The Trump administration sanctioned three senior North Korean officials for human rights abuses and censorship in the country as discussions between the U.S. and North Korea over the regime’s nuclear weapons program have stalled.
The U.S. Treasury Department, which announced the sanctions, said they were in honor of American Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old college student who died after being released from North Korean custody in June 2017. He would have turned 24 on Dec. 12.
The sanctions are also part of a congressionally mandated report that details North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s violently oppressive rule. In particular, the State Department report identified three committees within the government and state political party that censor media by restricting the sale of any foreign media, confiscating any that is found and punishing those who obtain it.
“North Koreans caught with illicit entertainment items such as DVDs, CDs, and USBs are at a minimum sent to prison camps and, in extreme cases, may face public execution,” the report said. It went on to allege that one of those groups is responsible for kidnapping and imprisoning defectors and foreigners who share such items and promote human rights.
To punish North Korea for these abuses, the Treasury Department sanctioned the three officials, including Choe Ryong Hae, a close aide to Kim who is seen as the number two official in the country as head of the party’s Organization and Guidance Department. It is perhaps the most powerful organization in North Korea, responsible for all policies and assignments within the party and military.
The other two officials are Pak Kwang Ho, head of the Propaganda and Agitation Department, and Jong Kyong Thaek, minster of State Security, the government agency that manages the country’s prison camps.
Jong is “involved in directing abuses committed in the political prison camp system, where serious human rights abuses such as torture, deliberate starvation, forced labor, and sexual violence are systematized,” according to the U.S. State Department, while Pak directs the propaganda meant to indoctrinate North Koreans.
Because North Korea is already so heavily sanctioned and the three men are not likely to have U.S. assets that could be frozen, the action is largely symbolic.
But experts say it is an important reminder that the U.S. cares about the regime’s human rights violations, even if the message has been muddied by President Donald Trump, who has praised Kim as a “smart cookie” and “very talented” and has said Kim “loves his people” and that the two of them “fell in love.”
Bruce Klingner, former CIA deputy division chief of Korea and now a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that while “Trump has not commented on, and seemingly dismissed concern over, North Korean abuses” since the Singapore summit earlier this year, “this sends a message that advocacy [for] human rights should not be abandoned in the quest for progress in security negotiations.”
Especially on International Human Rights Day, the message is that, “If North Korea doesn’t change, doesn’t stop its human rights abuses, then we can’t engage them economically,” David Maxwell, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told ABC News. “We have to put as much pressure on that as we do on the nuclear program.”
But the international pressure on North Korea for its human rights abuses could be slipping.
For the last five years, the United Nations Security Council held a session on International Human Rights Day to discuss the regime’s abuses, which the U.N. has documented in detail — including prison camps, forced labor, extrajudicial killings, rape, starvation, and censorship. This year, however, the U.S. did not win enough votes among Security Council members to hold the session again on Monday.
The U.S. mission is looking to hold the meeting in 2019, a spokesperson told ABC News, adding that the America “remains deeply concerned with the human rights situation in North Korea, and we continue to urge the North Korean regime to join the community of nations, begin to respect human rights, and adhere to international standards on humanitarian assistance.”
Talks between the U.S. and North Korea have focused on the nuclear issue and little on those human rights abuses. In October, the State Department declined to say whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had raised the issue with Kim directly and argued that denuclearization was the priority.
The State Department “is very clear about the concerns that we have, not just about North Korea but many countries, frankly, around the world and countries that can do a lot better. Our priority in North Korea, though, right now is denuclearization,” spokesperson Heather Nauert said in October.
Calling out North Korea now could anger the regime and further delay talks between Pompeo and his counterpart Kim Yong Chol, North Korea’s nuclear negotiator and former spy chief. North Korea canceled meetings in New York at the beginning of November.
“It’s good to see the Trump administration paying attention to human rights abuses somewhere,” Mike Fuchs, a deputy assistant Secretary of State for East Asia in the Obama administration, told ABC News. But both sides “are looking for signs that the other is serious about diplomacy, and actions like this are more likely to undermine diplomacy than to further it.”
That’s debatable to others, though, who say North Korea will always look for an excuse to cancel a meeting and blame the other side.
“The North Koreans always bake in an excuse that they can use to back out of an agreement and blame the South or the U.S. or both,” said Maxwell. “If we are worried about that, we’re never going to move ahead.”
There have yet to be working-level meetings between the two countries, with North Korea refusing to meet one-on-one with Pompeo’s special representative for North Korea, Steve Biegun, since he started in August. Maxwell said he’s hopeful Biegun and his team will raise the issue — whenever he finally gets the chance to do so.