Background Briefing on DPRK the Human Rights Abuser Report and Sanctions

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Officials
Via Teleconference
July 6, 2016

MODERATOR: Thank you so much, and thank you all for joining us. We, today, will be doing this call on background. We have three senior Administration officials joining us on this call. This call will be embargoed until the call ends. So once again, this call is on background. It will be embargoed until the call ends.

For your situational awareness, our first speaker is a [name and title withheld], our second speaker is [name and title withheld], and our third speaker is [name and title withheld]. Moving forward [Senior Administration Official One] will be known as Senior Administration Official One, [Senior Administration Official Two] is Senior Administration Official Two, [Senior Administration Official Three] is Senior Administration Official Number Three. We’ll turn it over to our senior Administration officials to make a few remarks at the top, then we’ll open it up for questions.

Senior Administration Official Number One, please go ahead.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you. And thanks, everyone, for joining the call. Let me just say a few words to frame what we’re doing and talk a little bit about the substance and purpose of it. And I’d start by saying that through most of the long history of the international community’s engagement with North Korea, the horrific human rights abuses committed by the regime have been known but not necessarily been central to how we have engaged. And the Obama Administration, over the last several years, has been working very hard to change that, both because we think it’s the right thing to do and because it reinforces our broader goal of promoting peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.

In 2014, as most of you are aware, the United Nations released a groundbreaking Commission of Inquiry report which shined an extraordinarily bright, by North Korean standards, spotlight on the human rights abuses committed in the country, including, perhaps most dramatically, the system of labor camps. Since then we’ve had a number of successes in building attention to this problem. For example, adding the human rights situation in the DPRK to the permanent agenda of the UN Security Council. There have been two Security Council debates on the human rights situation in the country, and we expect that to continue.

Today, we are taking another step forward in this effort, in particular to hold North Korean officials responsible for these abuses. This morning, we will release a report identifying entities and individuals in the North Korean Government responsible for serious human rights abuses. And as you’ll hear from [Senior Administration Official Two] in a moment, in a complementary action, the Department of Treasury will add North Korean persons to its Specially Designated Nationals List to its sanctions list.

Now, we have identified 23 individuals and entities in our report. One of those individuals is Kim Jong-un. We have made the judgment that he is, rather plainly, ultimately responsible for the actions of his regime, including its repressive policies towards its own people. But I would also encourage you to give some attention to other names on this list. They include: Choe Pu-il, minister of public security in charge of the ministry that is responsible for everything from monitoring the activities of the North Korean people to use of torture and the operation of the political prisoner and forced labor camps; to Cho Yon-jun, who is the vice director of North Korea’s organization and guidance department, who is responsible for – as the regime puts it – ensuring the ideological purity of party members, a function that involves being responsible for executions of those who defy the will of the leader.

We have identified mid-level officials responsible for the operation of the prison camp system, for the hunting down of North Korean defectors overseas, and the punishment of those who seek to escape the country, as well as those responsible for maintaining the system of propaganda and censorship in North Korea that denies the people of the country – or that seeks to deny them knowledge of the outside world.

Now, we have been working on this report for several months, and I stress that because it is not an easy thing to identify those responsible for these kinds of abuses within the North Korean system. This is not a government that publishes a phone directory of its personnel or an organizational chart. And for our purposes, we need to be very, very sure that a person we name is in fact the person who we think he is and responsible for the activities that we are saying he is responsible for.

So that, I think, is one of the most important things that this report achieves. It is probably the most comprehensive effort that any government in the world has undertaken to name the specific officials responsible for the worst aspects of the North Korean regime’s repression below the obvious level of the supreme leader.

We gathered these names with the cooperation of other governments, international organizations, civil society groups. We drew from reports such as the UN Commission of Inquiry report that I mentioned, and reports issued by the Korean Institute for National Unification. We drew from testimonies and reporting by defectors from North Korea; in many cases, they were able to describe, for example, raids by security officials to root out illegal media devices or their personal accounts of executions of people caught doing various things that the North Korean regime doesn’t like. So these kinds of corroborating accounts helped us identify the specific entities within the North Korean system responsible for these abuses. We were then able to cross-reference those findings with information collected from other sources to verify that a particular individual was associated with a specific position within that particular entity. So that was a very time-consuming, difficult, but I think ultimately very rewarding and important process.

