A North Korean official has publicly acknowledged for the first time the existence of "reform through labor'' camps, after a highly critical U.N. report into the country's human rights record earlier this year, but dismissed the report's accusations.
Choe Myong Nam, a North Korean foreign ministry official in charge of U.N. affairs who represents the North Korean Association for Human Rights Studies, briefly discussed the camps in a rare open meeting at the U.N. on Tuesday. The meeting in a U.N. conference room was packed with diplomats and journalists.
"Both in law and 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.
But he also said his country has no prison camps and, in practice, "no prison, things like that."
Such "re-education" labor camps are for common offenders and some political prisoners, but most political prisoners are held in a harsher system of political prison camps.
The U.N. report, released in February, was compiled from testimony from North Korean exiles and listed "extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence.”
The North Korean briefing concerned a lengthy human rights report it released last month in response to a U.N. commission of inquiry that concluded the authoritarian government had committed crimes against humanity.
Param-Preet Singh, a senior counsel for Human Rights Watch who attended the briefing along with a number of diplomats from other countries, said the significance of the event was that North Korea held it at all.
The country used to be seen as "impervious to pressure," she said.
Diplomats for the reclusive Communist state also told reporters that a top North Korean official has visited the headquarters of the European Union and expressed interest in opening a dialogue on human rights.
North Korea's deputy UN ambassador Ri Tong Il said the secretary of his country's ruling Workers' Party had visited the EU, and that "we are expecting end of this year to open political dialogue between the two sides."
The North Korean officials took several questions but did not respond to one about the health of leader Kim Jong-un, who has made no public appearances since Sept. 3, and missed a high-profile recent event he usually attends.
In Brussels, an EU official confirmed a recent North Korea meeting with the EU's top human rights official, Stavros Lambrinidis, but said any dialogue currently planned is limited to rights issues.
The North Korean officials said they do not oppose human rights dialogue as long as the issue is not used as a "tool for interference."
Their briefing seemed timed in advance of the latest resolution on North Korea and human rights that the EU and Japan put to the U.N. General Assembly every year.
North Korea's public acknowledgement of the reform camps, and its overture to the EU rights chief, were signs that Pyongyang now realizes the discussion of its human rights record would not fade away, said Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
Last month, a senior court official mentioned the reform camps' existence in an interview with the pro-Pyongyang website Minjok Tongshin.
While Scarlatoiu called the mention of the reform through labor camps "a modest step in the right direction," he stressed that this wasn't an acknowledgement by North Korea of the harsher system of political prison camps, which are estimated to hold 120,000 people.
The North's own report on its human rights system accuses the U.S. and its allies of a campaign aimed at interfering in Pyongyang's affairs "and eventually overthrowing the social system by fabricating 'human rights issue' of the DPRK [North Korea] to mislead international opinions."
Al Jazeera and wire services