades, whose embrace of capitalism it watches with the bitterness of betrayal.

In the years that followed the Korean war, and with the development of a quasi-religious personality cult around the so-called "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung and a state ideology known as chuche—which means self-reliance, but is in fact a form of isolationism based around Stalinist command economics—North Korea isolated itself from the non-communist world, confident in its self-proclaimed position as the eastern forward outpost of socialism.

The shock of perestroika and an end to preferential trade relations with Russia and China—followed more recently by the death of Kim Il Sung—have left it more isolated, uncertain, unpredictable and uncontrollable than before. On 15 September, a North Korean submarine infiltrated a team of commandos into South Korea near the city of Kangnung. Their aim was to destroy military targets and to shatter the confidence of South Koreans in their Government's ability to deter threats from the north. It was a calculated act of aggression against a sovereign state that is one of Great Britain's major trading partners. Last year, South Korea accounted for more than £1 billion of our exports. The incident caused widespread concern about the true nature and intentions of the North Korean regime.

As a result of international pressure—including representations from my right hon. Friend the Minister of State—the North Korean Government agreed to apologise and to prevent the recurrence of such incidents. As my right hon. Friend said in reply to me on 13 January: the statement of apology … has led to a welcome easing of tension on the peninsula."—[Official Report, 13 January 1997; Vol. 288, c. 29.] The Minister is right that the situation is now less tense.

There have been welcome developments in other areas, including attempts since the death of Kim Il Sung to persuade the leadership in Pyongyang to co-operate. The Korean Energy Development Organisation managed to sign a protocol with North Korea about its nuclear installations, and the United States signed a bilateral agreement freezing the development of nuclear weapons by North Korea. The fundamental problem has not gone away, however, and I cannot help thinking that in the very near future we face some serious challenges. Indeed, the very fact that North Korean Radio's version of the leadership's apology for the submarine incident was that South Korea had been made to apologise by the Americans shows Pyongyang's contempt for the concerns of the international community.

There are two issues that worry me most about the current situation. The first is North Korea's military strength and its political psychology; the second is its dire economic predicament and the threat of a sudden political implosion in Pyongyang. North Korea possesses an abundance of weapons of mass destruction. Its Scud B and C missile units deployed in hardened facilities 50 km from the demilitarised zone could reach Seoul and other targets in the southern half of the peninsula. It also took delivery recently of a Soviet-made SS21 missile from Syria and has been trying to reverse-engineer the missile's guidance package. Its No-Dong 1 ballistic missile has a projected range of 1,000 km and is now ready for deployment, giving North Korea the ability to hit targets throughout the south and also in most of Japan. Work is continuing on the Taep'o-Dong 1 and 2 missile programmes, with ranges of 1,500 km and 4,000 km, respectively. Despite the agreement with the United States to freeze its nuclear weapon programme, the Governments of Japan and of South Korea continue to be concerned about the ability of North Korea to field nuclear-tipped weapons or to attach chemical or biological warheads.

North Korea's conventional military capability is also substantial. It has more than 1 million active members of the armed services and 4.5 million reservists. Although South Korea's armed forces are better trained and equipped—and are also backed by United States military and air power—a sudden attack by the north could quickly inflict severe damage. There are still grounds for serious concern about the possibility of conflict. North Korea's unpredictability, isolationism and paranoia, and the unreality brought about by the diet of lies with which the regime has sustained itself, could make a military adventure seem an attractive way of obtaining concessions from South Korea and the United States. As the danger grows in North Korea of internal dissent—with a leadership aware that the necessary programme of reforms will only hasten its downfall—an attack on the south, perhaps of a limited nature, could be used to divert the attention of North Koreans from their hardships and rally them to the patriotic cause.

Even assuming that the military threat does not materialise, North Korea still represents a major problem. Its economy is spiralling downwards. GDP has fallen for the past six years and, according to South Korea's central bank, it fell by 4.6 per cent. last year. Trade dropped to a mere $2 billion last year—less than a week's-worth of South Korean exports—and most of North Korea's sources of foreign exchange are now accounted for by the proceeds of occasional arms sales to other isolated regimes and remittances sent by Japanese of Korean descent.

Grain output of 3.5 million tonnes last year was less than half the demand, and grain shortages are now so bad that there are fights in food queues. There is not enough warm clothing in the bitterly cold winter and energy shortages have plunged major cities into darkness. As a result, the leadership—which, despite early indications to the contrary, appears to be in the hands of Kim Jong I1, the son of Kim I1 Sung—is now faced with the classic dilemma that confronts ailing dictatorships: the necessity of reform inevitably bringing with it, sooner or later, an irresistible pressure for political change.

