May 9, 2019 / 1:16 PM / 3 months ago

U.S. tells North Korea - free political prisoners

GENEVA (Reuters) - The United States called on North Korea on Thursday to dismantle camps estimated to be holding tens of thousands of political prisoners, while Pyongyang hit back at Washington’s sanctions.

FILE PHOTO: A man eats a meal at a bar decorated with a banner depicting U.S. president Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, near the Melia hotel where Kim Jong Un is staying in Hanoi, Vietnam, March 1, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/File Photo

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un have met twice in the last year, with Washington seeking curbs on Pyongyang’s nuclear programme and North Korea pursuing sanctions relief - but the rapprochement appears to be in limbo.

“The human rights situation in North Korea is deplorable and has no parallel in the modern world,” senior U.S. diplomat Mark Cassayre told the United Nations Human Rights Council during a five-year review of North Korea’s record.

U.N. rights investigators have estimated between 80,000 to 120,000 people are in political detention camps in North Korea where torture and other violations are taking place that they say may amount to crimes against humanity.

As well as urging those camps to be closed and their inmates released, charge d’affaires Cassayre exhorted authorities to allow aid workers unrestricted movement and access to people in need, and to tolerate possession of religious texts.

North Korea, which also came under criticism from countries including Britain, Canada and France at Thursday’s meeting, again denied the existence of political prisoners and camps.

However, its delegation said that “spies and terrorists who are sent by hostile forces” and those who commit “subversive acts” are kept in “reform institutions” separately from ordinary prisoners, although “they are not many in number”.

“People’s rights to life and fundamental freedoms are fully ensured,” North Korean ambassador Han Tae Song told the 47-member forum. However, U.S. sanctions were hampering North Koreans’ enjoyment of life, he said.

“Such anachronistic acts are very dangerous,” Han said, noting that Kim’s summits both with Trump and South Korea augured a new era of peace on the divided Korean peninsula.

Despite that, North Korea fired what appeared to be two short-range missiles on Thursday, the South’s military said, less than a week after Kim oversaw the test-firing of multiple rockets and a missile.

At the rights forum, North Korea’s most powerful ally China urged it to continue to promote economic, social and sustainable development. The international community should engage in sincere dialogue with Pyongyang towards “denuclearisation and a lasting peace on the peninsula”, it added.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Tom Miles and Andrew Cawthorne

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