Bishop of Peterborough highlights human rights abuses in North Korea

“There is great evil in the North Korean regime, which the civilised world cannot simply ignore…not to do anything about evil on this scale is to collude with it” – Bishop of Peterborough, 23/7/14

14.02 PeterboroughOn 23 July 2014 Lord Alton of Liverpool tabled a debate to ask Her Majesty’s Government ‘what was their response to the work of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’.

The Bishop of Peterborough, the Rt Rev Donald Allister, spoke about the importance of keeping diplomatic channels open, the situation of  the Christian population in North Korea and the need to keep up pressure over human rights abuses. Drawing on his experiences of visiting South Korea, he spoke about the growth of Christianity there and the Anglican Church’s initiative, TOPIK—Towards Peace in Korea.

The Lord Bishop of Peterborough: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this important and timely debate. The report of the United Nations commission makes horrifying reading, and it is surely incumbent on the democratic and free world to read, reflect, take counsel and take action. There is great evil in the North Korean regime, which the civilised world cannot simply ignore: not just because it threatens regional and world peace, although it does; not just because millions of innocent people are suffering, although they are; not just because every human right is being trampled, although it is; but, ultimately, because not to do anything about evil on this scale is to collude with it.

The Diocese of Peterborough is twinned through the Anglican Communion’s companion link scheme with the Diocese of Seoul in South Korea. That has given me the privilege of visiting South Korea, studying its history and culture, getting to know its people and seeing some of the wonderful work that the church does there. British people, even Members of your Lordships’ House, may be surprised to know that the Christian church is alive, strong and remarkably influential in South Korea—as it was in the north before the communist takeover. In the 2007 census, 46% of South Koreans identified themselves as having no religion; 29% as Christian; 23% as Buddhist; all other faith groups put together made up the other 2%.

Christianity has become the largest religion, and thrives. South Korea is second only to the United States in the number of its people travelling abroad as Christian missionaries. Internally, the Christian faith has had and continues to have great influence for the good on civil society, human rights—especially of women and children—and democracy.

During my most recent trip in May, I visited schools, residential homes and work projects for people with disabilities, migrant workers and others often seen as excluded in advanced industrial societies. Previously, I have visited major projects to feed and care for the homeless and a large residential home for the elderly, with high-dependency medical facilities and staff. All those projects are run by the Anglican Diocese of Seoul, sometimes under licence or with funding from the city council, sometimes simply as Christian charitable ventures. The big society—are we still allowed to use that phrase?—is alive and flourishing in South Korea, making civil society and people’s lives better.

The growth and influence of Christianity, not least through Minjung theology, which focuses on the image of God in people, their intrinsic worth and the need to lift them out of oppression and suffering, has been huge. The older Confucian hierarchical structure gave little or no value to individuals, and none to women or children. That culture has been totally transformed, largely through Christian influence.

My visit earlier this year followed shortly after the terrible ferry tragedy in which hundreds of children died. Seoul was covered with yellow ribbons in tribute to those children. The Government were in severe difficulty because of the avoidable accident. Those responsible were being prosecuted. Questions were being asked about how institutions and individuals could fail to protect children. Human life is now valued in South Korea as much as in the West, and that process has reached the point of looking for special protection for the weakest and most honourable. Christian influence and values have achieved that.

The process of advancing human rights and democratisation began across the whole of Korea before the Korean War, but has been effectively crushed in the north since then. I have also visited the demilitarised zone. I have not yet visited the north, but I have seen in Seoul’s Anglican Cathedral photos and lists of Christian leaders martyred by the communists during the Korean War, including the dean of the cathedral and the mother superior of the Anglican convent next door, where I stayed in May.

I have met some of the people involved in the Anglican Church’s remarkable initiative, TOPIK—Towards Peace in Korea. That organisation, which last year put on a major peace conference in Okinawa, Japan, works for the peaceful reunification of Korea. It provides famine and flood relief for North Koreans, and from time to time gets permission from the Pyongyang Government to take aid in. It promotes dialogue with North Koreans, and helps some of the few North Koreans who escape the brutality of their regime to resettle in the south.

