By David Brunnstrom, Patricia Zengerle and Yeganeh Torbati
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.
The sanctions place those officials on a blacklist making them radioactive to major financial institutions and companies while freezing any assets they may already have in U.S banks.
“Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea continues to inflict intolerable cruelty and hardship on millions of its own people, including extrajudicial killings, forced labor, 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-mandated 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. Many of the abuses happen in North Korea’s political prisoner camps, which hold between 80,000 and 120,000 prisoners including children, the report said.
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 new sanctions demonstrated the administration’s greater focus on human rights in North Korea, an area that had long been secondary to Washington’s efforts to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
The report was “the most comprehensive” to date of individual North Korean officials’ roles in forced labor 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 maymake functionaries “think twice” before engaging in abuses.
“It lifts the anonymity,” a senior administration official told reporters.
The North Korea mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment.
MORE SANCTIONS TO COME
Using sanctions against a head of state is not unprecedented. In 2011, the United States sanctioned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and six other senior Syrian officials for their role in Syria’s violence. Former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was also sanctioned.
Policymakers often worry that targeting a country’s leader will destroy any lingering chance of rapprochement, say former diplomats. It is a sign that “there probably isn’t much of a hope for a diplomatic resolution,” said Zachary Goldman, a former policy adviser in the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.
Peter Harrell, a former State Department sanctions official, said the measures would signal to companies in China as well as others doing business with North Korea that the U.S. would continue escalating sanctions.
Harrell added that it was unlikely that any assets would be blocked “given the realities of where Kim Jong Un and his cronies likely hide their assets.”
In March, U.S. President Barack Obama imposed 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 neighbor, is likely to veto any such move.
(Additional reporting by Joel Schectman in Washington and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by Yara Bayoumy, Lisa Von Ahn and Chizu Nomiyama)