The United States imposed new sanctions on three top North Korean officials – including Kim Jong Un’s right-hand man – over the country’s continuing human rights abuses, brutal censorship and the death last year of American prisoner Otto Warmbier.
The U.S. Treasury said on Monday that it will freeze any U.S. assets of the three officials and that any transactions with them would be generally prohibited.
“These sanctions demonstrate the United States’ ongoing support for freedom of expression, and opposition to endemic censorship and human rights abuses,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
“The United States has consistently condemned the North Korean regime for its flagrant and egregious abuses of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and this Administration will continue to take action against human rights abusers around the globe,” he said.
Among the three figures targeted by the sanctions is Choe Ryong Hae, a close advisor to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and seen as the second-ranking official in the regime, wielding widespread influence over the government and military. He holds a powerful position in the Workers’ Party of Korea, the country’s sole ruling political party, as head of the Organization and Guidance Department.
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The other officials sanctioned are Jong Kyong Thaek, Minister of State Security, and Pak Kwang Ho, Director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department.
“Today’s actions shine a spotlight on North Korea’s reprehensible treatment of those in North Korea, and serve as a reminder of North Korea’s brutal treatment of U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier, who passed away 18 months ago,” the Treasury Department said in a statement.
Warmbier, a college student, died in June 2017 after he had been arrested for theft while visiting North Korea as a tourist. The Ohio native was held in captivity for 17 months before being released back to the U.S. in a vegetative state. He died days later.
The new sanctions came on the heels of a State Department report issued Monday detailing Pyongyang’s human rights violations and media censorship.
“Human rights abuses in North Korea remain among the worst in the world and include extrajudicial killings, forced labor, torture, prolonged arbitrary detention, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence,” said Robert Palladino, Deputy Spokesperson for the State Department.
President Donald Trump has frequently praised Kim Jong Un, saying in September that Kim was “terrific” and that the two leaders “fell in love” after their historic June summit meeting held in Singapore.
At that meeting, North Korea agreed to work toward a “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” and the U.S. promised to provide security guarantees, but progress has been stalled since.
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Pyongyang is looking for relief of punishing international sanctions in exchange for steps it has already taken, such as dismantling a nuclear testing site, while Washington is holding out for complete denuclearization.
Despite the stalemate, the administration is still making plans for a second Trump-Kim summit, which Trump recently said he expected would take place in early 2019.