North Korea acknowledges labor camps for 1st time

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North Korea acknowledges labor camps for 1st time
A South Korean conservative activist holds photos of American journalists Euna Lee, left, and Laura Ling detained in North Korea, after a rally denouncing North Korea's policy in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, July 10, 2009. North Korea has delayed sending two convicted U.S. journalists to a prison labor camp, in a possible attempt to seek talks with Washington on their release, a scholar who visited the North said in an interview published Friday. (AP Photo/ Lee Jin-man)
In this photo taken on Wednesday, June 3, 2009, a female North Korean soldier looks out from behind a barded wire fence around a camp on the North Korean river banks across from Hekou, northeastern China's Liaoning province. North Korea's top court has convicted two U.S. journalists, and sentenced them to 12 years in labor prison, the country's state news agency reported Monday, June 8, 2009. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
Deputy Permanent Representative of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Ri Tong Il, responds to a question during his news conference at United Nations headquarters, Monday, March 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
South Korean conservative activists hold photos of American journalists Euna Lee, left, and Laura Ling detained in North Korea, during a rally denouncing North Korea's policy in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, July 10, 2009. North Korea has delayed sending two convicted U.S. journalists to a prison labor camp, in a possible attempt to seek talks with Washington on their release, a scholar who visited the North said in an interview published Friday. (AP Photo/ Lee Jin-man)
In this Monday, June 3, 2013 photo, Kim Hyuk, a 31-year-old North Korean defector, speaks during an interview in Seoul, South Korea. Kim fled to South Korea in 2007 after serving more than a year at a North Korean labor camp for smuggling and other charges, and now works for the government as an instructor on North Korea. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
In this photo taken June 3, 2009, a female North Korean soldier looks out from behind a barbed-wire fence around a camp on the North Korean river banks across from Hekou, northeastern China's Liaoning province. North Korea's top court has convicted two U.S. journalists, and sentenced them to 12 years in labor prison, the country's state news agency reported Monday. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
Demonstrators hold hands at a rally on the steps of City Hall in San Francisco, Wednesday, June 3, 2009 to protest against North Korea. North Korea's highest court will hear the case Thursday against two American journalists accused of entering the country illegally and engaging in "hostile acts," allegations that could land them up to 10 years in a labor camp. Laura Ling and Euna Lee, reporters for former Vice President Al Gore's California-based Current TV media venture, were arrested March 17, 2009 near the North Korean border while on a reporting trip to China. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
South Korean conservative activists march, holding photos of American journalists Euna Lee, left, and Laura Ling detained in North Korea, during a rally denouncing North Korea's policy in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, July 10, 2009. North Korea has delayed sending two convicted U.S. journalists to a prison labor camp, in a possible attempt to seek talks with Washington on their release, a scholar who visited the North said in an interview published Friday. (AP Photo/ Lee Jin-man)
South Korean protesters shout slogans as they hold pictures of two American journalists Euna Lee, right, and Laura Ling, left, during a rally against North Korea in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, April 2, 2009. Two American journalists detained in North Korea could land in a notorious labor camp for years if convicted on charges of illegal entry and "hostile acts." But the regime may be more interested in using the reporters as leverage in talks with the U.S. (AP Photo/ Lee Jin-man)
FILE - In this Jan. 20, 2014 file photo, American missionary Kenneth Bae, right, leaves after speaking to reporters at Pyongyang Friendship Hospital in Pyongyang. Bae, 45, who has been jailed in North Korea for more than a year, appealed for the U.S. to do its best to secure his release. Bae has been returned to a labor camp, prompting worries about his health, his sister Terri Chung said Friday, Feb. 7. (AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 20, 2014 file photo, American missionary Kenneth Bae speaks to reporters at Pyongyang Friendship Hospital in Pyongyang. Bae, 45, who has been jailed in North Korea for more than a year, appealed for the U.S. to do its best to secure his release. Bae has been returned to a labor camp, prompting worries about his health, his sister Terri Chung said Friday, Feb. 7. (AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon, File)
A North Korean defector Kim Chol-soo, who survived the prison camp at Yodok, about 70 miles (110 kilometers) northwest of Pyongyang, talks to the reporters during his press conference in Seoul, Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2005. Kim said he witnessed the deaths of many inmates due to hard labor and lack of food, and also saw a former defector beaten to death for contacting Christian representatives in China.(AP Photo/Kim Byoung-man, Yonhap)
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UNITED NATIONS (AP) - North Korea publicly acknowledged the existence of its labor camps for the first time Tuesday, an admission that appeared to come in response to a highly critical U.N. human rights report earlier this year.

Diplomats for the reclusive, impoverished country also told reporters that a top North Korea official has visited the headquarters of the European Union and expressed interest in dialogue, with discussions on human rights expected next year.

North Korea's deputy U.N. 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 human rights dialogue would follow.

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.

Choe Myong Nam, a North Korean foreign ministry official in charge of U.N. affairs and human rights issues, said at a briefing with reporters that his country has no prison camps and, in practice, "no prison, things like that."

But he briefly discussed the "reform through labor" camps. "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.

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 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 skipped a high-profile recent event he usually attends.

The officials said they don't oppose human rights dialogue as long as the issue isn't 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.

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. "We dare say that the case of human rights in the DPRK exceeds all others in duration, intensity and horror," commission head Michael Kirby told the U.N. Security Council in April.

The report's release in February put the North on the defensive. Its acknowledgement Tuesday 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 won't fade away, said Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. He said the mention of the reform camps was a first.

"While the North Korean human rights record remains abysmal, it is very important that senior North Korean officials are now speaking about human rights, and expressing even pro forma interest in dialogue," Scarlatoiu said in an email. "The North Korean strategic approach to human rights issues used to be to simply ignore reports by international NGOs, government agencies or U.N. bodies. Human rights used to just go away, out-competed by nukes, missiles, and military provocations."

While he called the acknowledgement of the reform through labor camps "a modest step in the right direction," he said the greatest concern remains the North's system of political prison camps that are estimated to hold 120,000 people.

The North's own report on its human rights system accuses the United States 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 to mislead international opinions," its preface says.

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.

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