By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - North Korea told a U.N. rights panel that international sanctions imposed on it over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs would endanger the survival of North Korean children.
Han Tae Song, Pyongyang's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, was speaking at a hearing of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child late on Wednesday.
The panel of independent experts challenged North Korean officials over allegations of forced child labor, sexual abuse and trafficking in North Korea, Pyongyang's health and education budget, and Internet access for children.
Han said North Korea, whose population is 26 million, is a "people-centered socialist country... where protection and promotion of the rights and welfare of the child are given top priority ... There is room for improvement."
But Han said that new sanctions imposed by the United States and the U.N. Security Council over North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile tests were hampering the production of nutritional goods for children and provision of textbooks.
"The persistent and vicious blockade and sanctions against the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) are not only hampering the endeavors for the protection and promotion of the rights of the child but also seriously threatening their right to survival," he said, calling for sanctions to be lifted.
The U.N. Security Council has unanimously imposed nine rounds of sanctions on North Korea since 2006, the latest earlier this month capping fuel supplies to the isolated state.
Han said that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un - denounced by U.S. President Donald Trump as "Rocket Man" - "personally guides the construction in different parts of the country of schoolchildren's palaces, children’s hospitals, baby homes, children’s homes, and primary and secondary boarding schools and works with devotion for the well-being of the young generation".
South Korea approved a plan on Thursday to send $8 million worth of aid to North Korea as China warned the crisis on the divided Korean peninsula was getting more serious by the day and the war of words between Pyongyang and Washington continued.
The U.N. panel asked how North Korea's "songbun" (caste system) that ranks citizens based on family loyalty to the ruling dynasty affected children's access to education, health and food. The North Korean delegation replied that this was an "imaginary concept" invented by hostile forces.
Human Rights Watch has called on the rights panel to press North Korea's delegation on cases of child sexual abuse, which the New York-based group said it had documented.
"The (North Korean government) report was silent on the issue of sexual abuse so the delegation was asked to provide data," read a U.N. summary of the hearing.
North Korea's delegation said that forced child labor did not exist in the country and was banned, and that the maximum duration of young people's work in agricultural fields was limited to three weeks per year.
"In response to a question on the use of the Internet, the delegation explained that there was public control of this medium in order to give preference to access to positive information for children. In addition, all children had access to the (North Korean internal) Intranet," the summary said.
The committee will issue its conclusions on Oct. 4.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Mark Heinrich)