U.S. lawmakers are expected Thursday to take another step toward boosting sanctions on North Korea when a Senate panel votes on a package of punitive measures weeks after Pyongyang claimed to have tested a hydrogen nuclear bomb.
“It will put in place mandatory sanctions against North Korea itself, but also those entities that support certain efforts that may be taking place within the country,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican.
The committee is expected to overwhelmingly approve a bipartisan Senate version of the North Korea Sanctions Act, which the House of Representatives passed 418-2 earlier this month. The bill would then go to the full Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has promised a vote.
“We have a bill that, in many respects, is stronger than the House bill,” said the Senate committee’s top Democrat, Ben Cardin of Maryland. “What we do is put pressure on not just the government, but on those who want to do business with North Korea — if they do in these areas, there will be sanctions imposed.”
The House bill requires the president to investigate and sanction persons and entities contributing to North Korean weapons of mass destruction, money laundering, censorship or human rights abuses.
The Senate bill adds provisions targeting North Korea’s sale of minerals and precious metals, a major source of hard currency. Corker said the legislation also places a greater emphasis on Pyongyang’s human rights record.
“I think we’ve enhanced it [the House bill] significantly,” Corker said. “It takes into account other issues that we have with North Korea, not just the nuclear testing, but also some human rights issues.”
Cardin stressed that the sanctions legislation would not affect international aid to Pyongyang.
The bill "is not aimed at all at humanitarian needs," he said. "The North Korean people are in desperate need. We regret that the country doesn’t spend its resources on its people."
Spurred to action
Bills ramping up sanctions on Pyongyang were introduced last year but not acted upon as Congress focused on the international nuclear accord with Iran. North Korea’s latest nuclear test, announced January 6, appears to have spurred both houses of Congress to action, despite widespread skepticism in the United States and elsewhere that the device tested was a hydrogen bomb, as Pyongyang claimed.
Those doubts persist today.
“I don’t have a better sense of what exactly happened [with the nuclear test],” said Dianne Feinstein of California, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“It is still not a decided question whether or not this latest test truly was of a hydrogen weapon and whether or not it represents a leap forward by the North Koreans, or whether it was largely hype,” said Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who also serves on the Intelligence Committee. “Now, the presence of any nuclear weapons and the continuing testing of them in North Korea is a major concern.”
Cardin sees parallels between the North Korea bill and sanctions imposed on Iran for its nuclear activities that were widely credited with bringing Tehran to the negotiating table.
“The comparison is Iran, where we imposed tough sanctions that dealt with their ability to finance their nuclear expansions. I think this is the same type of circumstance,” Cardin said.
Any sanctions bill that passes the full Senate would have to be reconciled with the House version, unless the House voted to adopt the Senate bill.
“It [the Senate bill] is a very strong piece of legislation and, I think, will become law,” Corker said.