GENEVA, Switzerland - North Korea made a rare appearance before a U.N. human-rights organization yesterday, facing charges of widespread abuse, including forced labor, public executions, and torture.
The communist state, also accused of tolerating hunger among its people and forcing female prison inmates to have abortions, defended itself before the Human Rights Council in surprisingly candid language.
At one point it said executions were carried out in public at the request of victims' families.
North Korean Ambassador Ri Tcheul also told delegations the hearing was "unpleasant."
The hearing came as a special U.S. envoy prepared for a rare visit to North Korea to gauge whether it will return to international talks seeking to halt its nuclear-arms program. The North angrily left the talks earlier this year.
Stephen Bosworth was to fly to Pyongyang today from a U.S. military base near Seoul on a three-day visit.
"The main question is whether Bosworth will meet with Chairman Kim Jong Il," said Kim Yong Hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Seoul's Dongguk University. "Such a meeting would demonstrate that both the U.S. and North Korea intend to resolve the nuclear issue."
U.S. officials would only say that the North had promised high-level meetings for Bosworth.
At the rights hearing, Ri said lack of arable land and natural disasters had prevented the government from being able to feed the entire population. But he said the situation had improved.
"The issue of serious malnutrition is a thing of the past," he told the 47-nation council.
Diplomats were not convinced.
New Zealand's Wendy Hinton said children and women were severely malnourished because the military had priority in receiving food.
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.
Last week, in Seoul, South Korea, dozens of North Korean defectors said their government must be investigated for crimes against humanity, including extreme torture and sexual slavery.
North Korea usually dismisses criticism of its rights record as part of a U.S.-led attempt to overthrow its regime.
It has been particularly adamant on the issue of prison camps, which, according to the State Department, hold as many as 200,000 inmates.
One Pyongyang delegate said political prisoners don't exist in North Korea.
The Human Rights Council, which has no enforcement powers, is to deliver its findings later this week.