I recently learned that the book Building Bridges, which I co-authored with David Alton, was mentioned in a House of Commons session. Speaking in a debate on issues requiring attention before the summer recess, Fiona Bruce MP said the following:
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Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): This week, I have had a work experience student in my office. Members might say that there is nothing unusual about that, but this young man is different. He is from North Korea. Abandoned by his family as a child, he lived on the streets from the ages of eight to 14, scavenging food. He tried to escape his hopeless life to flee his country only to be caught by Chinese soldiers, returned, imprisoned, tortured, hung upside down, repeatedly beaten and left virtually for dead. He was just 16. He told me:
“They would have killed or imprisoned me for life, but I was still a minor.”
He managed to escape yet again, but was hunted down in China by the police and imprisoned there, where he attempted suicide. Later, after a long international journey involving the selfless kindness of many people, he arrived in the UK, where he is now a student with a hope and future, although he still bears the scars of his early life in many ways. He is still only 24 years old.
He is one remarkable young man from North Korea whose life, after years of terrible suffering, is now changed for ever. Dare we hope for the same for his people? The answer must be a resounding yes. We should indeed hope for a better future for the people of North Korea and do more than just watch and wait for it. We should act. I hear Members ask: but how? In these few minutes, may I suggest some actions at governmental, organisational and individual levels?
As time is brief, I do not propose to refer in detail to the egregious violations of human rights in that country, and the indescribable suffering of the people of North Korea—they have been described in earlier debates in this House and in another place—but I will mention the disappointment at the way in which young Kim Jong-un has dashed hopes and squandered the opportunity for the fresh start that his leadership could have provided. Despite that, there is still hope, and it is right to work for change.
How can we help? First, through practical support for the hundreds of North Korean escapees here in Britain, such as the young man I mentioned, who encounter the shock of trying to integrate into a free society. We can help to educate and equip them for the regime change that will surely come. When it does, there will be a need for leaders in North Korea who understand both its tragic past and the essential concepts for building a free society, such as the rule of law and democratic and human rights. I urge the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to engage with the North Korean diaspora in that way.
Philanthropic business people can consider supporting social enterprises in North Korea. There are isolated examples of such enterprises, including a shoe factory. Business start-ups provide potential soft power interventions, including through improved employee conditions, such as the very basic one of insisting that wages are paid direct to employees, and not via the state, with its inevitable deductions. At grass-roots level, North Korean people want DVDs, USB drives, radios and mini-computers to be sent to them. The regime’s information blockade is crumbling, as through these items North Koreans have much better awareness of the realities of life in the outside world than they would have done even five or 10 years ago.
On a structural level, improved equipment, technology, and production methods for farms are needed. Support for the constructive work of non-governmental organisations such as Oxfam is to be commended. Could the Department for International Development not consider supporting such NGOs? The excellent work of the British Council, which, on a relative shoestring, has taught English to 3,900 North Koreans over the past 13 years, is to be commended and would merit greater support, as would academic and cultural exchanges. The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology welcomes UK academics to teach there, and we can all join the all-party group on North Korea in calling on the BBC to start broadcasting into North Korea as soon as possible.
As individuals, we can support effective advocacy organisations such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide; I invite hon. Members to read Ben Rogers’s excellent article, which is on the Conservative Home website today. We can highlight the plight of foreign nationals such as Kenneth Bae, who is in jail in North Korea, and support the planned new grass-roots group, North Korea Campaign UK, which is to be modelled on the successful Burma Campaign UK, a country from whose recent experiences we should draw cautious optimism. Hon. Members should look out for this campaign’s launch in the media, which will take place on 27 July to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Korean war armistice. It is often called the forgotten war, and I pay tribute to the 1,000 men who lost their lives in it; that is more British forces than died in the Falklands, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined.
All this—opening doors, building relationships, strengthening contacts, and opening as many channels of communication as possible through constructive and critical engagement—is the approach promoted in Lord Alton’s substantial new book, which he wrote with Rob Chidley. It is called “Building Bridges: is there Hope for North Korea?” At the risk of recommending yet more fairly heavy reading for MPs over the summer, I recommend the book; it really will impress. It suggests ways forward on the humanitarian and security challenges facing North Korea today—what Lord Alton calls
“Helsinki, with a Korean face”.
That means adopting the approach that Britain and the US took in the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war, and building bridges, not walls, between people.
Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): I applaud my hon. Friend’s choice of subject. Is she aware of the annual international meeting of parliamentarians that focuses exclusively on gross human rights violations in North Korea? I have the privilege of representing the House at the next meeting in Warsaw in a fortnight’s time.
Fiona Bruce: I am delighted to hear that my right hon. Friend is attending that convention; I received an invitation, but was unable to attend.
I commend, too, the work of British officials who, behind the scenes at UN and EU level, in partnership with others, have helped to secure the recently established UN commission of inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity in North Korea—a real step forward. May I urge them, in addition, to press for the stopping of forcible repatriation of North Korean refugees from China, knowing as we do that they face the kind of experiences that I have described today?
May I encourage colleagues in the House to join the increasingly active all-party group on North Korea to help make the suffering of the people of North Korea, in the most persecuted country on earth, a thing of the past, and in the words of the young music group Ooberfuse to “vanish the night”? That is a song that the group wrote as a result of coming to one of the all-party group meetings. The phrase “Vanish the Night” refers to the fact that if one looks down on satellite pictures of North Korea compared with South Korea, one will see that North Korea is almost totally black. There is no light shining out from the streets in North Korea.
I finish with some words from Lord Alton’s wonderful book. Referring to the example of Burma, he says:
“What seems a faraway dream can happen more quickly than one might imagine.”
Events, he comments, “can move much more quickly than we might sometimes anticipate.”
Speaking of young students such as the North Korean work experience student whom I mentioned at the start of my speech, Lord Alton says:
“We owe it to their generation—to the North Koreans who die trying to escape across the Tumen and Yalu rivers and those who still languish in prison camps—to take every opportunity to bring Korea closer to the dream of reunification. This requires opening up as many channels of communication as possible. We must do everything we can to saturate North Korea with goodwill.”
He goes on:
“The Korean proverb tells us that ‘to begin is half the task’ . . . We must build bridges, not walls.”
Lord Alton and Lady Cox have both spoken widely and frequently on the subject of North Korea, and they have consistently urged action from the British government in reports, papers and speeches. Others have since taken up the cry and, thanks to Fiona Bruce MP’s quotations, I feel like I have contributed to the North Korean debate at the highest level, albeit in a small way.
It is both humbling and exciting at once.
The book is Building Bridges: Is there Hope for North Korea by David Alton and Rob Chidley, and is published by Lion.
Buy it here:
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