The United States imposed economic sanctions Wednesday on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and other government officials for their role in human rights abuses in the isolated country, particularly the running of forced labor camps and the torture and executions of dissidents.
The unusual but not unprecedented step of blacklisting a head of state is part of a concerted effort to step up pressure on Pyongyang that began in March when the U.N. Security Council and then the United States imposed harsh restrictions on trade with North Korea over its testing of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
The Treasury Department sanctions, backed by a State Department report on human rights abuses in the country, builds on a U.N. Commission of Inquiry report released in 2014. That report accused senior members of the military regime, including Kim, of overseeing crimes against humanity.
The blacklist names 10 people other than Kim, and five government institutions involved in monitoring ordinary North Koreans and keeping an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 people in camps for political prisoners. Officially, it freezes any assets they may have in the United States and bars Americans from interacting with them - both of which are limited to nonexistent.
But officials said the sanctions would have a global ripple effect, and might give pause to other government officials who otherwise operate fairly anonymously.
"The fact they are being named might not affect lives today," said an administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under rules for briefing reporters. "But in a future scenario in which the political situation in the DPRK [North Korea] is different, being on this blacklist could have considerable impact on any prospects these people have. And I think they know it."
Kim now joins the company of other authoritarian leaders who have been judged responsible under U.S. sanctions law for horrific conditions in their countries. They include Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. This is the first time Kim has been named.
"We made the judgment he is rather plainly, ultimately responsible for the actions of his regime, including its repressive policies toward its own people," the administration official said.
Congress passed a law requiring the State Department report and authorizing stiffer sanctions, but administration officials said they had been preparing it anyway because North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons is a threat to national security and because human rights conditions are so grim.
"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," said Adam J. Szubin, acting under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. "The actions taken today by the administration under an act of Congress highlight the U.S. government's condemnation of this regime's abuses and our determination to see them stopped."
Among the people who were blacklisted were officials in ministries where some of the worst abuses occur, according to the State Department report.
The Ministry of State Security administers North Korea's vast network of political prison camps, where detainees are subjected to beatings, starvation, sexual assault, forced abortions and infanticide. The Ministry of People's Security conducts interrogations and is reported to have used torture to extract confessions. The Organization of Guidance Department, part of the Workers' Party of Korea, is responsible for "ensuring the ideological purity of party members," the Treasury said. Among its functions are executing people who defy Kim's will, and hunting down defectors overseas.
U.S. officials said the list is not comprehensive, and will be updated periodically with new information.