The United States has imposed sanctions on three senior North Korean government officials, including a close ally of Kim Jong-un, for human rights abuses and other measures designed to “suppress and control the population”.
The sanctions were announced by the Department of the Treasury in Washington on Monday and single out Choe Ryong-hae, widely seen as the second most powerful man in the regime, because of his position as director of the Workers’ Party’s Organisation and Guidance Department.
The US statement said the department is “instrumental in implementing censorship policies and purports to control the political affairs of all North Koreans”.
The two other officials named in the statement were Jong Kyong-thaek, the minister of state security, and Pak Kwang-ho, director of the party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department – which is tasked with “maintaining ideological purity”.
The statement added that the officials “direct departments that perpetrate the regime’s brutal, state-sponsored censorship activities, human rights violations and abuses and other abuses in order to suppress and control the population”.
The sanctions are, however, largely symbolic as they freeze the property or assets of the three men in the US and ban American citizens from carrying out business transactions with them.
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Nevertheless, North Korea has reacted angrily to the latest US criticism of its human rights record, announced on International Human Rights Day.
State media condemned Washington for a “hostile act” that runs counter to the spirit of goodwill fostered in the historic summit between Mr Kim and President Donald Trump in Singapore in June.
The Rodong Sinmun said criticism of Pyongyang for human rights violations was an “intolerable political provocation” while the Uriminzokkiri web site hit back, claiming that “The United States and its followers are ruthlessly raping the human rights of other countries and peoples all over the world”.
North Korea says the US is making a “racket” on the question of human rights in order to put Pyongyang under pressure in the talks to rid the North of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
Those discussions have stalled since Mr Kim and Mr Trump met in Singapore as Pyongyang demands that it be rewarded for incremental steps towards denuclearisation but Washington stands firm on its insistence on verifiable, full and irreversible steps to eliminate the North’s nuclear capabilities.
The US leader has claimed that another summit will take place early in the New Year, although there are no indications of progress towards a meeting.
Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, on Monday failed to mention the North’s dismal human rights record in a speech in Seoul. A former human rights lawyer, Mr Moon instead said that South Korea “had a long way to go” on the issue and insisted that a formal end to the Korean War and a permanent peace on the peninsula is the best way to protect the human rights of “the entire Korean people”.