The US Treasury Department announced the sanctions on Choe Ryong-hae, vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party; Jong Kyong-thaek, minister of state security; and Pak Kwang-ho, director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department.
The Treasury Department cited “brutal” human rights abuses and censorship as well as the death of American college student Otto Warmbier, who died in June 2017 shortly after he was released from captivity in North Korea, as the reasons behind the sanctions.
The sanctions seize assets the officials may have in the US and ban any US entity from financial transactions with them, but they are expected to be largely symbolic, as North Korea is already under multilayered sanctions for its nuclear weapons program.
On Monday, the US State Department also released a report on human rights abuses and censorship in North Korea.
“The Government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea continues to censor the media and commit serious human rights violations and abuses, including violations of individuals’ freedom of expression,” said the report.
North Korea on Tuesday denounced Washington’s decision through its state-run newspaper.
The US’ blacklisting of Pyongyang as one of the worst human trafficking countries is an “intolerable political provocation” and a “hostile act” that runs against the goodwill spirit of the Singapore summit between Trump and Kim, read an article in Rodong Sinmun.
The fresh sanctions came as US President Donald Trump seeks to hold a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un early next year amid a lack of progress on the North’s denuclearization.
North Korea remains silent, without engaging the US in working-level or senior-level negotiations for denuclearization, though its leader committed to working toward complete denuclearization during the June 12 summit in Singapore.
North Korea has demanded the US take “corresponding measures,” which are believed to include sanctions relief, while the US has maintained that pressure can only be eased if Pyongyang takes concrete steps to end its nuclear program.
The latest US move targets the key officials of the North Korea regime.
“Choe Ryong-hae is central to maintaining the Kim Jong-un regime. He is the de facto No. 2 man with control over the party, government and military, followed by Pak Gwang-ho and Jong Kyong-thaek in terms of the amount of control they hold in North Korea,” said Cho Han-bum, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
But experts say that the sanctions are more likely to be simply the bureaucracy doing its job, rather than a negotiating tactic to gain leverage in negotiations with North Korea.
Monday marked the 70th annual International Human Rights Day.
“What US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump’s security adviser John Bolton say carry a heavier weight because they are the ones close to the US president,” Cho said. “I don’t think Trump meant to send a warning to the Kim Jong-un regime through the sanctions.”
John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, said last week that the US will consider lifting sanctions when there is “performance,” a remark which was largely seen as lowering the bar for the North, in an effort to lead it to the negotiating table.
“Standing up for such rights and freedoms is a foreign policy priority that represents the best traditions of the United States,” State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said.
Woo Jung-yeop, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute, also noted that the Treasury Department is playing by the book.
“It is just part of a manual. I don’t think the department had an intention to use the human rights issue as a negotiating tool in denuclearization talks with North Korea,” Woo said.
The Trump administration has downplayed concerns over North Korea’s human rights, saying the priority is getting North Korea denuclearized. Trump has also publicly praised Kim, who is believed to have executed his family members and ordered the assassination of his half brother in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
“The Trump administration has been consistent in the implementation of sanctions. It could discuss sanctions relief at the negotiating table with North Korea, but it does not intend to remove sanctions first to lead the North to the negotiating table,” he said.
South Korean government also appeared to downplay the meaning of the new sanctions.
The US government has announced on a regular basis a report on North Korea’s human rights violations and those subject to sanctions in accordance with its North Korea sanctions law,” Noh Kyu-duk, spokesperson for Seoul’s Foreign Ministry, said at a regular briefing Tuesday, adding the announcement is thought to be in line with such efforts by Washington.
South Korea has maintained that it continues efforts to improve human rights of North Korean people, alongside the international community.