On Monday, the Treasury Department sanctioned three senior North Korean government officials for perpetrating human rights violations, and the State Department released its latest report on “Serious Human Rights Abuses and Censorship in North Korea.” While North Korean propaganda outlets condemn such criticism as “slander,” Washington’s actions remind the Kim regime that the U.S. will not remain silent on human rights even during the ongoing nuclear talks.
Treasury’s sanctions target three senior officials working for previously sanctioned bodies within the North Korean government and/or the Worker’s Party of Korea (KWP). Specifically, the U.S. designated Jong Kyong Thaek of the Ministry of State Security (MSS), Choe Ryong Hae of the KWP’s Organization and Guidance Department (OGD), and Pak Kwang Ho of the KWP’s Propaganda and Agitation Department (PAD). Treasury noted these three individuals lead North Korean government agencies that deprive North Koreans from the most basic freedoms of speech, press, and information. The State Department’s annual report, delivered pursuant to the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016, also brought attention to smaller agencies within the MSS, OGD, and PAD that are responsible for censorship and directly impeding North Korean access to smuggled foreign media.
The U.S. government’s heightened focus on censorship reflects the changing information environment inside North Korea. In 2012, Intermedia, a Washington, DC-based research institution, found that foreign media content – smuggled in via USB thumb drives, DVDs, and radio broadcasts – had slowly begun to erode the regime’s tight information blockade. However, in 2017, Intermedia’s follow-up study described how the regime responded to its waning authority with harsher restrictions on information. This finding reaffirms the 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry’s report that conclusively documented how North Korea perpetrates a broad array of “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations.”
The new Treasury sanctions and State Department report send the message that addressing human rights is critical to the prospects for improving U.S.-North Korea relations, as envisioned by the Singapore Joint Statement. Moving forward, the Trump administration should include human rights as an agenda item in bilateral talks. To build mutual trust, the administration should suggest that North Korea verifiably dismantle its Soviet gulag-like political prison camps. Simultaneously, pursuant to the North Korean Human Rights Reauthorization Act of 2017, the administration should continue supporting efforts to send foreign media and broadcasts into North Korea to counter the Kim regime’s information blockade.
Mathew Ha is a research associate at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, focused on North Korea. Follow him on Twitter @MatJunsuk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and follow FDD’s Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance @FDD_CSIF. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.