North Korea's UN delegation organized a rare open meeting on Tuesday in New York, inviting national delegates and journalists to attend. The gathering was seemingly in response to a highly critical UN human rights report on Pyongyang released earlier this year.
That report detailed wide ranging abuse and human rights violations in North Korea, including the existence and use of prison camps, torture, starvation and killings.
Tuesday's gathering saw North Korean diplomat Choe Myong Nam dismiss the claims as "wild rumors" peddled by "hostile forces." But he did acknowledge to those gathered the existence of "reform through labor" camps, denying they were prison camps.
"Both in law and in practice, we do have reform through labor detention camps - no, detention centers - where people are improved through their mentality and look on their wrongdoings," he said.
Choe told the meeting that North Korea appeared to be on the right track regarding human rights, despite some hurdles.
"As we are a transition society, as we move forward, there might be some problems, for example in the economic and other areas, we may need to establish more houses and social facilities in order to provide people with better living conditions," he said.
In an apparent reference to international sanctions against Pyongyang over its nuclear ambitions, Choe blamed "external forces" for his country's economic problems.
The North Korean officials took several questions but did not respond to one about the health of leader Kim Jong Un, who hasn't been seen in public since September 3.
They said a top government official had visited the EU headquarters earlier this year to express interest in dialogue. An EU official in Brussels confirmed the meeting to news agency AP, saying a Pyongyang representative had held talks with the EU's top human rights official, Stavros Lambrinidis.
In February, a UN-commissioned investigation released a 400-page report documenting atrocities in North Korea. The findings were based on testimony given by North Korean exiles to South Korean and Japanese authorities.
The head of the inquiry, Michael Kirby, called on the UN to take action. "Contending with the great scourges of Nazism, [South African] apartheid, the Khmer Rouge and other affronts required courage by great nations and ordinary human beings alike," Kirby told reporters in March.
"It is now your solemn duty to address the scourge of human rights violations and crimes against humanity in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea," Kirby said.
jr/nm (AP, Reuters)