Invoking Otto Warmbier, Administration Sanctions 3 Top North Koreans, Including Kim’s No. 2

By Patrick Goodenough | December 11, 2018 | 4:19am EST
Kim Jong Un’s No. 2, Choe Ryong-hae, is head of the ruling party’s Organization and Guidance Department, and one of three senior regime officials targeted for sanctions on Monday. This 2014 photo shows Choe with Kim at a children’s camp. (Photo: KCNA)

( – Six months after President Trump’s historic summit with Kim Jong Un, his administration marked international Human Rights Day on Monday by imposing sanctions on three of the North Korean dictator’s top officials – including the man viewed as his number two – for human rights abuses and censorship.

On the same day, South Korean President Moon Jae-in made headlines in Seoul for delivering a Human Rights Day speech that did not directly mention Pyongyang’s widely-condemned record of rights violations.

Instead Moon, a former human rights lawyer, argued that securing a permanent peace on the Korean peninsula “will promote human rights of all people.”

Moon, who has met three times with Kim Jong Un this year, is keen to achieve a political statement soon declaring an end to the Korean War. (The 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, and the peninsula remains technically at war.)

Meanwhile U.S.-North Korea efforts aimed at negotiating an end to the regime’s nuclear weapons program have shown no sign of a breakthrough, despite the Singapore summit and four visits to Pyongyang by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The U.S. move is likely to draw a strong reaction from the regime, which routinely slams what it calls the U.S. “human rights racket,” for example when the State Department last April released its annual global human rights report, and again more recently when a U.N. General Assembly committee approved a draft resolution on human rights in North Korea.

Monday’s actions by the U.S. Treasury Department came two days before what would have been Otto Warmbier’s 24th birthday. The American student died just days after he was released from a North Korean prison and returned home in a coma in June 2017.

The department said the sanction designations “serve as a reminder of North Korea’s brutal treatment” of Warmbier.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the three targeted officials all head “departments that perpetrate the regime’s brutal state-sponsored censorship activities, human rights violations and abuses, and other abuses in order to suppress and control the population.”

One is the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea’s Organization and Guidance Department (OGD), which is “instrumental in implementing censorship policies, and purports to control the political affairs of all North Koreans.”

“When a party official deviates from the official message in public remarks, the OGD reportedly will dispatch an official to monitor a self-criticism session,” the Treasury Dept. said.

The three officials are:

--Choe Ryong-hae, head of the OGD and also vice chairman of the WPK central committee – and North Korea’s de facto No. 2 official.

--Jong Kyong-thaek, minister of state security, whom the Treasury Dept. said “plays a role in directing the censorship activities and abuses perpetrated by” the ministry he heads.

--Pak Kwang-ho, director of the WPK’s Propaganda and Agitation Department (PAD), “responsible for maintaining ideological purity,” suppressing freedom of speech, and “indoctrinating the people.”

PAD is the division that was previously headed by Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, who was herself targeted for similar U.S. sanctions 13 months ago. She was later promoted to the politburo, the influential decision-making body which her brother heads.

‘Among the worst in the world’

The sanctions freeze any property that the officials may have in U.S. jurisdictions, and prohibit transactions with U.S. nationals.

The measures were implemented under the 2016 North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, which also requires a periodic report by the State Department. That report also was released on Monday.

In a recent photo posted on a regime’s propaganda site, Kim Jong Un inspects plans for development in the city of Sinuiju, on the border with China. (Photo: Uriminzokkiri)

“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 deputy spokesperson Robert Palladino said in a statement.

“This report focuses primarily on the regime’s efforts to suppress independent media and freedom of expression,” he added.

Palladino also said North Koreans who are “accused of viewing foreign films are reportedly subject to imprisonment or even execution.

North Korea’s human rights record did not feature in the document signed by Trump and Kim at their landmark summit in Singapore, but Trump said at a press conference afterwards that the topic “was discussed” and “will be discussed more in the future.”

In July, the president signed bipartisan legislation reauthorizing the 2004 North Korea Human Rights Act.

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