A North Korean official publicly acknowledged to the international community the existence of his country’s “reform through labor” camps Tuesday, a mention that appeared to come in response to a highly critical U.N. human rights report earlier this year.
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.
Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, said that the mention of the reform camps was the first direct acknowledgement by a North Korean official speaking before an international audience. Last month, a senior court official mentioned the reform camps’ existence in an interview with the pro-Pyongyang website Minjok Tongshin.
“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. While he 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.
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.
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.