Now, some may ask what the impact of all of this is. On one level, it sends a symbolic message, but I think that there may also be a practical impact. I think we have some evidence that more and more people in North Korea, including within the ruling regime, are conscious that the political situation on the Korean Peninsula may change at some point in their lifetimes. And what this report does is send a – it sends a message to people within the North Korean regime, particularly at those lower to mid levels, that if you become involved in abuses like running concentration camps or hunting down defectors, we will know who you are and you will end up on a blacklist that leaves you at a significant disadvantage in the future. We have no illusions that this is going to bring some sort of dramatic change in and of itself to North Korea, but 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.

This will be an ongoing process. We certainly don’t consider this a comprehensive list of those officials in the North Korean system who are responsible for these kinds of abuses, so we intend to update the list from time to time as new information comes in.

And with that, I’ll turn it over to Senior Official Number Two. Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Good morning. Thanks for joining us. I’ll briefly provide an overview of Treasury’s action today. As you saw in the embargoed press release, Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control designated today North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, 10 other individuals, and five entities for their ties to the Government of North Korea, ties to the Workers’ Party of Korea, and/or involvement in North Korea’s abuses of human rights. OFAC has previously designated four individuals and three entities also highlighted in the State Department report. With today’s action, OFAC has designated all of the individuals and entities named in the State Department’s report.

The U.S. Government is continuing to aggressively target North Korea’s malign activities. Within the past six months, the President issued a new executive order; the UN Security Council adopted a historic sanctions resolution; Congress passed robust new legislation that increases sanctions on North Korea; the Treasury Department identified North Korea as a primary money-laundering concern; and OFAC has issued multiple rounds of designations freezing the assets of those named and prohibiting U.S. persons from dealing with them. Yet North Korea has consistently flouted U.S. and international calls to change its behavior and was repeatedly engaged in destabilizing activities and human rights abuses. Treasury sanctions today paired with State’s report condemn those responsible for inflicting such violence and deny them access to the international financial system.

Today’s designations were issued pursuant to two different executive orders: Executive Order 13722 and Executive Order 13687. The first executive order allows us to target those who have engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for an abuse or violation of human rights by the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea. The second executive order allows us to target agencies, instrumentalities, controlled entities, and officials of the Government of North Korea and the Workers’ Party of Korea. As a result of today’s actions, any property or interest in property of those designated by OFAC within U.S. jurisdiction is frozen. Additionally, transactions by U.S. persons involving the designated persons are generally prohibited. Treasury will continue to work with our partners at home and abroad to pressure North Korea to cease engaging in destabilizing behavior and inflicting grave human rights abuses.

With that said, I’m happy to answer any questions. And I’ll now turn it over to Senior Administration Official Three.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: My colleagues have given a strong outline of what we’ve done, so there’s not much more for me to say. Couple of points, though. One, this is the latest step of our – in our intensification of sanctions against the DPRK over the past several months. In response to North Korea’s actions overall, we have engaged in intense efforts with our partners, resulting in a new Security Council resolution 2270 and associated actions. This step, rooted in our human rights concerns, as Senior Administration Official Number One said, has been in preparation for quite a while. It’s true that the Congress passed the North Korea Sanctions Act of 2016, which mandated the report – the State Department report being issued today and corresponding Treasury actions. We’ve been working with our – we at State had been working with our Treasury colleagues for some time on the human rights track. So it appears that Congress and the Administration were moving in parallel directions, which is a good thing. In general, we are focused on the problem North Korea’s destabilizing actions pose for all of us, and this is a major step in that direction.

That’s all I can – I have to say for now.

MODERATOR: That’s great. Thank you to our three senior Administration officials. Now, Greg (ph), if you can walk through how to do questions, and we can open up the floor.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, if you’d like to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. You will hear a tone indicating you have been placed in queue. You may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the # key. If you’re using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you have a question, please press *1 at this time. And one moment please for your first question.

Your first question comes from the line of Matthew Pennington from the Associated Press. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, good morning. Thanks for doing the call. Is this the first time that Kim Jong-un has actually been put on the SDN lists and specifically named in sanctions? And also, is this the first time that any North Korean official has been sanctioned for – in connection with human rights abuses?

