10th December 2014 London, UK

Hugo Swire blogs for Human Rights Day: From darkness to light: there is a different path open to North Korea

For Human Rights Day Minister of State at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Hugo Swire, blogs on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Last week, on the Thames embankment in London, I was honoured to attend the unveiling of a Memorial to the sacrifices made by British troops in the Korean War of 1950 to 1953. The Memorial itself, a magnificent bronze statue by sculptor Philip Jackson, is of a British soldier standing with head bowed, and with Korea’s rugged mountains carved into a stone obelisk behind.

The Memorial was a generous gift from the Republic of Korea, to recognise the brave contribution made by 81,084 British servicemen and women – and the ultimate sacrifice of the 1,106 of these who lost their lives – in the first ever United Nations action against aggression. In a moving service, we remembered what this campaign had achieved in its defence of freedom and democracy. Today, of course, the Republic of Korea (RoK) is an open and prosperous member of the international community, and a key partner to the UK. While we have had diplomatic relations with the Korean Peninsula for more than 130 years, the truly profound friendship which we now enjoy with the RoK, exemplified by the visit of President Park last year, was born out of our shared sacrifices just over 60 years ago.

However, I was also reminded that just across the Demilitarised Zone, the ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ (DPRK) remains an altogether different place: closed, paranoid, and untouched by all the benefits of the modern world. While the RoK’s economy has grown incredibly since 1960 – from US$100 per capita to over US$25,000 today – the DPRK still struggles to keep the lights on and feed its own people, even as it develops nuclear weapons.

This is all of course tied up with the extraordinarily oppressive nature of the DPRK’s political system. Popular culture in the West likes to paint the regime as faintly ridiculous, but as the United Nations’ Commission of Inquiry has shown this year, the reality is as tragic as it is appalling. People are sent to political prison camps simply for being related to someone who expressed their opinion too freely. Children are born and grow up in detention. Murder, rape, torture, forced abortions, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender-based grounds, the forcible transfer of entire populations, enforced disappearances and the extraordinarily inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation are happening on an epic scale.

That is why the British Government has so strongly and vocally supported accountability for these awful human rights violations and probable crimes against humanity, taking a tough line through all of the international fora and mechanisms available to us, not least the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council – which I personally visited in June to make these very points.

We do of course have to be realistic. Any referral to the International Criminal Court would require a UN Security Council Resolution, and could be blocked by a single veto. 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 regime is clearly sensitive to international pressure and criticism. So we will ensure there is no let up.

At the same time, it is crucial that we continue to make clear to the authorities in Pyongyang that there is a different path open to them. I am disappointed that they have responded to the recent UN General Assembly resolution by withdrawing their previous offers of dialogue. I hope they will reconsider and demonstrate a genuine openness to engagement, and a willingness to deliver improvements on the ground for their people. If they do, we will respond positively. We maintain an Embassy in Pyongyang precisely because we believe that it is only through engagement that we can encourage the regime to see the outside world as an opportunity as much as a threat.

Until then, the spotlight will shine on Pyongyang as never before.