US Senate votes for expanded sanctions on North Korea

Mr Marco Rubio leaves the Senate Chamber after voting to impose stiffer economic sanctions on North Korea in the wake of its rocket launch.
Mr Marco Rubio leaves the Senate Chamber after voting to impose stiffer economic sanctions on North Korea in the wake of its rocket launch. PHOTO: EPA

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US Senate voted unanimously on Wednesday (Feb 10) to tighten economic sanctions on North Korea, seeking to punish the reclusive Asian nation for its provocative recent nuclear test and rocket launch.

The measure, which now must be reconciled with a similar House version that passed last month, would slap sanctions on any person or entity importing goods, technology or training related to weapons of mass destruction, or engaging in human rights abuses, US lawmakers said.

It also heaps additional financial pressure on the already-sanctioned hermit regime of leader Kim Jong Un, by aiming at cutting down on money laundering and narcotics trafficking, two major illicit activities believed to be funnelling millions of dollars into Mr Kim's inner circle.

Senate Republicans Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio both left the presidential campaign trail and returned to Washington for the vote.

"Unfortunately, administrations of both political parties have failed to roll back the threat North Korea poses and have allowed this rogue regime to develop even more dangerous capabilities," Mr Rubio said in a statement, adding that Pyongyang now has missiles capable of hitting the United States.

House Speaker Paul Ryan added: "This dictatorial regime must learn that its actions have consequences.

"North Korea's provocative long-range missile test this past weekend underscores the need to ratchet up pressure on this rogue nation, and the United States will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies against this aggression."

Pyongyang shocked the world last month and earned a global rebuke when it announced it had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb.

On Sunday (Feb 7), it defiantly launched a satellite-bearing rocket, a move the West sees as a cover for a ballistic missile test in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

Senate Republican Cory Gardner pointed to growing instability on the Korean peninsula as a need for swift action.

"Strategic patience has failed," he said on the Senate floor. The Bill that passed 96-0 on Wednesday (Feb 10) marks "a new policy based on strength, not patience".

Senate Democrat Robert Menendez said the vote marked a major step forward in counteracting Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

"Four nuclear tests, three Kims, two violations of UN Security Council resolutions and one attempt by North Korea to transfer nuclear technology to Syria later - it is clearly time for the United States to start taking the North Korea challenge seriously," Mr Menendez said.

North Korea is already subject to a range of international and US sanctions, adopted after its three previous nuclear tests, in 2006, 2009 and 2013.

Under the Senate Bill, penalties for the sanctionable activities would include the seizure of assets, visa bans and denial of government contracts.

And for the first time it establishes a framework for sanctions in response to North Korean cyber threats, according to Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker.

The House of Representatives passed its version of the Bill in mid-January, by a 418-2 vote.