Last week, the US imposed yet another round of sanctions on North Korea; the Treasury press release provides an overview. Two features of the sanctions are of particular interest. First, they were invoked on human rights grounds. Second, they target members of the top leadership accountable for human rights abuses in the country, including Kim Jong Un himself. The North has called the challenge to North Korea's top leadership an "open declaration of war" and declared that it will close the UN New York channel of diplomatic communication with the US. Although it is doubtful that the sanctions will have material effect, expect a greater response, probably kinetic; nothing gets under the skin of the regime more than defamation of the supreme leader.
The sanctions have a complex legal foundation. The North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016, signed by the president in February, required the administration to provide a report to Congress on serious human rights abuses—including censorship—and the individuals responsible for them; this reporting requirement comports with the trend in international human rights law toward personal accountability for crimes against humanity and severe human rights depredations. Under two executive orders, the president asserted wide-ranging powers to sanction the North Korean regime: E.O. 13687, which granted the power to sanction virtually all agencies and officials of both the government and the party; and E.O. 13722, which targeted those responsible for human rights abuses. The brief but punchy report was issued July 6. It briefly outlined ongoing human rights abuses—from prison camps, to control of labor and censorship—but more importantly constructed a simple hierarchy of the agencies responsible, starting with the National Defense Commission and its chairman, Kim Jong Un. The Organization and Guidance Department is singled out for its censorship role and the Ministry of State Security and Ministry of People’s Security for a variety of abuses related to the prison and labor camp system, censorship, and efforts to return refugees. In addition, the report noted the role of the Propaganda and Agitation Department and the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the latter for a long history of targeted assassinations and abductions.
"Expect a North Korean response, and probably not just rhetorical."
The Treasury ruling drew from this list, sanctioning the two security ministries and their prison departments as well as the OGD.
But of course the big news is the decision to target Kim Jong Un directly. In good bureaucratic fashion, he is listed in alphabetical order with ten other officials, itself a kind of insult; the full list is provided below. Of particular interest were the inclusion of several individuals connected with efforts to track down, return and punish refugees, particularly Choe Chang-pong, head of investigations at the Ministry of People’s Security.
Why sanction individuals who appear beyond reach, and if they do travel are likely to go to friendly jurisdictions that could care less about bilateral sanctions? The ultimate reason is because Congress demanded it. But the substantive justifications include symbolic politics, the belief that naming names might produce nervousness among either these individuals or their underlings, or even the hope that a groundwork is being laid for transitional justice if the regime were to fall apart. More straightforward is the likelihood that further sanctions were conceived as yet another political signal that the US is pushing ahead with its effort to pressure the regime, despite evidence (from Leo Byrne at North Korea Pro) that China trade continues largely unaffected by sanctions.
Nonetheless, expect a North Korean response, and probably not just rhetorical. Defaming the leader of a leaderist system is apostasy, and Kim Jong Un will not have to issue the orders if his sycophants have any say in the matter; what better way to show loyalty than compete in expressions of outrage?
CHO, Il-U – Director of the Fifth Bureau of the Reconnaissance General Bureau
CHO, Yon Chun – First Vice Director of the Organization and Guidance Department
CHOE, Chang Pong – Director of the Investigation Bureau of the Ministry of People's Security
CHOE, Pu Il – Minister of People's Security
KANG, Song Nam – Bureau Director, Ministry of State Security
KIM, Jong Un – Chairman of the Workers' Party of Korea
KIM, Ki Nam – Director of the Workers' Party of Korea Propaganda and Agitation Department
KIM, Kyong Ok – First Vice Director of the Organization and Guidance Department
O, Chong Ok – Director of the First Bureau of the Reconnaissance General Bureau
RI, Jae Il – First Vice Director of the Workers' Party of Korea Propaganda and Agitation Department
RI, Song Chol – Counselor, Ministry of People’s Security