The United States government has imposed sanctions for the first time on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, accusing him of being directly responsible for a long list of human rights abuses in his country.

In announcing the sanctions on Wednesday, the US Department of Treasury said Kim and 10 other top officials were behind the killing 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 labour, and torture," said Adam Szubin, the acting Treasury under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

READ MORE: North Korea test-fires Musudan ballistic missiles

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 labour issues, said that many of the people on the list had not been previously known.

North Korean defectors recount torture

"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 that naming the specific officials involved would 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 on US territory of those named  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.

Source: Agencies