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Gary Streeter MP, this week lent his support to the Atrial Fibrillation (AF) pledge
Human rights and North Korea
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce for securing this debate, and for the tone of her speech. She achieved the right balance between raising legitimate concerns about human rights, and reflecting a positive way forward and underlining the importance of engagement, and I warmly congratulate her.
I would like to share a few personal reflections. Seven or eight years ago, I visited North Korea with Michael Bates, who is now in the upper House—actually, he is not there, as he is walking from Mount Olympus to London on a 3,500-mile journey to raise awareness of the Olympic truce, which again is about peace and human rights. We went to North Korea of our own volition, and it was an extraordinary experience.
What hon. Members have said in this debate is correct: I have been to many countries in the world, but nowhere is quite like North Korea. One of my most striking memories, which I will carry with me to my grave, is of being woken at 5 o’clock in the morning in the state-owned hotel in which we were staying. We were woken by military music blaring not from a radio, but from loudspeakers on street corners. It continued for about 10 minutes, after which the odd light would turn on in apartment blocks all over Pyongyang. The music started again at 6 o’clock, and as we looked out of the window, we saw people filing down in silence from their apartment blocks, walking three abreast along wide pavements. There was not a car to be seen and the roads were empty; people were walking silently to work.
One point that has perhaps not been touched on in the debate is the regimented nature of the North Korean regime, which is extraordinary. One morning, we got up and walked along the pavement with other people. It was eerie; thousands and thousands of people were walking to work in complete silence. In North Korea, people tend to work from 6 o’clock in the morning until 6 o’clock at night, and then go home and do two hours of self-improvement. How about that as a policy for the United Kingdom?
We were in North Korea shortly after its latest famine, and we saw extraordinary poverty. One day, we were taken out of Pyongyang, even though not many people are allowed to leave the capital. We were taken to see something that the North Koreans were quite proud of: a new latrine block—not a toilet block, but a latrine block—in a hospital in a city about an hour and a half north-west of Pyongyang. They showed us this extraordinary thing that we would have condemned in the 1950s. That is just an example of how far behind they are.
Sometimes people say to us that politics is not important. One of the abiding reflections that I have is that down in the South are people who are broadly free and broadly prosperous, but in the North—it is not a small country; it has a population of 25 million people—the people are very much not free and not prosperous. Many of them are in poverty, and all of them are in oppression, apart from the ruling elite. The only difference between the two—these are the same people—is the political system and structure, so we must never let anyone tell us that politics is not important. It is crucial in underpinning freedoms.
My visit to North Korea was an extraordinary experience, and one that I thought hon. Members might like to hear about. I believe that it is right for the Government to engage with North Korea, despite all the problems that we have heard about today. We are all scratching our heads as to what we can do about that, and perhaps there is a glimmer of hope with a new leader coming in. As Martin Horwood suggested, we do not know the extent to which people are secretly listening to certain radio stations or hearing news from the outside world. Of course, there is no internet access for the ordinary masses. However, we do not know the extent to which there is awareness of how life is different outside North Korea, and how there might well be an opportunity in the future. My instinct is that if there is change in North Korea, it will come quickly and suddenly and from who knows where, so I think that it is right for the British Government to engage positively with North Korea in the meantime.
One thing that I did while in Pyongyang was vote in the Conservative party leadership election taking place at that time. My hon. Friend Andrew Selous, who is sitting beside me, had my proxy vote, which I exercised by telephone from a hotel in Pyongyang. I am probably the only person ever to have voted in Pyongyang. Whether I made the right decision, history will decide.
I just wanted to share those reflections. North Korea is an extraordinary country, and I believe that we are right to engage with it positively. I pay tribute to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which has been mentioned several times, for the excellent work that it does in banging the drum and raising awareness of human rights abuses in
North Korea, but also in other countries. Whatever attitude our Government take in terms of positive engagement, it is very important that British non-governmental organisations are raising awareness, fighting for the causes and championing human rights around the world. They do a fantastic job, and long may that continue.
As for the attitude of the North Koreans to outside pressure, one thing that we have to realise is that they have lived for 50 years with hostility from outside. All over Pyongyang are billboards, and almost all of them show North Korean soldiers squeezing the life out of an American soldier or bombing the Japanese. They hate the Japanese and they hate the Americans, for all sorts of historical reasons, and there are billboards proclaiming their hatred of those countries, so in one sense external pressure simply bolsters the regime. It is already saying to its own people, “Look, it’s us against the world.”
As has been mentioned, China is the key relationship, in the way that I guess the relationship with the USA is key for Israel. I suspect that it suits China quite well to have this slightly odd regime on its doorstep, almost like a buffer zone. Is it not extraordinary that there is a country on earth that can make the Chinese human rights record look quite good? It happens to be right alongside it, in North Korea.
Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire, Conservative)
Does my hon. Friend agree that when our Government quite properly raise human rights issues with the Chinese authorities in relation to what is going on China, they should at the same time mention the situation in North Korea, given that it is a country of 25 million people where there is such widespread abuse of human rights?
Gary Streeter (South West Devon, Conservative)
Yes, I do agree, and I am sure that the Minister will touch on that in his response.
As we are paying tribute to the Government’s position, which I think is absolutely right, and to non-governmental organisations for raising awareness, I think that we ought not to let the opportunity pass to pay tribute to Lord Alton, who has been mentioned a couple of times. He has done an extraordinary job as chairman of the all-party group on North Korea. I am privileged to serve as one of the vice-chairs. He has done an extraordinary job in getting the balance right between entertaining people from North Korea when they come over here and organising all kinds of meeting and so on, and being robust and firm about human rights abuses. I wish him every success in the future.
I have the privilege of chairing the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, and I have had a couple of meetings with members of the Korean Workers’ party when they have come over here in recent delegations. It is extraordinary to be talking about that kind of democracy with people from a one-party state, where people really have no understanding of it at all. However, it is important that those discussions continue, because all the time we are sharing our values and our pitfalls and mistakes—we always talk about our own mistakes along this journey towards democracy. Although that is a very long-term venture, it is important.
One way to get into the heart of the regime is to support education initiatives in Pyongyang and elsewhere in North Korea. The English language is increasingly valued by the North Koreans. It is now taught, I think,
in all their schools as the second language. They have universities that are broadly staffed by English lecturers. They have an interest in English literature and in English culture. If I may say so to the Minister, he should work with the British Council and with his own Department to continue to build links, bridges and relationships. That is about looking forward. It may seem fruitless, but I believe that in the long term it will pay off, and I very much encourage him to continue down that road.
see the whole debate here