The danger is of total economic collapse and political implosion in Pyongyang, together with an exodus of starving refugees and a demand for massive assistance from South Korea and the international community. Neither of those concerns—the military or the economic—is one from which we can afford to distance ourselves.

There has been no peace treaty since the armistice which ended the Korean war in 1953, and South Korea has a defence agreement with the 16 countries—including the United Kingdom—which took part in the hostilities on the side of the United Nations. That agreement states that if aggression from the north occurs, the former contributing states will again resist it. We have a clear national interest in seeking to bring about a reconciliation between north and south.

Equally, the threat that North Korea poses to some of our most important trading partners in the region cannot be ignored. However, it is the threat of economic destabilisation that should be of most immediate concern to us. The fall of communism in the north of Korea will create an immediate demand for reintegration with the south. That will present a bigger challenge and create a greater strain on the world economy than the reunification of Germany, an event from which European economies are still recovering. The North Korean economy is in much worse shape than East Germany's was. The population ratio between West and East Germany was 4:1, whereas between North and South Korea it is only 2:1. That places a much greater burden on the shoulders of the South Korean worker.

When change comes in North Korea, it will come quickly and the shock of it will send more than just ripples across south-east Asia. The international community must ensure that it is ready for the change and is capable of responding with initiatives that are both effective and sustainable. We must not allow ourselves to be caught off guard, or to be overwhelmed by the sudden but foreseeable collapse of a communist dictatorship. The world needs a clear plan for managing change in Korea, and Great Britain—with all its experience, contacts and commitments—has an important role to play in developing it.

The United States is, of course, the driving force behind attempts to engage North Korea in dialogue. It deserves our full encouragement and support in its efforts, but it must be wary of North Korea's attempts to use improvements in bilateral relations with it, and a limited engagement with the wider international community, as a full substitute for seeking rapprochement with the south.

The Americans are crucial to the strategic balance of south-east Asia and it is worth remembering that events in Korea, among others, will ensure that the region remains a priority for US foreign policy makers, with the possible corollary of a decreasing willingness to maintain a wider role as a global policeman and, perhaps more specifically, to become involved on Europe's periphery. That must give us pause for thought.

The United States is the most significant foreign power on the Korean peninsula, but China, Russia and Japan also have important interests, and their concerns, together with their potential influence over Pyongyang, should not be forgotten. There may be merit, when the time is right, in expanding the present tentative tripartite arrangements to include other such powers with an interest in the area. Every opportunity must be taken to open North Korea to international influence and pressure. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will help to do that and will make available the experience and resources of the United Kingdom.

I hope that there will be further detailed planning to assist South Korea and north-eastern China to deal with the enormous refugee problem that may follow the collapse of the North Korean regime. It would be inexcusable if we failed to assist in planning for that entirely foreseeable event. Equally, the international community must plan now to play its part in the eventual reconstruction of North Korea. That will help to stem the flood tide of refugees and mitigate the potentially disastrous effects of Korean reintegration on the economies of south-east Asia.

Our task is to assist in bringing about the peaceful, stable and orderly transition to normality of an unpredictable, unstable and dangerous dictatorship which constitutes a serious threat to some of our closest allies. It is neither an insignificant nor an easy task, but it is a matter, as I hope that my right hon. Friend will agree, of the greatest importance for the peace and stability of a region where Britain continues to have major interests.

8.21 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Jeremy Hanley)

I warmly commend my hon. Friend the Minister for Blackpool, North (Mr. Elletson) for raising this subject in the House today. United Kingdom policy towards North Korea is an extremely important subject that is rarely mentioned in the Chamber, so we are truly grateful to him. The tense situation on the Korean peninsula is a matter of concern to us and to the international community as a whole. As my hon. Friend graphically described, the threats are very great.

After the second world war, when Koreans hoped to resume their unity and independence, the peninsula was divided and two separate states were established. The invasion of the south by North Korea in 1950 resulted in a bitter and tragic conflict that cost more than 2 million lives. The results of the Korean war are starkly visible today in the continued division of the peninsula at the demilitarised zone, with its many miles of barbed wire, its minefields, and hundreds of thousands of heavily armed combatants facing each other, as I have seen for myself.

Britain was quick to pledge support for the United Nations action to defend the Republic of Korea in 1950, and our forces fought alongside the South Koreans in all the major campaigns of the war. More than 1,000 of our young men died, and more than 2,000 were wounded. We remember them still today.

The armistice agreement, signed on 27 July 1953, brought an end to hostilities, but, while the fighting stopped, the tension remained and continues to this day. North Korea has carried out regular breaches of the armistice, and has been involved in terrorist activities against the south. The recent submarine incident that my hon. Friend graphically described is the latest in a long line of such events.

