FILE - A pedestrian walks past a North Korean flag displayed on a building in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 12, 2019.
FILE - A pedestrian walks past a North Korean flag displayed on a building in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 12, 2019.

SEOUL - North Korea Saturday lashed out at the U.S. State Department’s recent criticism of its human rights record, warning Washington would “pay dearly” for what it called “reckless” remarks.

North Korea’s Foreign Affairs Ministry specifically took issue with a recent VOA interview of a senior State Department official who said the U.S. remains “deeply concerned” about North Korean human rights abuses.

“Such malicious words which came at this time when the DPRK-U.S. relations are reaching a highly delicate point will only produce a result of further aggravating the already tense situation on the Korean peninsula, like pouring oil over burning fire,” the North Korean ministry said in a statement published in the Korean Central News Agency.

The comments come at a particularly tense moment. North Korea, which has promised the U.S. an ominous “Christmas gift,” has threatened to walk away from nuclear talks and resume major provocations, such as a nuclear test or long-range missile launch.

South Korean army soldiers stand guard at the Unification Bridge, which leads to the Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone in Paju, South Korea, Dec. 16, 2019.
US Watching North Korea for 'Christmas Gift' Missile Launch
A significant launch or test would mean the end of North Korea’s self-imposed moratorium and raise tensions in the region

The U.S. is also gradually increasing pressure on the North. The State Department Friday renewed its designation of North Korea as a violator of religious freedom. The same day, U.S. President Donald Trump also signed legislation tightening sanctions on Pyongyang.

North Korea hasn’t commented on those latest moves. Instead, it objected to a Thursday interview that VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching conducted with Robert Destro, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor.

“We remain deeply concerned about what's going on in North Korea,” Destro told VOA. “I think the credible evidence that's coming out of North Korea speaks for itself.”

Destro defended the Trump administration's policy of pursuing negotiations with North Korea while it criticizes its human rights record.

“My view is that there's nothing inconsistent with the president trying to engage with the North Koreans and to try and get them to change their behavior. That's the whole point of the negotiations,” Destro said.

North Korea’s foreign ministry called those remarks “reckless.”

“If the U.S. dares to impair our system by taking issue over ‘human rights issue,’ it will be made to pay dearly for such an act,” the KCNA statement said.

The statement accused the U.S. of being a “cesspit of all sorts of human rights violations,” but insisted North Koreans “fully enjoy genuine freedom and rights, being masters of the country.”

North Korea is widely seen as being one of the world's most repressive governments. It restricts nearly every aspect of its citizens' civil and political liberties, including freedom of expression, assembly, association, religion, and movement.

Lots of Posturing, Little Progress in US-North Korea Talks in 2019
There was lots of posturing but little progress in 2019, as the United States and North Korea spent much of the year trying to convince the other side to take the first step in nuclear talks. With North Korea's end-of-year threats and its misguided belief that it can influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election, some fear the Korean Peninsula could soon return to a state of major tensions, as VOA's Bill Gallo reports from Seoul.

Mixed messages?

The U.S. has been accused of sending mixed messages on North Korean human rights issues.

Earlier this month, the Trump administration prevented a United Nations Security Council meeting on North Korean human rights abuses, effectively blocking the meeting for the second consecutive year.

Reports suggested the move was meant to preserve the chances for diplomacy. Human Rights Watch said the decision sent a “clear message to Pyongyang and other abusive governments that the U.S. is prepared to look away regarding rights violations.”

However, by signing the sanctions legislation Friday, Trump is applying major additional pressure on North Korea.

The legislation, part of a broad 2020 military spending bill, calls for sanctions on North Korean imports and exports of textiles, coal, and other natural resources, as well as sanctions on banks that deal with North Korea.

The North Korea sanctions provision is called the “Otto Warmbier North Korea Nuclear Sanctions and Enforcement Act,” named after the U.S. student who died after 17 months in a North Korean prison.

Fred Warmbier, right, speaks as his wife Cindy listens about their son Otto Warmbier who died after being released by North…
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Fred and Cindy Warmbier commended a provision of the broader National Defense Authorization Act for applying pressure on North Korea to change its behavior

Joshua Stanton, a Washington-based lawyer and major proponent of more sanctions on North Korea, said the legislation is significant because it shifts enforcement authority from the Treasury Department, which has been reluctant to tighten sanctions on North Korea, to the Justice Department.

“One way or another, whether Donald Trump still loves him or not, (North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s) reprieve is about to end,” said Stanton in a blog post.

Stalled talks

Trump and Kim have met three times since June 2018 but have failed to make any progress in nuclear talks. Earlier this month, North Korean officials suggested denuclearization was off the negotiating table.

At their first meeting in Singapore, Trump and Kim agreed to “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Neither side has agreed on what that phrase means or how to begin working toward it and Pyongyang has since insisted it never agreed to unilaterally give up its nuclear weapons.

Kim has given the U.S. an end-of-year deadline to provide more concessions. It has threatened to conduct a long-range missile test. That would end North Korea’s self-imposed moratorium on intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear tests, which it announced in April 2018.

On Friday, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said the U.S. is closely watching North Korea.

 “North Korea’s indicated a variety of things, and I think you’re aware of all those. So we are prepared for whatever,” Milley said at a Pentagon briefing.

Steve Biegun, the U.S. special envoy for North Korea, recently wrapped up a last-minute trip to the region, meeting with South Korean, Japanese and Chinese officials in an attempt to help save the talks.

North Korea has not publicly responded to those requests.