Senate Votes to Boost U.S. Sanctions Against North Korea

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North Korean soldiers march during a military parade in Pyongyang on April 15, 2012.

Photographer: PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images
  • Action comes days after regime launched long-range rocket
  • Cruz and Rubio return from presidential campaign to cast vote

The Senate overwhelmingly voted to authorize new U.S. sanctions against North Korea, days after the country launched a long-range rocket.

The measure, passed 96-0, would create sanctions against individuals, companies and foreign governments that contribute to North Korea’s nuclear program and ballistic missile development. Also penalized would be those who send luxury goods or aid the regime’s censorship or human rights abuses.

The House passed an earlier version of H.R. 757 on Jan. 12, also in an overwhelming bipartisan vote. The differences must be reconciled before the bill can go to President Barack Obama.

Prior to the vote, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, and Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, each spoke on the Senate floor to urge their colleagues to support the bill. The leaders said Congress needs to act after the Pyongyang regime’s rocket launch on Sunday, which the U.S. says violated a United Nations ban on North Korea’s use of ballistic missile technology.

QuickTake North Korea's Nukes

"Everyone in the Senate agrees that North Korea’s aggression cannot go unanswered," Reid said. "I hope my colleagues will join me in passing this legislation immediately, and send a message to Kim Jong Un that his reckless behavior will not go unanswered."

Underscoring the bill’s importance, two Republican senators involved in a bruising fight for their party’s presidential nomination -- Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas -- returned from the campaign to Capitol Hill for the vote. Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats and is seeking that party’s presidential nomination, didn’t return to vote.

‘Growing Aggression’

"The Senate has an opportunity to pass bipartisan legislation that would add to our nation’s ability to hold North Korea accountable for its growing aggression," McConnell said earlier Wednesday on the Senate floor. "I urge my colleagues to vote yes."

The bipartisan vote, however, didn’t preclude some Republicans from using the measure to attack Obama for his handling of North Korea.

"This bill will help hold North Korea accountable, which is more than we’ve seen from the administration," Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican, said on the Senate floor. "I want to point out that North Korea’s provocative actions are just another symptom of the Obama doctrine gone wrong."

Cruz released a letter he sent to Obama saying his administration "has, for too long, hoped to achieve denuclearization through failed diplomacy and limited sanctions." He recommended Obama take a number of actions to attempt to alter the regime’s behavior, including relisting North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.

QuickTake: North Korea’s Nukes

The House vote last month followed a nuclear test by North Korea on Jan. 6. The Senate version was amended by the Foreign Relations Committee to authorize $10 million a year from fiscal 2017 through 2021 to broadcast radio to North Korea, provide humanitarian aid to refugees and migrants from the regime, and to carry out sanctions, according to Stacy Z. O’Mara, an analyst with Bloomberg Government.

The measure would let the president waive the sanctions for periods as long as a year. The long-range rocket launch also drew condemnation from China and Russia. Representatives of the UN Security Council met soon after the launch and vowed to adopt new restrictions on North Korea.

Richard Nephew, principal deputy coordinator for sanctions policy against Iran at the State Department, said last month that Congress should hold off on legislation to give the UN time to act. Passing a bill in Congress might discourage Chinese officials from supporting UN action against North Korea "because the Americans are going to do what they want anyway," he said.

The White House hasn’t said whether the president would sign the bill, but it hasn’t publicly threatened a veto.

Thaad Defense System

It’s unclear whether China would be more willing to accept UN sanctions, in part to fend off renewed U.S.-South Korean talks over the potential deployment of the Thaad missile-defense system on the peninsula. While the U.S. and South Korea say a deployment of Thaad, made by Lockheed Martin Corp., would be aimed solely at North Korea, neighboring China would consider it a threat to its own missiles as well.

U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency Director Vincent Stewart said in testimony prepared for a Senate Armed Services committee hearing Tuesday that North Korea’s rocket launch used technology “that would be applicable to North Korea’s other long-range missile programs.”

The Pyongyang regime’s efforts to develop a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile and a submarine-launched ballistic missile “highlight its commitment to diversifying its missile forces and nuclear delivery options,” Stewart said.

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