The United States on Monday imposed sanctions on three North Korean officials, including a top aide to leader Kim Jong-un, in response to their alleged human rights abuses and censorship.
Choe Ryong-hae, who is seen as the No. 2 official in the regime, was designated for being an official of the ruling Workers' Party, the Department of the Treasury said in a statement.
Choe is director of the party's Organization and Guidance Department (OGD), which is "instrumental in implementing censorship policies, and purports to control the political affairs of all North Koreans," it said.
The other two officials are Minister of State Security Jong Kyong-thaek and Pak Kwang-ho, director of the party's Propaganda and Agitation Department (PAD).
The sanctions freeze their property or interests within the U.S. and ban their transactions with U.S. citizens. But the action is expected to be largely symbolic as North Korea is already under heavy sanctions for its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
It also comes amid a deadlock in negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang to dismantle the weapons programs in exchange for security guarantees.
"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 Mnuchin said in the statement.
"These sanctions demonstrate the United States' ongoing support for freedom of expression, and opposition to endemic censorship and human rights abuses," he added.
Monday's sanctions were imposed in line with a State Department report on human rights abuses and censorship in North Korea.
According to the report, Jong is involved in directing the censorship activities and abuses of his ministry, which is under previous sanctions for its role in the regime's human rights violations, the Treasury said.
Pak is responsible for "maintaining ideological purity" in his job as director of the PAD.
Meanwhile, the OGD, headed by Choe, oversees party audits of organizations for ideological discipline.
"When a party official deviates from the official message in public remarks, the OGD reportedly will dispatch an official to monitor a self-criticism session," the Treasury said.
The latest action serves as a reminder of the North's "brutal treatment" of American college student Otto Warmbier, it noted.
Warmbier was detained in the North in 2016 for allegedly trying to remove a political poster from a hotel. He was released last year in a coma, and died shortly after being returned to the U.S.
The State Department said its biannual report, which is mandated by a law enacted in February 2016, was being released Monday in commemoration of International Human Rights Day and as part of its continued efforts to "promote accountability" for North Korean officials.
"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," department deputy spokesperson Robert Palladino said in a statement.
"This report focuses primarily on the regime's efforts to suppress independent media and freedom of expression," he said, adding that those accused of viewing foreign films reportedly face imprisonment or even execution.
In addition to the sanctioned individuals, the report names three North Korean entities -- Group 109, Group 118 and Group 114 -- which are made up of officials from the regime and the ruling party to censor content and punish individuals caught with unauthorized media material.
The U.S. sanctioned Kim Jong-un and his powerful younger sister, Yo-jong, upon the release of earlier versions of the report. (Yonhap)