The United States said on Monday it had sanctioned three North Korean officials, including a top aide to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, for serious human rights abuses and censorship.
The US Treasury named the men as Ryong Hae Choe, an aide close to Kim who leads the Workers’ Party of Korea Organization and Guidance Department; State Security Minister Kyong Thaek Jong; and Propaganda and Agitation Department head Kwang Ho Pak.
It was not clear whether the decision to sanction the three men was related to US-North Korean nuclear diplomacy, which has made little obvious progress since Kim and US President Donald Trump met in Singapore in June.
The sanctions, which freeze any assets the officials may have under US jurisdiction and generally bar them from transactions with anyone in the United States, were announced as the US State Department released a six-monthly report on North Korean abuses.
“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,” State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said in a statement accompanying the report.
North Korea has repeatedly rejected accusations of human rights abuses and blames sanctions for a dire humanitarian situation. Pyongyang has been under UN sanctions since 2006 over its ballistic missiles and nuclear programs.
In a separate statement, the Treasury said the sanctions “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 US citizen Otto Warmbier.”
Warmbier was an American student who died in June 2017 after 17 months of detention in North Korea, which contributed to already tense exchanges between Pyongyang and Washington, primarily over North Korea’s nuclear development program.
In the lead-up to the historic Trump-Kim summit in June, North Korea released three American prisoners, although talks between the two countries have since stalled. Last month, North Korea said it would deport another detained US citizen.
Talks that had been planned for Nov. 8 between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol and that aimed to pave the way for a second summit were canceled with 24 hours’ notice.
Trump has said he and Kim are likely to meet a second time in January or February, with three sites for a summit under consideration.