(CNN) - The Trump administration slapped sanctions on three North Koreans Monday in response to Pyongyang's ongoing human rights abuses and censorship.
The sanctions announcement comes as President Donald Trump floats the idea of a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. And it immediately follows a failed US attempt to hold a UN meeting on Pyongyang's human rights record, a setback that illustrates the Trump administration's struggle to maintain international support for its maximum pressure campaign to push North Korea toward denuclearization.
The Treasury Department marked Human Rights Day by sanctioning senior officials in previously targeted government entities of the North Korean regime and the Workers' Party of Korea, including the Ministry of State Security and the Ministry of Public Security.
"These sanctions demonstrate the United States' ongoing support for freedom of expression, and opposition to endemic censorship and human rights abuses," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.
Treasury said the fresh sanctions highlight the "reprehensible treatment of those in North Korea" and serve as a reminder of the "brutal treatment" of Otto Warmbier, the US college student who died 18 months ago after detention in a North Korean jail. Warmbier would have turned 24 on December 12.
"It's a welcome re-acknowledgment of North Korea's awful record on human rights violations," said Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
Joel Wit, director of the website 38 North and a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, dismissed the move.
"Sanctioning three officials is what I would call ankle biting," Wit said. "It looks nice, but it's not going to have any affect at all ... it has to get on with the business at hand and that is reaching denuclearization deals with the North Koreans ... that's basically it."
Trump is planning a second summit with Kim early in 2019, the President and some of his officials have said. National security adviser John Bolton has said the president wants to hold the second summit because the first, in Singapore in June, has yielded no progress.
The sanctions announcement could be a signal on Human Rights Day; a reaction to criticism that Trump has seemingly dropped human rights from the North Korean agenda; a reaction to the US failure to stage a UN meeting; or an attempt to gain leverage for the next summit, Klingner said.
"We don't know whether it was meant as a signal in any of those areas or simply the bureaucracy doing its job," Klingner noted.
The Trump administration has downplayed the importance of human rights generally and has been criticized for not giving it higher priority in its talks with North Korea. The President has declared he's in "love" with Kim, who has been deemed to have committed crimes against humanity, has had family members executed and ordered the assassination of his half-brother using chemical weapons.
Despite the President's warm words, progress has been stymied. Most recently, satellite images showed North Korea is expanding a key long-range missile base, a reminder that diplomatic talks with the US have done little to prevent Kim from pursuing his promise to mass produce and deploy the existing types of nuclear warheads in his arsenal.
Both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are now emphasizing that they aren't putting a deadline on talks and that progress will take time. And both men have insisted that in the meantime, the US will continue to exert "maximum pressure" on North Korea through sanctions.
But US officials, including US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, have signaled that efforts to maintain unified international pressure on Pyongyang may be faltering. Haley has said the US pressure campaign is being undercut by smuggling and by countries such as Russia.
Monday's sanctions come after the US had to postpone a Security Council meeting focused on North Korea's human rights record because it couldn't get enough countries to agree to hold the discussion, the Associated Press reported.
The meeting, which has been held for several years now, failed to come together when the US couldn't get agreement from nine of the 15 council members to hold the meeting -- the minimum necessary to move forward. The week before, the North Korean ambassador to the UN had written all the council members except the US urging that the meeting be canceled and accusing the Trump administration of trying to "stoke confrontation," the AP said.
"Despite what the administration might want to portray publicly, this whole approach of maximum pressure is basically dead and that's reflected in the fact the Russians and Chinese aren't going to play ball on that front anymore," Wit said.
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