A North Korean official has publicly acknowledged for the first time the existence of "reform through labour'' camps, after a highly critical UN 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 UN affairs and human rights issues, briefly discussed the camps with journalists at the UN on Tuesday.
"Both in law and practice, we do have reform through labour detention camps - no, detention centres - 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."
The UN 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".
Diplomats for the reclusive Communist state also told reporters that a top North Korean official had visited the headquarters of the European Union and expressed interest in beginning 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 September 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 was limited to rights issues.
'Tool for interference'
The North Korean officials said they did not oppose human rights dialogue as long as the issue was not used as a "tool for interference".
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Their briefing seemed timed in advance of the latest resolution on North Korea and human rights that the EU and Japan put to the UN 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 realises 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.
The North's own report on its human rights system accuses the US 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," the report said.
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.