By Patricia Zengerle, David Brunnstrom and Joel Schectman
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Wednesday sanctioned North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for the first time, citing “notorious abuses of human rights,” in a move that diplomats say will incense the nuclear-armed country.
The sanctions, the first to target any North Koreans for rights abuses, affect property and other assets within U.S. jurisdiction and extend to 10 other individuals and five government ministries and departments, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement.
“Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea continues to inflict intolerable cruelty and hardship on millions of its own people, including extrajudicial killings, forced labour, and torture,” Acting Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Adam J. Szubin said in the statement.
In North Korea, the leader is the subject of state-encouraged adulation and considered infallible.
In a report by the U.S. State Department to Congress, Kim Jong Un topped a list of those responsible for serious human rights abuses and censorship in North Korea.
The Treasury statement said he had “engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for an abuse or violation of human rights by the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea.”
The sanctions also named lower-level officials such as Choe Pu Il, the minister of People’s Security, as directly responsible for abuses.
Senior U.S administration officials said the report was “the most comprehensive” to date of individual North Korean officials’ roles in forced labour and repression.
They said the findings were based on an earlier United Nations report and accounts from civil society groups and the South Korean government.
They said the sanctions would be partly “symbolic” but hope that naming mid-level officials may make functionaries “think twice” before engaging in abuses.
“It lifts the anonymity (but) may not affect their lives today,” a senior administration official told reporters.
However if the political situation in North Korea changed, being on a U.S. blacklist would have a serious impact, the official said.
The North Korea mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
MORE SANCTIONS TO COME
In March, U.S. President Barack Obama imposed sweeping new sanctions on North Korea after it conducted its fourth nuclear test and a rocket launch the United States and its allies said employed banned ballistic missile technology.
Those steps froze any property of the North Korean government in the United States and essentially prohibited exports of goods from the United States to North Korea.
In March, the U.N. Security Council imposed harsh new sanctions on the country in response to its nuclear and missile tests.
The U.N. General Assembly urged the U.N. Security Council to consider referring North Korea to the International Criminal Court after a 2014 U.N. Commission of Inquiry detailed wide-ranging rights violations in the country. However diplomats say China, North Korea’s neighbour, is likely to veto any such move.
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said many abuses were committed in political prison camps, where an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 individuals were detained, including children and other relatives of the accused.
Kirby said the United States would identify more individuals and entities in future reports.
“We aim to send a signal to all government officials who might be responsible for human rights abuses, including prison camp managers and guards, interrogators, and defector chasers, with the goal of changing their behaviour,” he said.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, David Brunnstrom, Joel Schectman in Washington and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Lisa Von Ahn)