Report says the country's prison camps commonly subject many of the 120,000 detainees to torture, assault and execution.
The United States government has imposed sanctions for the first time on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, accusing him of directly responsible for a long list of human rights abuses in his country.
In announcing the sanctions on Wednesday, the US treasury department said Kim and 10 other top officials were behind killings and torture of political prisoners in the country's system of political prison camps.
"Under Kim Jong-Un, North Korea continues to inflict intolerable cruelty and hardship on millions of its own people, including extrajudicial killings, forced labor, and torture," said Adam Szubin, Acting Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.
The Treasury said Kim, North Korea's "Supreme Leader", was responsible for abuses in his roles as head of the country's Ministry of State Security and Ministry of People's Security.
According to officials in Washington, North Korea's Ministry of State Security holds between 80,000 to 120,000 prisoners in political prison camps where torture, execution, sexual assault, starvation, and slave labour are common.
The US also alleged that another ministry overseen by Kim runs a network of police stations, detention centres and labour camps, where suspects under interrogation "are systematically degraded, intimidated, and tortured".
Top officials named
Authorities in Washington for the first time identified other top officials directly involved in rights abuses, including Choe Pu Il, the Minister of People's Security, Ri Song Chol, a senior official in the Ministry of People's Security, and Kang Song Nam, a Bureau Director with the Ministry of State Security.
Treasury official Tom Malinowski, who oversees human rights and labor issues, said many of the people on the list had not been previously known.
"This won't bring any sort of dramatic change, but lifting anonymity of these functionaries will make them think twice when they consider and act of cruelty or oppression," Malinowski said.
Another senior US official said on background that naming the specific officials involved will help strip the anonymity under which they carry out systematic abuses.
US officials said they do not expect immediate consequences from the designations, which freeze the assets of those named on US territory and forbid Americans from doing business with them.
However, they said there is evidence in North Korea that an increasing number of people are aware of the extent of abuses.
They said identifying the abuses, and those responsible, could encourage North Koreans hoping for a change in the country's political leadership.
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