After the armistice was signed, Britain continued to play an important role in preserving peace on the peninsula. Our forces remained there until 1957, and the British defence attaché in Seoul is still a member of the UN Command delegation to the military armistice commission. We have played an important role in South Korea's post-war reconstruction and, later, in the early stages of its economic take-off. South Korea is now the 11th largest economy in the world. Although its population is only twice as great as that of the north, its gross domestic product is well over 20 times greater.

Today, South Korea is one of our major trading partners, and we have succeeded in attracting more than 50 per cent. of all Korean manufacturing investment in Europe, with existing and planned projects valued at more than £4 billion and providing more than 11,000 jobs, mostly in large plants in regions vulnerable to unemployment. South Korea is a close and valued friend, with which our relations are expanding at an extremely rapid pace. I pay tribute to the work of the Korean ambassador here at the Court of St. James, Mr. Choi, and of our ambassador at Seoul, Mr. Tom Harris, both of whom work tirelessly to improve our mutual relations.

For obvious reasons, our links with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the north have been more tenuous. Its role in the Korean War, and its continued hostility to South Korea, made that inevitable. Britain has not, however, ignored North Korea. In the hope that wider contacts would lead to a modification of its hard-line policies, successive British Governments encouraged trade links and sporting and cultural contacts with North Korea, but sustained contact foundered in the face of North Korea's continued pursuit of unacceptable means to achieve its ends.

At the moment, we impose no sanctions against North Korea, and British companies are free to do business there. However, we make it clear to those exporters considering visiting Pyongyang that, in the absence of diplomatic relations, we cannot offer them any commercial assistance or consular protection.

One reason for the relatively low level of commercial contact is that North Korea's poor record of paying debts remains a major impediment to any suggested expansion of trade or investment. The North Koreans are, however, welcome to come here on legitimate business, and indeed, more than 40 visas were issued to North Koreans to visit the United Kingdom in 1996. We hope that those contacts will increase.

Because of the problems to which I have alluded, relations between Britain and the DPRK have never been normalised. In that, of course, we are not alone. However, we remain willing to help North Korea out of its isolation. When it joined the United Nations in 1991, we formally recognised its existence as a state. We allowed the establishment in London of a North Korean mission accredited to the International Maritime Organisation, and there are currently two North Korean officials and their families here on IMO business. There has also been a series of exploratory talks between British and North Korean officials to determine whether any further improvement in our relations is possible.

Like other countries, we are concerned at the reports of food shortages in the north. In contrast with the south, the DPRK is a rigidly centrally planned economy that relied upon preferential trading arrangements with the Soviet Union and China for its survival. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, the North Korean economy has nose-dived, and since 1990 its GDP has contracted by about 5 per cent. per annum.

Recent floods and serious droughts have exacerbated the problem of a systemic failure of the state-run agriculture to feed its people. The floods have been terrible, and the result has been increasingly widespread malnutrition. In 1995 and 1996, North Korea appealed to the international community for food aid. Britain responded: we have donated, on humanitarian grounds, through the United Nations and the Red Cross, a total of nearly £0.5 million for food aid and flood relief in North Korea.

The harvest in the north last year was again far short of the needs, but we stand ready to consider further appeals for assistance. Such palliatives, however, can do little to solve the underlying problem of a system in long-term structural decline.

There is great uncertainty about the intentions of the DPRK Government, and the attitude of the people. The Government exercise totalitarian control over the population, who have virtually no access to outside information. North-south contacts are strictly controlled by both sides, and North Korea maintains armed forces of more than 1 million and huge stocks of conventional weapons. It also has a missile development programme that, as my hon. Friend again accurately described, ranges from Scuds—with a range of several hundred miles—to development of an advanced derivative of Scud with a range of thousands of miles.

A crisis on the Korean peninsula would damage regional, and possibly global, stability. There is a risk that economic decline in the north might lead to a mass exodus of refugees. My hon. Friend set out those problems clearly. In the first instance, it would be for the countries on North Korea's borders to react as best they could, but they would be hard pressed to cope, and the international community would need to consider how best to respond. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and given our previous involvement in Korea, it is important that we should do what we can to reduce the risk of such a crisis.

In recent years, there has been widespread concern about North Korea's apparent nuclear weapons programme, because it has prevented International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors from gaining the full access to certain nuclear sites that would reassure the world. After long negotiations, there was a breakthrough in October 1994, when the US and North Korea signed a framework agreement whereby the north agreed to freeze, and eventually dismantle, its existing nuclear reactors in exchange for the construction of two light water reactors and the provision of interim energy supplies.

