North Korea must act immediately to halt a litany of abuses and crimes against humanity, diplomats said Thursday during a UN review of the isolated Asian nation's rights record.
But North Korea -- backed by its main ally, China -- hit back at the criticism and said a recent report by UN investigators was designed to "defame" the country.
Diplomats who took the floor at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva voiced outrage at the "systematic, widespread and gross rights violations" detailed in the February report, which documented a range of grave abuses in the country, including extrajudicial killings, torture and sexual violence.
"We note with concern that... human rights violations and crimes against humanity continue to take place with impunity," British representative Karen Pierce said.
North Korea has categorically rejected the report, with one of the country's top diplomats Choe Myong Nam insisting Thursday it was "full of distortions".
Several countries praised North Korea's advances in reducing child mortality and allowing reunions between families separated by the ongoing conflict on the Korean peninsula.
But US ambassador Robert King told the council Washington was "alarmed by the widespread use of forced labour, including child labour, in detention facilities".
He called on Pyongyang to "acknowledge the human rights violations in the country and take immediate steps to end such violations."
Counsellor Chuandong Chen of North Korea's key ally China urged the international community to treat North Korea "in a fair manner".
North Korea's representative to the UN in Geneva said progress had been made in a number of fields since its last Universal Periodic Review, which all 193 UN countries must undergo every four years.
He pointed to new legislation to protect the rights of children, women and the disabled, a broadening of the state education and healthcare systems, expanded efforts to provide enough food to the often famine-struck nation and a free housing programme.
But, he said, efforts to protect and promote human rights were threatened by "the persistent politically motivated pressure and military threat by outside forces," and "aggravating economic sanctions", imposed by the international community on the nuclear-armed state.
- 'Dismantle all prison camps' -
Many diplomats slammed North Korea's vast network of prison camps, where generations of the same family are held under guilt-by-association rules.
The country, which is estimated to have 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners within its borders, should "immediately dismantle all political prison camps (and) release all political prisoners," King said.
A member of North Korea's delegation meanwhile told the council "such facilities do not exist in the DPRK."
Diplomats raised North Korea's alleged abductions of an estimated 200,000 people from other countries -- mostly South Koreans left stranded after the 1950-53 Korean War, but also hundreds from around the world since then.
South Korea called on the country to "seriously address the issues of abductees, prisoners of war and separated families," while Japan's representative Takashi Okada demanded that Pyongyang take "concrete action to resolve this issue as soon as possible, including repatriating abductees."
"The issue of South Korean abductees does not exist," a member of North Korea's delegation retorted, while another insisted the issue of the Japanese abductees had been resolved.
Pyongyang admitted in 2002 that it had abducted 13 Japanese nationals over two decades, claiming eight had died, but the recent UN report estimated around 100 Japanese had been snatched by North Korea.
North Korean representatives also batted aside criticism of the country's extensive use of the death penalty and especially public executions. People were only executed publically for "extremely grave" crimes, it said.
A report based on the review is set to be adopted by the council next Thursday.