"The issue of serious malnutrition is a thing of the past," he told the 47-nation council.

"We will in the near future meet the domestic need for food on our own," said the ambassador, who told delegations that the hearing was "unpleasant".

Diplomats were not convinced, however, with John Von Kaufmann, Canada's representative, among those who urged the largely closed off country to allow aid workers to deliver food to the chronically undernourished.

North Korea's leaders have been accused of "callous" treatment of their people [AFP]
New Zealand's representative, Wendy Hinton, charged that children and women were severely malnourished because the North Korean military has priority in receiving food.

In October the UN special rapporteur for North Korea condemned what he called the "callous" North Korean leadership over its rights record and failure to feed its population.

"The freedoms from want, from fear, from discrimination, from persecution and from exploitation are regrettably transgressed with impunity by those authorities, in an astonishing setting of abuse after abuse," Vitit Muntarbhorn said in a scathing report.

The UN estimates that 8.7 million people need food in North Korea, a country that has relied on foreign assistance to feed much of its population since the mid-1990s following a series of natural disasters and the loss of Soviet support.

Public executions

During the hearing on Monday, North Korea was also accused of staging public executions and forcing women prison inmates to have abortions.

The US state department says North Korean prison camps hold as many as 200,000 inmates, but one North Korean delegate denied that the country had any political prisoners.

North Korea often dismisses criticism of its human rights record as part of a US-led attempt to overthrow its government.

Regarding executions, the delegation acknowledged that public killings do take place, but only for "very brutal and violent crimes".

It added that these were only "in very exceptional cases" and at the request of victims' families.

The UN rights council, which has no enforcement powers, will deliver its findings later this week.

The meeting came on the eve of a visit North Korea by US envoy Stephen Bosworth.

His mission is to bring North Korea back to six-party discussions over its nuclear programme.