US House passes Bill to impose tighter sanctions on North Korea

Kim Jong Un (front) stands on the conning tower of a submarine during his inspection of the Korean People's Army (KPA) Naval Unit 167.
Kim Jong Un (front) stands on the conning tower of a submarine during his inspection of the Korean People's Army (KPA) Naval Unit 167. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US lawmakers voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday (Jan 12) to impose stricter economic sanctions on North Korea, seeking to punish the pariah Asian nation for its latest test of a nuclear bomb last week.

By a nearly unanimous vote of 418 to 2, the House of Representatives passed the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, which would heap additional financial pressure on the already-sanctioned hermit regime of leader Kim Jong Un.

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

The legislation unanimously passed out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee last February but sat idle until leaders revived it in the wake of Pyongyang's test.

And while Western experts have yet to conclude whether North Korea indeed tested a hydrogen bomb - which would be considered a dramatic improvement of the regime's nuclear abilities - the House was not prepared to wait further.

"The Kim regime's continued efforts to develop a nuclear arsenal is a direct threat to the United States," said the Bill's sponsor, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce.

"Now is not the time for more of the administration's 'strategic patience'. It's time for action."

The Bill aims to isolate Mr Kim Jong Un and his top officials from the assets they maintain in foreign banks, and from the hard currency that sustains their rule.

"Under this Bill's framework, anyone laundering money, counterfeiting goods, smuggling or trafficking narcotics will be subject to significant sanctions," Mr Royce said.

The United Nations Security Council is also mulling new measures to punish North Korea after its announcement of a hydrogen bomb test triggered concerns.

The US House measure prohibits the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, arms-related materials, luxury goods, and counterfeit goods, and it also mandates sanctions against any individual or entity that materially contributes to North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile development or provides training on weapons programmes.

Even as lawmakers advance the sanctions, former US administration officials warned that such measures would be insufficient to change North Korea's behaviour, and that Pyongyang's ally China needs encouragement to alter its dealings with its renegade neighbour.

"For me, objective one in the diplomacy is how do we start creating change in Chinese policy to get them farther along," Mr Joseph DeThomas, a former ambassador and deputy assistant secretary of state for non-proliferation, told a Washington audience last week.

The House Bill now shifts to the Senate, where its fate is uncertain.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he anticipates a similar Senate measure will pass out of committee, "and I intend to schedule floor time on it shortly".