Washington | The US House of Representatives House pushed ahead on legislation that seeks to punish North Korea for its latest nuclear test by expanding sanctions on Pyongyang, a move with strong bipartisan support despite questions over how effective the new restrictions can be. Lawmakers are scheduled to vote today on the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, which proposes to deny North Korea the hard currency they say it needs for its weapons programs. Holding the vote tomorrow puts it on the same day as President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address. But former State Department officials said any new sanctions won’t have teeth unless China makes a major shift in policy toward its rebellious ally.
Separately, a panel of experts on North Korea said existing United Nations sanctions against the reclusive country are going unenforced. The House bill is sponsored by Rep. Ed Royce, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The new sanctions would put targeted economic financial pressure on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Royce said Monday ahead of the vote, arguing that a failure to respond aggressively will embolden Pyongyang. Rep Eliot Engel, the committee’s top Democrat, said Kim is on a dangerous, destabilising course and the US needs to act unilaterally to show the North Koreans that there are consequences for their actions.
Royce’s committee unanimously approved the measure in February 2015 and it remained there until last week when North Korea announced it had conducted a fourth nuclear test this one detonating a thermonuclear device with massive destructive power. The announcement was met with doubt North Korea had set off a hydrogen bomb, which would mark a major technological advance for Pyongyang’s limited nuclear arsenal. But it could take weeks or even longer to confirm or refute the claim.
Yet lawmakers are pushing ahead. In the wake of the announcement, Republicans derided the Obama administration for not being more forceful in its policy toward North Korea. Royce said the administration’s approach of strategic patience toward North Korea has failed to stop its nuclear program. It’s uncertain what the bill’s prospects will be in the Senate if it’s passed by the House.
But Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he wants the U.S. and its allies to take a more assertive role in addressing North Korea’s provocation. A central part of Royce’s legislation is to make so-called blocking sanctions mandatory rather than discretionary as currently permitted through existing regulations. The sanctions are mandated against any country, business or individual that materially contributes to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile development, imports luxury goods into North Korea, or engages with Pyongyang in money laundering, the manufacture of counterfeit goods, or narcotics trafficking, according to the legislation.
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