The United States stepped up efforts to isolate North Korea on Wednesday, imposing sanctions on leader Kim Jong Un and 10 other senior officials for human rights abuses.
Wednesday’s move by the U.S. Treasury Department marks the first time that Kim, hereditary ruler of North Korea since his father died in 2011, has been sanctioned personally, and the first time sanctions have been imposed on North Korea officials for human rights abuses.
"Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea continues to inflict intolerable cruelty and hardship on millions of its own people, including extrajudicial killings, forced labor, and torture," Adam Szubin, acting under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement.
The blacklist also covers officials at the Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of People's Security, agencies which run North Korea’s vast system of political prison camps, labor camps and related interrogation centers that the United States and rights experts say house some 120,000 political prisoners.
North Korean propaganda agencies are also covered by the sanctions, which freeze property designated individuals have within U.S. jurisdiction and ban U.S. citizens from doing business with them.
“Through most of the long history of the international community’s engagement with North Korea, the horrific human rights abuses committed by the regime have been known but not necessarily been central to how we have engaged,” said a senior Obama administration official.
“And the Obama Administration, over the last several years, has been working very hard to change that,” the official told reporters on a conference call after the sanctions were announced.
Activists have long pushed Washington to make human rights a stronger focus of U.S. diplomatic efforts with North Korea, which for two decades have largely focused on military threats, particularly Pyongyang’s expanding nuclear weapons and missile programs.
Kim held responsible
The rollout of the blacklist, which was accompanied by a damning State Department report on North Korean human rights abuses, was mandated by the North Korea Sanctions Act of 2016, passed by the U.S. Congress earlier this year.
The Obama administration official said the sanctions list represents “probably the most comprehensive effort that any government in the world has undertaken to name the specific officials responsible for the worst aspects of the North Korean regime’s repression below the obvious level of the supreme leader.”
Kim joins such other heads of state on Treasury blacklist as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
“We have made the judgment that he is, rather plainly, ultimately responsible for the actions of his regime, including its repressive policies towards its own people,” said the administration official.
“We have identified mid-level officials responsible for the operation of the prison camp system, for the hunting down of North Korean defectors overseas, and the punishment of those who seek to escape the country, as well as those responsible for maintaining the system of propaganda and censorship in North Korea,” the official added.
The blacklist includes Choe Pu Il, the minister of people's security; Choe Chang Pong, the director of the ministry's investigations bureau; Cho Il U at the Reconnaissance General Bureau, believed to run overseas espionage operations; and O Chong Kuk, thought to manage North Korea's infiltration operations into South Korea.
Ripple effect predicted
The blacklist, months if not years in the making, drew on the work of national governments, international organizations, civil society groups and defectors from North Korea.
U.S. officials also cited the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry report, which compiled exhaustive evidence of widespread abuses in North Korea including murder, starvation, torture, and other crimes—many of these committed in the country’s remote prison camps.
"This action is welcome and important. It is also long overdue," Joshua Stanton, who maintains the influential North Korea blog One Free Korea, told RFA.
"Freezing the assets of the morbidly obese tyrant who rules over a nation of stunted, malnourished children is the first step in holding him accountable for crimes against humanity. But for this tough new policy to work, it must be followed by a relentless pursuit of Kim Jong Un's hidden assets and a global diplomatic campaign to isolate and ostracize him," he added.
It was not immediately clear what immediate effect the new sanctions would have on North Korean officials, who seldom leave their isolated country.
The U.S. official acknowledged that the move aims to “send a message” that might give officials pause in the future.
“We have no illusions that this is going to bring some sort of dramatic change in and of itself to North Korea, but simply lifting the anonymity of these functionaries may make them think twice from time to time when they consider a particular act of cruelty or repression,” said the official.
A second Obama official said Wednesday’s move focusing on human rights abuses adds 16 North Korean officials to the total of 161 individuals and entities from that country already sanctioned for proliferation, counterfeiting and other illicit activities.
“The impact of today’s action not only cuts them off from the U.S. financial system and would freeze any assets in the United States, but it has a worldwide ripple effect,” the official told reporters on the conference call.