North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is personally under US sanctions for the first time as the Obama administration announced Wednesday measures against 11 top officials from the communist country.
While officials say human rights issues are dealt separately, experts say imposing sanctions on Pyongyang over human rights abuses has also got to do with the regime's other violations, namely nuclear and missile threats. OFAC says any property or other assets held within USA jurisdiction by those named on the list are frozen.
Almost 80,000 to 120,000 people are being treated to third degree torture in Jong Un's prison camps.
The official said one can make an argument that North Korean workers overseas are treated as "slave laborers" but added that their working conditions overseas might be better than at home. He estimated that up to 120,000 people, including children and family members, are held in political prison camps in North Korea.
It was the first time that North Korean officials have been blacklisted by the USA over rights violations, such as running the nation's notorious gulag.
The restrictive measures constitute "the worst hostile act" and "an open declaration of war", KCNA state news agency cited a statement by North Korea's Foreign Ministry as saying. Their assets in the US will be frozen and those individuals will be banned from traveling and conducting any financial transactions there. Among now serving leaders, they include Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko.
The secretive regime was hit with sanctions from the U.N. Security Council in March over its nuclear and missile tests.
In response, the United States urged the North to "refrain from actions and rhetoric that further raise tensions in the region" and said it will continue to work for improvement in the North's human rights situation.
At the same time, Kerry said the United States stood "ready and prepared" to return to talks with North Korea aimed at convincing the country to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
The U.S. has previously imposed sanctions on other heads of state, including Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad and late Libyan dictator Muammar El-Qaddafi.
They include 10 other individuals besides Kim and five government ministries and departments, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement. It added that South Korea too will actively join the worldwide community's various efforts to improve human rights issues in North Korea.
Inside North Korea, however, Kim is considered infallible and a 2014 report by the United Nations, which referred to him by name in connection to human rights, triggered a strong reaction from Pyongyang, including a string of military provocations. Last month, the Treasury Department declared North Korea a "primary money laundering concern" - the toughest action it can take to discourage banks in any jurisdiction dealing with the country.