WASHINGTON – Congress sent President Barack Obama legislation Friday that hits North Korea with more stringent sanctions for refusing to stop its nuclear weapons program.
House Republicans and Democrats joined together to overwhelmingly approve the bill by a vote of 408-2 less than a week after North Korea launched a rocket carrying a satellite into space. Pyongyang conducted its fourth underground nuclear test last month. Both actions sparked worldwide condemnation and heightened fears the reclusive Asian nation is moving steadily toward assembling an atomic arsenal.
The Senate unanimously passed the legislation earlier this week.
The Obama administration said it wouldn’t oppose the bill, but officials declined to say whether or when Obama would sign it. The expanded sanctions from Congress come at the same time the U.S. and China are in delicate negotiations over a U.N. Security Council resolution on new sanctions, with China raising concerns about measures that could devastate North Korea’s economy.
“We’re philosophically and intellectually in the same place as Congress on this, so that will not be a bill that we’ll oppose,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said on Friday.
The expanded sanctions are intended to deny North Korea the money it needs for the development of miniaturized nuclear warheads and the long-range missiles required to deliver them.
The legislation also authorizes $50 million over the next five years to transmit radio broadcasts into North Korea, purchase communications equipment and support humanitarian assistance programs.
Rep. Ed Royce, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Friday that it’s time for the United States to stand with South Korea and Japan. Both countries already are responding to North Korea’s aggression, said Royce, who called on Russia and China to “follow suit.”
Japan announced new sanctions on Wednesday that include expanded restrictions on travel between the two countries and a complete ban on visits by North Korean ships to Japan.
South Korea cut off power and water supplies to a factory park in North Korea, a day after the North deported all South Korean workers there and ordered a military takeover of the complex that had been the last major symbol of cooperation between the rivals.
“This bill sends the message to the regime in North Korea that they must reform, and they must disarm this nuclear weapons program,” Royce said. “By cutting off the regime’s access to the money it need for its army and its weapons, the bill will return us to the one strategy that has worked: financial pressure on North Korea.”
Washington, Seoul and others considered Sunday’s rocket launch by North Korea a banned test of missile technology. That assessment is based on Pyongyang’s efforts to manufacture nuclear-tipped missiles capable of striking the U.S. mainland. The technology used to launch a rocket carrying a satellite can be applied to fire a long-range missile.
James R. Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said during congressional testimony earlier this week that North Korea has expanded a uranium enrichment facility and restarted a plutonium reactor that could start recovering material for nuclear weapons in weeks or months.
Both findings will deepen concern North Korea is not only making technical advances in its nuclear weapons program, but is working to expand what is thought to be a small nuclear arsenal. U.S.-based experts have estimated that North Korea may have about 10 bombs, but that could grow to between 20 and 100 by 2020.
Clapper told lawmakers that Pyongyang has not flight-tested a long-range, nuclear-armed missile but is committed to its development.