U.S. sanctions three North Korean officials for alleged rights abuses

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States said on Monday it had sanctioned three North Korean officials, including a top aide to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, for serious human rights abuses and censorship.

FILE PHOTO: Choe Ryong Hae, a close aide of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, attends a meeting with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, November 20, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

The U.S. Treasury named the men as Ryong Hae Choe, an aide close to Kim who leads the Workers’ Party of Korea Organization and Guidance Department; State Security Minister Kyong Thaek Jong; and Propaganda and Agitation Department head Kwang Ho Pak.

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 Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump met in Singapore in June.

The sanctions, which freeze any assets the officials may have under U.S. jurisdiction and generally bar them from transactions with anyone in the United States, were announced as the U.S. State Department released a six-monthly report on North Korean abuses.

“Human rights abuses in North Korea remain among the worst in the world and include extrajudicial killings, forced labor, torture, prolonged arbitrary detention, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence,” State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said in a statement accompanying the report.

North Korea has repeatedly rejected accusations of human rights abuses and blames sanctions for a dire humanitarian situation. Pyongyang has been under U.N. sanctions since 2006 over its ballistic missiles and nuclear programs.

There was no immediate reaction from North Korea to the sanctions against the three.

But in a commentary on Tuesday, the North Korean state newspaper Rodong Sinmun criticized a Nov. 29 decision by Trump to renew sanctions over alleged human trafficking, denouncing it as “an unpardonable political provocation.”

“The U.S. would be well-advised to get rid of the stale habit of confrontation and hostility at an early date, mindful that the trite ‘human rights’ racket against the DPRK will bring only disgrace upon the U.S.,” the newspaper said, using the initials of the country’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The U.S. Treasury said Monday’s 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.”

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.

In the lead-up to the historic Trump-Kim summit in June, 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.

Trump has said he and Kim are likely to meet a second time in January or February, with three sites for a summit under consideration.

Reporting by Tim Ahmann, Susan Heavey and Arshad Mohammed; Additional reporting by Josh Smith in Seoul; Editing by Frances Kerry and Peter Cooney