WASHINGTON (AP) — A bill to toughen sanctions against North Korea and restrict its access to hard currency passed a legislative hurdle in the U.S. Congress on Thursday.
The House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee approved the bill with Republicans and Democrat support. Lawmakers said it would help combat Pyongyang's development of nuclear weapons and serious human rights abuses.
The bill would also need to be passed by both the full House and the Senate, and then approved by the president, so its prospects for becoming law remain uncertain. But it reflects congressional dissatisfaction over the current U.S. policy toward North Korea, which has only advanced its nuclear and ballistic missile programs despite existing sanctions.
The bill would empower the U.S. president to shut out of the U.S. financial system foreign banks that facilitate proliferation of weapons technology, arms trafficking, "kleptocracy," and imports of luxury goods" by North Korea's government.
Republican committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce likened the proposed measure to U.S. sanctions imposed in 2005 against a Macau-based bank, Banco Delta Asia, which held about $25 million in North Korean funds but caused a ripple effect in the international financial system. The measure was later lifted to facilitate nuclear talks with North Korea.
"This legislation enables our government to go after Kim Jong Un's illicit activities just like we went after organized crime in our own country," Royce said, referring to the North Korea's leader.
China, which is North Korea's only major ally and key trading partner, would look dimly on such a measure, because of the impact it could have on Chinese financial institutions. If passed, it could complicate the Obama's administration's efforts to enlist China's help in pressuring Pyongyang to recommit to denuclearization.
The committee's top-ranking Democrat, Eliot Engel, who co-sponsored the bill, said it was aimed "at that those few around the world who have chosen to remain morally blind to the crimes of the North Korean state."
Six-nation aid-for-disarmament talks with North Korea have been in limbo since 2008, and the North has since conducted two nuclear tests and is threatening another.