(ATTN: CLARIFIES figures in para 3, State Department comments in paras 17-19)
By Chang Jae-soon
WASHINGTON, July 6 (Yonhap) -- The United States imposed sanctions on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un over human rights abuses on Wednesday in an unprecedented, highly symbolic measure underscoring Washington's determination to ramp up pressure on Pyongyang.
Ten other top officials as well as five state agencies, including the National Defense Commission, which has recently been replaced with the newly created State Affairs Commission, were also blacklisted by the Treasury Department for "their ties to North Korea's notorious abuses of human rights."
They are among a total of 15 North Korean officials and eight agencies, against whom the State Department recommended sanctions in a human rights report submitted to Congress. Of them, the Treasury added 11 individuals and five entities to the blacklist on Wednesday as the others have already been on the list.
"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 J. Szubin, acting under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement.
"The actions taken today ... highlight the U.S. government's condemnation of this regime's abuses and our determination to see them stopped," he said.
It was the first time the U.S. has imposed direct sanctions on the North's leader and the designation also marked the first-ever U.S. sanctions on Pyongyang over its human rights abuses. That shows the U.S. is committed to ratcheting up pressure on Pyongyang.
North Korea, which tolerates no criticism of its leader, is expected to react angrily to the designation and could undertake provocations in protest, such as missile tests, further escalating the already-high tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
Wednesday's designation was made in accordance with a State Department report on the North's human rights that was submitted to Congress under the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, enacted in February following the nuclear and missile tests.
North Korea "continues to commit serious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detention, forced labor, and torture. Many of these abuses are committed in the country's political prison camps, which hold an estimated 80,000 -120,000 prisoners, including children and family members of the accused," the State Department report said.
"The government also maintains an extensive system of forced labor through its rigid controls over workers, and restricts the exercise of freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, association, religion or belief, and movement," it said.
The designation is the latest in a series of measures the U.S. is taking to increase pressure on the North.
The U.S. has led the U.N. Security Council to adopt the toughest sanctions ever on Pyongyang while enacting its own unilateral sanctions on the communist nation in the wake of the North's fourth nuclear test in January and a long-range rocket launch the following month.
Last month, the Treasury Department also designated the North as a "primary money laundering concern," a powerful sanction designed to cut off the rogue regime from the international banking system, for defiantly pursuing nuclear and missile development.
Wednesday's designation calls for freezing assets of and banning American transactions with those blacklisted, but they are expected to be largely symbolic as North Korean officials have no assets in the U.S. and do not engage in transactions with Americans.
Experts have expressed doubts about the effects of the sanctions.
"The symbolic listing of Kim and senior colleagues is unlikely to have any impact on North Korea's nuclear program or relations with the United States. North Korea is already viewed as one of, if not 'the,' most repressive regimes in the world, so its moral standing will not change," Alan Romberg, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center, told Yonhap News Agency.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said the sanctions would have repercussions.
"This isn't just symbolic. This identification of these individuals -- it really for the first time puts them out in the public domain in a way that they haven't been necessarily before," Kirby said at a regular press briefing.
"It could have repercussions not just from a U.S. perspective, because now other nations, in terms of these sanctions, other nations will probably, and other institutions, will probably think twice and so there could be global financial implications for some of these individuals," he said.
North Korea has long been labeled as one of the worst human rights violators. The communist regime does not tolerate dissent, holds hundreds of thousands of people in political prison camps and keeps tight control over outside information.
But Pyongyang has bristled at such criticism, calling it a U.S.-led attempt to topple its regime.
In April, the State Department said in its annual human rights report that the North continues to control political activity and ban or limit political opposition, while maintaining a network of political prison camps.
The full list of 15 officials and eight agencies subject to sanctions over human rights:
- Kim Jong-un, chairman of the State Affairs Commission
- Ri Yong-mu, former vice chairman of the National Defense Commission
- O Kuk-ryol, former vice chairman of the National Defense Commission
- Hwang Pyong-so, vice chairman of the State Affairs Commission
- Choe Pu-il, minister of People's Security
- Pak Yong-sik, minister of People's Armed Forces
- Jo Yon-jun, 1st vice director of the Organization and Guidance Department
- Kim Kyong-ok, 1st vice director of the Organization and Guidance Department
- Kang Song-nam, bureau director of the Ministry of State Security
- Choe Chang-pong, bureau director of the Ministry of State Security
- Ri Song-chol, counselor of the Ministry of People's Security
- Kim Ki-nam, director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department
- Ri Jae-il, first vice director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department
- Cho Il-u, official of the Reconnaissance General Bureau
- O Chong-kuk, official of the Reconnaissance General Bureau
- National Defense Commission (now defunct, replaced with State Affairs Commission)
- Organization and Guidance Department
- Ministry of State Security
- Ministry of State Security Prisons Bureau
- Ministry of People's Security
- Ministry of People's Security Correctional Bureau
- Propaganda and Agitation Department
- Reconnaissance General Bureau
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