A North Korean official publicly acknowledged to the international community the existence of his country's "reform through labor" camps yesterday, a mention that appeared to come in response to a highly critical UN human rights report earlier this year. A North Korean foreign ministry official 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, which Pyongyang has not acknowledged. 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. Diplomats also told reporters that a top North Korean official has visited the headquarters of the European Union and expressed interest in dialogue, with discussions on human rights expected next year. "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," says the director of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. (Read more North Korea stories.)