WASHINGTON/SEOUL -- The U.S. has imposed sanctions on three top North Korean officials for human rights violations, hitting Kim Jong Un's regime where it hurts the most and plunging denuclearization talks into further uncertainty.
In commemoration of International Human Rights Day, the U.S. State Department on Monday published a report outlining serious human rights abuses and censorship in North Korea. Among the issues listed were deportation to prison camps -- and in extreme cases, public executions -- for possession of illicit DVDs, and random raids on citizens' homes without warrants.
The Treasury Department imposed unilateral sanctions on Choe Ryong Hae, Pak Kwang Ho and Jong Kyong Thaek, the people identified as responsible for these abuses.
Choe, a vice chair of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea and a close aide to leader Kim Jong Un, is often considered the North's No. 2 official. Pak is the director of the party's Propaganda and Agitation Department. Minister of State Security Jong is believed to be involved in torture and forced labor at prison camps.
Any assets they have in the U.S. have been frozen, and they are banned from transactions with U.S. citizens. But the move is seen as more of a symbolic gesture to show Washington's interest in human rights.
"These sanctions demonstrate the United States' ongoing support for freedom of expression, and opposition to endemic censorship and human rights abuses," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement Monday.
President Donald Trump renewed sanctions on North Korea for alleged human trafficking on Nov. 29, and is pushing the United Nations Security Council to hold a meeting on human rights abuses in the North.
The North is expected to push back, since human rights issues are one of the regime's greatest weaknesses. The party-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper slammed the November sanctions as an "unforgivable political provocation" that "violate the spirit of the North Korea-U.S. summit," referring to the meeting between Trump and Kim in June.
High-level communications between the countries came to a halt in early November, when North Korea asked to postpone a key meeting. "The U.S. made more than 20 calls to Workers' Party Vice Chair Kim Yong Chol and Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, but got no response from Pyongyang," South Korean special adviser for unification Moon Chung-in said.