THE BLOG

Is North Korea Really Out of Reach?

16/07/2014 17:09 BST | Updated 15/09/2014 10:59 BST

North Korea is, unsurprisingly, not a country in which many British people choose to live or do business.

It is opaque and secretive, and has for some time hidden behind the threat of nuclear weapons development. Last week's missile test was yet another demonstration of its unwillingness to engage constructively with the wider world.

Its people are often seen in the UK as beyond our reach, and we are distracted by ridiculous stories such as their Embassy's complaint over pictures of Kim Jong Un in a local London barber.

But thanks to the UN's Commission of Inquiry, we now have more detail than ever before about what is really happening there. It should make us sit up and take notice. In an investigation that lasted just under a year, the Commission, led by Michael Kirby, found that terrible atrocities were being carried out on a mass scale, and they concluded that many of these amounted to crimes against humanity.

It found evidence of murder, torture, rape, forced abortions, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender-based grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, enforced disappearances and the extraordinarily inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.

It documented enormous detention camps that imprison many thousands. There are inmates whose 'crime' is merely to be related to people who have expressed their opinions too freely: who have talked of life outside the DPRK or who have accessed Western media. There are children born into camps who spend their whole lives there.

Sitting here in the UK it is almost impossible to comprehend all of this. When I recently met a group of North Koreans who had managed to leave their country behind, the Commission report played heavily on my mind. I was struck by all they had been through to escape their homeland, and by all the difficulties they had faced settling into a new society. The transition from North Korea to the Republic of Korea, where they now live, is stark and must have been bewildering.

But one of the most significant achievements of the Commission was that it gave a voice to these people and that, importantly, these testimonies could be used at some stage to hold perpetrators to account.

A month after the report was published, the UN Human Rights Council passed its strongest resolution yet, saying that there must be justice for the violations being carried out. A new structure will now be set up in the region to continue the monitoring and documenting work that has been taking place.

Last month I returned to Geneva and spoke about human rights in the DPRK during an address to the Human Rights Council. I also discussed the situation with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and with representatives from the USA, France, Japan, the Republic of Korea and the EU. I am pleased to say that there was broad agreement that we needed to maintain the momentum towards accountability, even if achieving this would be extremely difficult.

At all stages of this investigation the British government, like the Commission of Inquiry, has reached out to the leaders of the DPRK, urging them to engage with the international community. We would like to work together to improve the situation on the ground and to make progress. It is for precisely this reason that we maintain an Embassy in Pyongyang and engage on small-scale projects to improve the livelihoods and wellbeing of people living in the DPRK. Our offer of further cooperation is genuine.

But meaningful improvements really require a radical shift in how the DPRK perceives the world. I recognise that this is not going to happen overnight, but I hope that some of its leaders, at least, can understand the extraordinary opportunities that await a country which takes a chance and opens itself up to cooperation. Burma is very different to the DPRK, but it can testify to the good faith with which the international community will respond to an effort to reform.

For too long the North Korean people have suffered terribly. There are no easy answers, but we are determined that we should not simply see this as "too difficult" and put it to the bottom of what is a very busy foreign affairs in-tray. We must remain resolute in tackling the DPRK's efforts at nuclear development, which remain of deep concern; but we must also not allow this to obscure what is a human tragedy on an epic scale. As I said last month in the UN, we must not allow history to judge us as the generation who looked the other way.