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|US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the US would continue to take action against human rights abusers around the globe. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)|
In actions required by Congress, the Trump administration said it would seize any US assets of Choe Ryong Hae, described as the right-hand man of leader Kim Jong Un, and two others over their roles in suppression of freedom of speech.
"Standing up for such rights and freedoms is a foreign policy priority that represents the best traditions of the United States," State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said.
"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," he said.
The State Department is required by a 2016 law to produce a report on North Korean human rights for Congress twice a year.
But its submission on Monday - International Human Rights Day - was the first since October 2017 as Trump championed diplomacy with North Korea that focused squarely on its nuclear programme.
"The United States has consistently condemned the North Korean regime for its flagrant and egregious abuses of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and this administration will continue to take action against human rights abusers around the globe," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement announcing the sanctions.
Trump, however, has openly played down human rights concerns when preserving relationships with allies, notably Saudi Arabia.
SEIZING ASSETS AMID THAW
The sanctions will seize any assets of the three officials in the United States and ban any US-based financial transactions with them.
Such restrictions may have little impact on officials in one of the world's most closed countries but will have a clear symbolic force as North Korea seeks greater acceptance by the United States.
Kim and Trump held a first-of-a-kind summit in June in Singapore as North Korea seeks a historic declaration of the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
Trump, who saw the summit as a highlight in his foreign affairs record, has said that he and Kim are "in love" and as recently as this month voiced respect for the North Korean leader.
But Trump's hopes of arranging a follow-up summit have been at a standstill, with the North Koreans abruptly calling off a meeting in New York last month with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
North Korea has been insisting on a relaxation of wide-ranging sanctions on the country, while the United States said that the UN Security Council should only ease pressure once Pyongyang takes concrete steps to end its nuclear programme.
ROLES IN CENSORSHIP
Choe is a lifetime confidant of Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, and in the past has been described as the effective number-two in controlling the military.
He is often trusted to make foreign trips or deliver high-profile announcements. At a major military parade last year, he warned that North Korea was ready to "beat down enemies with the power of nuclear justice."
When Choe briefly vanished from official media in 2014, North Korea watchers feared he suffered a fate similar to Kim's uncle, Jang Song Thaek, who was executed as a traitor, but Choe quickly re-emerged in prominent roles.
The Treasury Department noted that Choe is head of the ruling Workers Party's Organisation and Guidance Department, which enforces ideological discipline and ensures that all officials keep in line.
Another of the officials targeted was Jong Kyong Thaek, the minister of state security, which is in charge of counter-intelligence operations.
The third sanctioned official was Pak Kwang Ho, who is involved in widespread censorship as director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department.