GENEVA - North Korea, facing fierce criticism of its rights record at the United Nations on Thursday, denied the existence of political prison camps in the country.
In rare remarks at the U.N. Human Rights Council, diplomats from Pyongyang defended leader Kim Jong Un’s regime against a barrage of accusations, notably from Western states.
“There are still some that persistently insist that political prison camps are operated in our country,” said Pak Kwang Ho, a councilor at the central court of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
“There is no such thing as a political prisoner, or a political prison camp, in the vocabulary of the criminal law and the criminal procedure law of the DPRK,” he added.
The North was appearing at its Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a session during which nations face human rights scrutiny every five years.
While the United States and North Korea have both cut ties with regular rights council business, both still join the UPR.
“The human rights situation in North Korea is deplorable and has no parallel in the modern world,” said Mark Cassayre, charge d’affairs at the U.S. Mission.
He called on Pyongyang to “immediately dismantle all political prison camps (and) release all political prisoners.”
Cassayre also accused the North of holding 80,000 to 120,000 people “in deplorable conditions,” some for “merely possessing a religious text”
Miriam Shearman, Britain’s deputy permanent representative to the U.N. in Geneva, called on North Korea to “take immediate action to cease the practice of forced labor.”
Pak countered that the court-mandated labor performed by inmates at designated “reform institutions . . . is not forced labor.”
He insisted that convicts sentenced to carry out labor work for eight hours a day, with Sundays and holidays off.
U.N. investigators have previously accused the North of “systematic, widespread and gross” human rights abuses, which was denounced by Pyongyang as a smear campaign to tarnish its international image.
A landmark 2014 report by a U.N. Commission of Inquiry documented rampant human rights abuses in the North, ranging from rape, torture and extrajudicial killings to the operation of political prisons.
The regime is estimated to have up to 120,000 North Koreans in the camps, where many detainees are said to have been jailed merely for being related to individuals deemed to be a threat to the state, rather than being convicted of internationally recognized criminal offenses.