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N Korea at crossroads

US sanctions three N.Korean officials for suspected rights abuses

Choe Ryong Hae, member of the Presidium of the Political Bureau and secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, inspects Seungri automobile factory in this May 28, 2018, photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang May 29, 2018.   © Kyodo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The United States on Monday sanctioned three North Korean officials, including a top aide to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, citing "ongoing and serious human rights abuses and censorship," the U.S. Treasury Department 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 U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier," the department said in a statement.

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.

It was not clear whether the decision to sanction the three men was related to U.S.-North Korean nuclear diplomacy, which has made little obvious progress since U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim met in Singapore in June.

The Treasury identified the three as Ryong Hae Choe, an aide close to Kim who heads the Workers' Party of Korea Organization and Guidance Department; State Security Minister Kyong Thaek Jong and the director of North Korea's Propaganda and Agitation Department, Kwang Ho Pak.

The sanctions freeze any assets the officials may have under U.S. jurisdiction and generally prohibits them from engaging in any transactions with anyone in the United States.

In the lead up to the Trump-Kim summit, 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 U.S. citizen.

Talks that had been planned for Nov. 8 between U.S. 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.

At the time, the U.S. State Department said the meeting had been postponed, but gave no reason, raising concerns that talks aimed at persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear arms could break down. The State Department said the talks would be rescheduled "when our respective schedules permit."

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