South Korea agreed to provide the majority of the $4 billion required to fund the programme, and the Japanese Government are expected to provide most of the balance. Those two countries and the US formed an international consortium, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation—or KEDO—to finance and administer that exciting project.

We have strongly supported the agreement, and KEDO, as a way of countering the threat that the DPRK posed to the integrity of the non-proliferation treaty. We contributed $1 million to its start-up costs—the first European country to do so. We worked hard to achieve the recent agreement under which the European Union will contribute 15 million ecu annually until 2000 and become a member of KEDO. The Government are also considering national membership. We will maintain our support for KEDO and continue to encourage the DPRK to implement fully the framework agreement.

To ensure peace and stability on the Korean peninsula is an important task, inseparable from the peace and stability of the entire Asia-Pacific region—an area of extreme importance to us both politically and economically. We believe that lasting peace can be achieved only through meaningful dialogue between the north and the south and we take every opportunity to encourage such dialogue. For many years after the Korean war, both sides made frequent proposals on reunification, but there were no formal contacts.

In 1991, the world's hopes were raised following a series of meetings at prime ministerial level, and the signature of a set of potentially far-reaching agreements on matters such as non-aggression and mutual co-operation. However, the North Koreans moved away from the agreements almost as soon as they were signed, and they have remained a dead letter ever since.

Another moment of hope came in 1994, at the height of the nuclear crisis, when a summit meeting was planned between Presidents Kim Young Sam of the south and Kim I1 Sung of the north. However, Kim I1 Sung's death in July 1994 led to the postponement of the summit, and it has not proved possible to arrange one with his de facto successor.

North Korea has strongly opposed dialogue with the south, ostensibly because it was not a signatory to the armistice agreement. The DPRK has insisted that it should talk exclusively to the US, which signed on behalf of the UN. To end the impasse, we welcomed the proposal announced by President Clinton and President Kim Young Sam on 16 April 1996 that talks should take place involving North and South Korea, the US, and China as North Korea's main neighbour. Known as the four-party talks, the proposal was designed to initiate a process aimed at achieving a permanent peace agreement to replace the armistice.

Unusually, North Korea did not reject the proposal out of hand, and agreed to consider it, but it has yet to give a formal response. After some months during which North Korea showed little interest in participating in the talks, claiming that it needed more information on their purpose, US officials suggested a briefing meeting to explain the proposal.

However, those efforts came to a standstill when a North Korean submarine was discovered grounded on the east coast of South Korea, apparently on an infiltration mission. In the ensuing manhunt, 24 North Koreans were killed, one was captured and one is still at large. Twelve South Koreans died, including five civilians.

The incident raised tension on the peninsula to a very high pitch. South Korea, understandably angry about the flagrant violation of the armistice agreement and the loss of civilian life—indeed, of any life—demanded that North Korea take responsibility by apologising. Together with our European partners, we condemned the North Korean action as a serious violation of the armistice, and urged the authorities in Pyongyang to cease all activities that could result in a further increase in the tension.

After much difficult negotiation, the US managed to persuade the DPRK to issue a statement on 29 December that expressed deep regret over the incident, and undertook to make efforts to ensure that such an incident would not recur. The North Koreans also agreed to take part in a briefing on the four-party talks proposal. We are encouraged by that development, and urge the North Koreans to approach the briefing positively and constructively.

I mentioned that we have had recent contacts with the North Koreans. They were limited to three meetings at official level, the first taking place in 1995. Our aim is to reinforce the efforts of our partners on the nuclear issue and north-south dialogue, and to do what we can to improve North Korean contact with the outside world. We have made it clear to them that continuation of the process and any moves towards expanding our relations will depend upon their compliance with the nuclear agreement and willingness to enter into dialogue with the south.

We have kept the Government of the Republic of Korea fully informed of our contacts. The influence that we can bring to bear is, naturally, limited, but through our support for the Republic of Korea and the United States, our willingness to engage North Korea in dialogue and to provide humanitarian aid when needed, I believe that we have made—and will continue to make a—real contribution. I assure the House that those efforts will not slacken.

We should not forget that, if the North Korean regime remains on its present path, it will continue to be isolated. It is a threat to its neighbours and to the region. It is said that it abuses the human rights of its populace, and it cannot feed its people. We therefore believe that dialogue with the south is essential.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for raising the subject. I am sorry that there are not more hon. Members, especially Opposition Members, here to show an interest in this vital subject. He has graphically described the dangers; I hope that the efforts of the world community will mean that we will not see the impact of those dangers. I particularly hope that the north and south can enter into dialogue, because that is the way to peace.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes to Nine o'clock.