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 diplomats say will infuriate the nuclear-armed country.
The sanctions, the first to target any North Koreans for rights abuses, affect property and other assets within the U.S. jurisdiction. They include 10 other individuals besides Kim 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 labor, and torture,” Acting Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Adam J. Szubin said in the statement.
North Korea’s leader is the subject of state-mandated adulation inside the country and considered infallible. A 2014 report by the United Nations, which referred to Kim by name in connection to human rights, triggered a strong reaction from Pyongyang, including a string of military provocations.
Earlier this year, Congress passed a new law requiring U.S. President Barack Obama to deliver a report within 120 days to Congress on the human rights situation in North Korea. It had to address the role of Kim Jong Un, and designate for sanctions anyone found responsible for human rights violations.
Kim Jong Un topped a list in the report of those responsible for serious human rights abuses in North Korea. Many of the abuses are in North Korea’s prison camps, which hold between 80,000 and 120,000 people including children, the report said.
The sanctions also named lower-level officials, such as Minister of People’s Security Choe Pu Il, as directly responsible for abuses.
Senior U.S administration officials said the new sanctions showed the administration’s greater focus on human rights in North Korea, an area long secondary to Washington’s efforts to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
The report was “the most comprehensive” to date on individual North Korean officials’ roles in forced labor and repression.
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,” a senior administration official told reporters.
The North Korea mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment.