On 6 July the United States took the unprecedented step of imposing sanctions against Kim Jong-un, blacklisting North Korea’s supreme leader and other key officials for ‘notorious abuses of human rights’. While North Korea is no stranger to US sanctions, this marked the first time that these sanctions have directly named Kim, prompting a predictably strong reaction from North Korea.
Sanctioned for human rights abuses
Sanctions were put in place in conjunction with the State Department’s release of the five-page Report of Serious Human Rights Abuses and Censorship in North Korea, which details grave human rights concerns and repression. The report was produced in response to a law passed by Congress earlier in the year, requiring the US administration to report on the human rights situation in North Korea, and impose sanctions against those found responsible for abuse.
In the Treasury Department statement accompanying the report, Kim was held responsible for the ‘intolerable cruelty and hardship’ faced by millions in North Korea, including ‘extrajudicial killings, forced labor, and torture’. It also alleged that an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 individuals—including children and family members of the accused—suffer serious human rights abuses in North Korea’s network of political prisoner camps, known as kwanliso.
This is not the first time that the US has sanctioned a head of state, having previously imposed sanctions on Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, and former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. While Kim topped the list in North Korea, ten other officials and five government ministries and departments were also designated, including key individuals in the intelligence and security ministries. Sanctions serve to freeze assets held in US banks and bar transactions with American citizens.
North Korea reacts: ‘a declaration of war’
North Korea’s state-run media proclaimed the sanctions against Kim are ‘a declaration of war’, by which the US had ‘crossed a red line’. According to a statement by the Foreign Ministry, ‘the US dared challenge the dignity of DPRK [North Korean] supreme leadership, an act reminiscent of a new-born puppy knowing no fear of a tiger’. North Korea also cut its last official channel of diplomatic communication with the US by severing ties through its UN mission in New York.
North Korea may be described as ‘historically thin-skinned’, with the Kim dynasty ruling through a personality cult depicting North Korea’s leaders as infallible. Recent provocations are in line with other tough rhetoric raised by the state-run media in defense of the supreme leader. For example, the 2014 comedy film The Interview—which depicted the fictional assassination of Kim—was dubbed ‘the most blatant act of terrorism and an act of war that we will never tolerate’, and led to a notorious cyber-attack on Sony Entertainment.
Nukes, missiles and the international response
While North Korea is familiar with economic sanctions, this year has seen these restrictions tighten. As the International Institute for Strategic Studies aptly observed, ‘in Northeast Asia, 2016 began with a bang.’ In January, North Korea successfully conducted its fourth nuclear weapons test, which it followed in February with a long-range rocket launch. In response, the UN Security Council unanimously condemned North Korea’s nuclear test, and levied harsh new sanctions requiring the inspection of all goods moving in or out of North Korea.
Not to be deterred, Kim’s regime went on to conduct five failed tests of its Musudan ballistic missile over the past few months, culminating in a successful test on the sixth attempt in June. These tests serve as a reminder to the region and the rest of the world that North Korea is making progress in its efforts to pose a direct threat to Japan, South Korea and US troops based in the Western Pacific.
Impact of sanctions
A senior Treasury Department official acknowledged that the impact of the human rights sanctions is largely symbolic, but could also have some practical effect, as; ‘simply lifting the anonymity of these functionaries may make them think twice from time to time when they consider a particular act of cruelty or repression’. According to the official, many of the individuals identified on the designation list had not been known previously due to the secretive nature of the regime.
While this year’s sanctions have been described as the ‘toughest measures to date’, so far this has failed to make progress towards ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program or destabilising Kim’s authoritarian regime. The recent focus on North Korea’s human rights record is an important step in lifting the veil on the repressive functions of the state. However, at another level, these actions also serve to highlight the US’ escalating efforts to isolate the North Korean regime.
Nicole Tooby is the East Asia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image credit: Roman Harak (Flickr: Creative Commons)