MODERATOR: Great, thank you. Senior Administration officials?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: I think – Senior Administration Official Two; I can start with this. The answer is yes, this is the first time that Kim Jong-un has been named on our sanctions list. He was put on the list today. This is not the first time that North Korean officials have been put on our sanctions list, but it is the first time that North Korean officials have been put on our sanctions list specifically for human rights abuses.

OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Elise Labott from CNN. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing the call. I know that this is mandated by Congress, but is there a concern that this action is really only going to further antagonize Kim Jong-un and he’s going to take more security-related measures? I mean, was that a concern at all? I mean, a lot of times after the UN Security Council resolution – which was directly related to the sanctions, which was related to national security and nuclear issues – clearly there have been a host of missile tests, there’s been fears of another nuclear test. And I’m just wondering, is there a concern now that this will – he will engage in further provocations? Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I can start on that. And I’d say, Elise, number one, we’re not doing this because the Congress mandated it. The timing and the format of the report certainly are related to the legislation, but it’s something that we have been working on – compiling this list – for many, many months – in fact, well before the passage of congressional legislation. And we have been building up to it in a number of ways that I mentioned. I mean, we have taken the human rights issue to the UN Security Council, which is, I think, a pretty big deal. We supported the – very strongly supported the COI report, Commission of Inquiry report, which not only vividly described the abuses committed by this regime but named Kim Jong-un specifically and urged that the International Criminal Court take up these cases. So I don’t think it’ll come as a huge surprise to the North Korean regime that we are highlighting human rights abuses and that we are holding its leaders personally responsible for those abuses.

And in terms of the broader situation, we have believed for some time that not only can we address both the country’s nuclear ambitions and its human rights abuses at the same time, but that we actually have to – that as much as we can and must try to manage the immediate threats that the regime poses to our security, as we’ve said before, the problem in the long run is not likely to be solved until the people of North Korea gain more of a say in deciding their future. So the human rights efforts very much reinforce our broader interest in peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.

MODERATOR: Great. We can move to our next question.

OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Jay Solomon from The Wall Street Journal. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. I’m curious – I guess the 311 designation went into effect about, what, six weeks ago. Has there been any indication of impact already from that designation? I know in past instances, some of the 311 actions have pretty quick results as far as banks or companies not wanting to do business with the North Koreans. So I was just curious if there was anything you can say on that front.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: This is Senior Administration Official Two. I can’t provide specifics on the impact of the 311; I can tell you that the 311 is one of the most powerful measures that the U.S. Government has to impose with respect to a country’s financial system. I can also note, though, with respect to North Korea, that North Korea was largely cut off from the U.S. and much of the international financial system even before the 311. I think the 311 helped us to call out North Korea’s malign activities with respect to the financial – its financial activities and helped other jurisdictions see what we were providing and make some of their own same decisions. But beyond that, I can’t provide any details on impact.

MODERATOR: We can move to our next question.

OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Joel Schectman from Reuters News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: It seems like a pretty unusual action to sanction the head of a state. What were some of the concerns or sort of drawbacks that made it – that this was something that’s only being done now?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: As far as unusual, it’s not the first time we have sanctioned a head of state. I can think of at least a couple of recent instances. We sanctioned Qadhafi, Mugabe of Zimbabwe. There may be others that others on the call can remember. The congressional – the legislation, if you look at it, does require us to specifically examine the responsibility of the head of state of North Korea for these abuses. And certainly, if you look at that basic question – is Kim Jong-un responsible for the actions undertaken by his regime? – there really is only one possible answer.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: This is Senior Administration Official Two. I can just provide some additional clarity with respect to what the previous speaker had mentioned. This is not that unusual in terms of designating a head of state. We have done it in a number of times in the past decade or recent years: Assad in Syria, Lukashenko in Belarus, Qadhafi in Libya, Than Shwe in Burma, Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Charles Taylor in Liberia are some of the examples that we can give in recent memory. You will often find that to be the pattern that we may take as we increase or escalate our sanctions responses. We have, over the course of the last years, designated 161 individuals and entities with respect to North Korea across the broad variety of authorities that we have and we added another 16 today. So we have increased the sanctions over time, increasingly called out bad behavior, and in this context we are continuing to do that. But as the previous speakers have called out and cited, this was done in conjunction with a focus on the abuses on human rights that were the focus of today’s report and today’s action.

