U.S sanctions North Koreans for 'flagrant' rights abuse

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Thursday imposed sanctions on seven North Korean individuals and three entities for “flagrant” human rights abuses, including killings, torture, forced labor and the hunting down of asylum seekers abroad.

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“Today’s sanctions target the North Korean military and regime officials,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. “We also are targeting North Korean financial facilitators who attempt to keep the regime afloat with foreign currency earned through forced labor operations.”

Among those sanctioned were the director and the deputy director of the Military Security Command, the first vice minister of the Ministry of People’s Security and the labor minister. North Korea’s consul general in Shenyang, China, and a diplomat at its embassy in Vietnam were also sanctioned.

“We are especially concerned with the North Korean military, which operates as secret police, punishing all forms of dissent,” the statement said.

“Further, the military operates outside of North Korea to hunt down asylum seekers, and brutally detains and forcibly returns North Korean citizens.”

The Treasury statement charged that Ku Sung Sop, the consul general in Shenyang, and Kim Min Chol, the diplomat in Vietnam, had participated in the forced repatriation of North Korean asylum seekers.

Scott Busby, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, told a news briefing that Ku’s case had been raised with China.

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He said it was up to China how to react, but the range of possibilities included expelling him from the country.

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China does not approve of countries using their own domestic law to enact unilateral sanctions outside of the United Nations framework.

“We will maintain normal exchanges and cooperation with North Korea on the basis of complying with U.N. resolutions,” he told a daily news briefing, without elaborating.

Busby said North Korean government violations included extrajudicial killings, torture, rape and forced abortions and the aim of the sanctions was to send a message, especially to prison camp managers and mid-level officials, that individuals would be held accountable.

The U.S. administration has sought to restrict the income North Korea receives from its export of labor as part of efforts to choke off funds helping to finance the country’s nuclear and missile programs, which Pyongyang says are aimed at developing weapons capable of hitting the United States.

North Korea routinely denies widespread allegations of rights abuses.

The Treasury statement said the Ch’olhyo’n Overseas Construction Company, which was sanctioned along with the Military Security Command and the External Construction Bureau, had operated in Algeria and was reported to earn foreign currency for North Korea.

“Employees of Ch’olhyo’n are kept in slave-like conditions, including having salaries and passports withheld by (North Korean) security officials assigned as site supervisors, meager food rations, poor living conditions, and severe restrictions on their freedom of movement,” the Treasury statement said.

It said the External Construction Bureau had operated in Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Tom Brown