North Korea made a rare appearance before a U.N. human rights organization on Monday, facing accusations of widespread abuses such as forced labor, public executions and torture.
The communist state, which also was accused of allowing its population to go hungry and forcing women prison inmates to have abortions, defended itself before the Human Rights Council during a three-hour session in surprisingly candid language. At one point, it said public executions were carried out at request of victims' families.
But North Korean Ambassador Ri Tcheul also told delegations the hearing was "unpleasant."
Limited arable land and natural disasters have prevented the government from being able to feed the entire population, Ri said. But he said the situation has improved in recent years.
"The issue of serious malnutrition is a thing of the past," he told the 47-nation council. "We will in the near future meet the domestic need for food on our own."
Diplomats weren't convinced.
Canada's representative, John Von Kaufmann, was among those who urged the mostly closed communist country to allow aid workers to bring food to the chronically undernourished population.
New Zealand's official, Wendy Hinton, said children and women are severely malnourished because the military has priority in receiving food.
The U.N. estimates that 8.7 million people need food in North Korea. The country has relied on foreign assistance to feed much of its population since the mid-1990s when its economy was hit by natural disasters and the loss of the regime's Soviet benefactor.
North Korea, ruled by leader Kim Jong Il, has one of the world's worst human rights records but often dismisses criticism as part of a U.S.-led attempt to overthrow the regime. It has been particularly adamant on the issue of prison camps, which hold as many as 200,000 inmates, according to the U.S. State Department.
One Pyongyang delegate, whose name wasn't immediately given, said political prisoners do not exist in North Korea.
Regarding executions, the country acknowledged that public killings take place for "very brutal and violent crimes." But it said these were only "in very exceptional cases" and at the demand of a victim's relatives.
The Human Rights Council, which has no enforcement powers, will deliver its findings later this week.
Last week, in Seoul, South Korea, dozens of North Korean defectors said their government must be investigated for crimes against humanity for alleged human rights violations, including extreme torture, sexual slavery and prison brutality.
The 150 defectors signed a petition urging the International Criminal Court to investigate North Korea and to arrest Kim for alleged rights violations. Defectors will travel to The Hague, Netherlands, this week to file the petition with the court, they said.