MODERATOR: Thank you. We can take our next caller.

OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Nick Wadhams from Bloomberg News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing the call. I just had a follow-up question on impact. I mean, putting Kim on this list, how does that actually change the situation on the ground? I mean, how are he or other North Korean officials restricted from actually doing anything? I mean, given that the country is already so isolated and so cut off, what do you expect the actual on-the-ground impact to be?

Also, when you mentioned you got help from various other actors, the UN Commission of Inquiry report, et cetera, was there any involvement from China in helping with this? And what’s their response been? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: This is SAO Two. I think I can respond to the first part of the question in terms of affecting the situation, and I’ll defer to my colleagues to provide more detail on the first part and then answer the second part. The impact of today’s action not only cuts them off from the U.S. financial system and would freeze any assets in the United States, but it has a worldwide ripple effect. Banks, financial institutions outside the U.S. use OFAC’s SDN list and follow it as a measure of risk and as a measure of compliance. And so this will make it difficult for transactions or funds to be held or moved anywhere around the world on behalf of these individuals and entities. So it does call out the bad behavior and it makes it risky for any financial institution or any entity anywhere in the world to hold assets on behalf of these individuals and entities or to transfer those assets through its bank or other aspects of its corporate structure. So it does have an impact, if not today, with respect to any assets in the United States, whether or not it will have an impact on – I imagine many of these actors may not have wanted to use the U.S. financial system or even been able to, but it will have a worldwide ripple effect.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL THREE: This is SAO Three. In answer to the question about China, this human rights set of designations was one we developed without China. China did, however, play a constructive role reaching a consensus on Security Council Resolution 2270, which is the strongest set of Security Council sanctions on North Korea. North Korea is not quite as isolated as is sometimes said. Economically, it does have – it does generate a good deal of foreign exchange through various sales of commodities such as coal. And we are working with China and other key actors around the world to try to enforce 2270. That’s a process separate from the human rights-driven sanctions we’re discussing today. Since the question of China came up, I wanted to fill out the question going beyond the more narrowly-defined question of today’s rollout.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Let me – this is Senior Official One. Let me just add a comment on impact. Ordinarily, with these sanctions programs, the primary practical effect comes from the financial impact that Senior Official Two just outlined and not so much from simply being named to a list. I think this one is a little bit different because for most of the people on the list, their names were not known. Again, this is a very different kind of system from that which exists in most of the countries where we sanction. Simply being identified as an official responsible for, for example, management of labor camps or hunting down defectors is a novelty in the North Korean system. It lifts the anonymity that, I think, provided a degree of protection to some of these people. And while the fact of being named might not affect their lives today, in any future scenario in which the political situation in the DPRK is different, being on this blacklist I think could have a considerable impact on the prospects that these people have, and I think they will know it.

MODERATOR: Okay. We can go to our final question now, please, moderator.

OPERATOR: Okay. That question comes from the line of Michiko Morimoto from Yonhap News. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Can you hear me?


QUESTION: Okay. Hi, Michiko Morimoto from Yonhap News. This question is on behalf of Mr. Jae-soon Chang. His question is: “Will the State Department report on human rights be helpful in efforts to end North Korea’s nuclear missile program?”

MODERATOR: Senior Administration officials?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: I would say that the focus of today’s report is on highlighting and deterring human rights abuses committed by the North Korean regime. We have separate sanctions programs that aim to deal with the nuclear question. So in that respect, today’s action – it reflects a different and separate effort. As I mentioned, we think that in the long term these two efforts are mutually reinforcing.

MODERATOR: That’s great. Thank you so much. Senior Administration officials, any last words before we wrap up?


MODERATOR: Okay, great. I want to thank our senior Administration officials. If you’ll note from State we’ll be sending out a statement from the spokesperson momentarily, along with links to the report. A reminder this call is on background. This call is now – the embargo is lifted; you may report. Thank you all for joining us for the call and thanks to our senior Administration officials for hosting. Have a great day.