The United States imposed sanctions on North Korean officials implicated in human rights abuses for the first time Wednesday, in conjunction with substantial sanctions already in place over the regime's nuclear weapons programme.

The Treasury Department on Wednesday added 16 more individuals and entities to its sanctions list that are responsible for human rights violations in North Korea.

North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un, grandson of the founder of the reclusive communist state, is among 10 top officials named, along with officials in charge of political prisoner and labour camps and those responsible for hunting down defectors worldwide.

"Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea continues to inflict intolerable cruelty and hardship on millions of its own people, including extrajudicial killings, forced labour, and torture," said Adam Szubin, acting under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

The political prison camps hold between 80,000 to 120,000 prisoners, including children and other family members according to a Treasury Department release.

One Treasury official, who oversees human rights and labour 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," the treasury official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The sanctions freeze any property that listed the individuals might control within US jurisdiction and prohibit Americans from transactions with them.

North Korea has already been heavily sanctioned by the US for its nuclear programme, so Treasury officials acknowledged that the sanctions would not have much impact on these individuals or entities under the current regime.

However, officials said that the new sanctions aim to highlight and deter human rights abuses specifically happening under the ruling Workers' Party of Korea.

"Not only can we address human rights and nuclear issues at the same time, but we have to," a Treasury official said. "This reflects a different and separate effort than trying to deal with the nuclear programme."

US officials pointed out that sanctioning top leaders including heads of states is not unusual. In the past, the US has sanctioned figures including former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

On Wednesday, the US Treasury imposed penalties on 11 officials and five government entities. Four of the individuals and three of the entities had already been sanctioned.

Individuals and groups will be added to the list as more information is found, the Treasury Department said.

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