- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 11, 2018

North Korea’s state media lashed out at mounting U.S. criticism of Pyongyang’s human rights record Tuesday, delivering a blistering commentary just hours after the Trump administration leveled sanctions against three top North Korean officials for their involvement in abuses.

The tense back and forth signaled a new phase in diplomatic posturing between the two sides, with the Trump administration raising the human rights concerns for the first time since denuclearization talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un began gaining momentum early this year.

While the administration has been criticized in recent months for leaving the human rights issue off the table in the diplomatic push with Pyongyang, the Treasury Department on Monday night announced sanctions against top Kim advisers Jong Kyong-thaek, Choe Ryong-hae and Pak Kwang-ho.

Mr. Jong is currently minister of state security for the Kim government. Mr. Choe heads the regime’s Organization and Guidance Department, and Mr. Pak is director of the regime’s Propaganda and Agitation Department.

“Treasury is sanctioning senior North Korean officials who direct 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,” Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said in a statement.

“These sanctions demonstrate the United States’ ongoing support for freedom of expression, and opposition to endemic censorship and human rights abuses,” he said. “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.”

It remains to be seen how the development will impact the delicate denuclearization diplomacy that has gone on between North Korea, the U.S. and South Korea following the historic June summit in Singapore between President Trump and Mr. Kim. Prior to leveling the sanctions, administration officials said they were still hoping for a second Trump-Kim summit in the coming months.

However, North Korea reacted harshly Tuesday.

According to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, the North’s main newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun, issued the blistering commentary, saying the U.S. actions are an “intolerable political provocation” and a “hostile act” that goes against the spirit of the Singapore summit.

The Treasury Department, meanwhile, said the new sanctions — issued on International Human Rights Day — were being leveled in conjunction with a State Department “Report on Serious Human Rights Abuses and Censorship in North Korea.”

“Today’s actions shine a spotlight on North Korea’s reprehensible treatment of those in North Korea, and serve as a reminder of North Korea’s brutal treatment of U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier, who passed away 18 months ago,” Treasury said in a statement.

“Otto would have turned 24 years old on December 12, and his parents Fred and Cindy Warmbier and the rest of his family continue to mourn for him,” the statement said. “President Trump pledged in his 2018 State of the Union address that the United States will ‘honor Otto’s memory with American resolve.’ Today’s actions are part of this Administration’s continued efforts to highlight North Korea’s abysmal human rights record, and to speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves.”

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