I do not need to catalogue the horrors perpetrated by the regime in the north—the report does that. So do the testimonies of those who have escaped from the concentration camps, some of whom have been to speak to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, as we have heard. I do not need to remind noble Lords of the brutal attempt to wipe out religion, particularly Christianity—the report does that. So do the accounts of various atrocities brought to us by agencies such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

I am neither diplomat nor politician, but certain things are clear to me. First, keeping North Korea isolated, treating it like a pariah state, will not help. It may well be that individual leaders need to be brought to the bar of international justice, but the state itself and its people must be cared for as part of the human family rather than demonised and held at arm’s length. Western and Asian Governments should press for aid agencies to be allowed in, and should offer to feed a starving people. Diplomatic channels should be kept open. Ideally, China would help Pyongyang to be more open to the rest of the world.

Secondly, the Government of South Korea should be encouraged and helped by the rest of the world to continue to work and prepare for reunification. Such work is going on under President Park, but more is needed. The economic cost of reunification will be enormous, even for a relatively wealthy country such as South Korea. The infrastructure of the north is virtually non-existent, millions have starved in recent years, hundreds of thousands are in concentration camps, and there is no freedom or civil society. The civilised world needs to be ready to stand alongside South Korea for this enormous humanitarian nation-building task.

Thirdly, the people of North Korea must be helped to prepare for a better future. Some Christian and other agencies are already doing that on a small-scale, at great risk to themselves. However, the world can and should do more. As has been noted already, the failure of the BBC to provide a Korean service to reach the north, and the failure of our Government to encourage and even fund the BBC to do that, is quite inexplicable. That sort of outreach helped prepare the people of eastern Europe, and most recently the people of Burma, to aspire to and then live in a freer society. The BBC has changed and is changing, but surely its responsibility to promote our democratic and free values—not least in places where they are under threat or do not exist—must remain.

The world community cannot simply ignore the plight of the people of North Korea. They are our brothers and sisters in the human family, and we have a responsibility towards them.

In her response, the Minister Baroness Warsi, addressed some of the points raised by the Bishop:

Baroness Warsi [Extract]:… As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough said, we believe in the importance of keeping those diplomatic channels open. Through our embassy in Pyongyang and its embassy in London, we deliver clear messages about the unacceptability of ongoing human rights violations, including the persecution of Christians, which both the right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, have rightly highlighted.

In this regard, we are aware of the report to which the noble Baroness referred—the Hogan Lovells report—and its conclusions with respect to genocide on religious grounds. This of course differs from the position taken by the commission of inquiry, which concluded that the available evidence in this respect was ambiguous. We raised the need for the DPRK to engage with the international community on these issues and made clear our readiness to work together to improve the situation on the ground.

In a small way, our engagement on disability rights has shown that this is not completely impossible, and that progress can sometimes be made. More meaningful improvements would need a radical shift in DPRK thinking. We must convince it that, if it takes that chance, the international community will respond in good faith…..

The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough all argued about whether the Government would support Korean-language broadcasts by the BBC World Service in line with the commission’s recommendation on addressing the information blockade. This is a question that has been asked on a number of occasions, as noble Lords will know, and I think I will disappoint them by repeating what I have said—that the BBC World Service is operationally, managerially and editorially independent. Decisions on new language services are for it to consider, and then, if appropriate, to put to the Foreign Secretary. It has undertaken to keep this issue under review. I remind noble Lords of the last Oral Question that I answered on this, when I went into some detail on some of the challenges that that proposes.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and the right reverend Prelate again raised the issue of the humanitarian situation. While that has improved somewhat in recent years, there remain many causes for concern, such as those highlighted with regard to food security and healthcare. The UK helps to address these needs through its core funding to the multilateral aid organisations operating in the DPRK. The amount that goes to the DPRK varies, but in 2011-12 it was around £2 million…

..This Government are fully committed to tackling North Korea’s poor human rights record. We do not underestimate the challenges, but we do believe that change is possible. We, along with the rest of the international community, have a responsibility to do everything we can to support it.


%d bloggers like this: