The House easily passed a bill slapping harsher sanctions on North Korea in response to its most recent nuclear test, as leading senators promise to promptly follow suit.
But questions remain as to whether such sanctions will deter North Korea from developing nuclear weapons posing a direct threat to the United States.
The House approved the measure by a sweeping 418-to-2 margin on Tuesday afternoon. It would require the president to sanction those engaging in transactions with North Korea related to weapons of mass destruction, arms, luxury goods, money laundering, counterfeiting and human rights abuses. It also gives the president authority to sanction anyone engaging in financial transactions to support North Korea’s banned activities and the country’s developing cyber threat industry.
Sanctions would mark a somewhat unusual step by Congress as they’re most often imposed by the executive branch. For congressional Republicans, the effort also serves as a rebuke of President Obama for failing to act earlier. Several members mocked Obama for a policy of “strategic patience” with North Korea and the foundering six-party talks he embraced early in his presidency.
The GOP is using North Korea’s recent nuclear test as a reason to take aim at the Iran nuclear deal as well, arguing that the the pact is a green light to Pyongyang to scare the United States into making another bad deal.
“With Iran about to receive hundreds of billions of dollars for its illegal nuclear program, we shouldn’t be surprised that North Korea wants a piece of the pie, too,” said Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), who opposed the Iran deal.
The House will later this week consider a bill to stymie implementation of the Iran deal by requiring the administration to certify any entity being removed from the sanctions list never supported terrorism or Iran’s ballistic missile program. Many Democrats are anxious to see Obama take greater steps to respond to Iran’s terrorist activities and recent ballistic missile tests, but they have vocally opposed the bill.
“Whether it be North Korea or Iran, when will we learn the hard lesson that totalitarian states do not negotiate in good faith?” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who also opposed the Iran nuclear pact.
Democrats and Republicans are united in their conviction that Congress must act on North Korea, and influential members of both parties believe the administration will welcome their efforts.
“I think they believe action by Congress could be helpful,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), emerging from a meeting on North Korea with administration officials. “It’s my sense anyway that Congress taking action on this issue could be beneficial and I think you’re going to see that happen.”
“We have to act, and we hope that the international community will act,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said.
Senators are currently discussing how to proceed with competing North Korea sanctions proposals from Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.).
Curtailing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions is a goal that has eluded several presidents, most notably George W. Bush. His administration tried to conclude a deal by partially lifting sanctions and taking North Korea off the state sponsors of terror list. That followed a period of punishing sanctions credited with bringing North Korea more seriously to the table. But the deal fell apart, and North Korea began nuclear tests in 2006.
Since then, Kim Jong Un took over North Korea from his father and the Treasury Department imposed a range of sanctions against the country. There are recent signs the Obama administration is planning to lean further into Pyongyang, particularly in the area of human rights abuses.
Publicly at least, North Korea has not responded positively to recent overtures to restart denuclearization talks.
Now, many believe the only way to stop the nuclear tests is to bring to bear harsh financial pressure on the country — even if the U.S. has to go it alone at first.
“The latest test demands a response,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), a co-sponsor of the House bill. “We need to act unilaterally to make clear to the North Koreans that their actions have consequences.”
The House’s North Korea bill has been sitting around since it was introduced in the House last February. But the measure zipped through the process this week after the rogue nation recently claimed to have detonated a hydrogen bomb with all five committees of jurisdiction signing off on Monday.
“This threat is unacceptable,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said on the House floor Monday while introducing the legislation, which he called “the most comprehensive North Korea sanctions legislation to come before this body.”
But North Korea is already subject to broad international sanctions that have almost entirely cut off the rogue nation from the international financial system. And the country’s leaders are still pursuing a nuclear program relatively undeterred.
“Despite the burden of some of the toughest sanctions imaginable…leaders in Pyongyang persist on this dangerous and destabilizing course,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member and bill co-sponsor Engel said. “North Korea has become more and more savvy with evading sanctions.”
North Korea has been able to operate in the shadow of sanctions through various shell companies, by exporting labor to countries like China and Russia who are able to return hard currency to Pyongyang, and through the sponsorship of allies, particularly China. China did criticize North Korea’s latest nuclear test, and Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that he and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had “agreed that there cannot be business as usual.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified Rep. Chris Smith as a Republican from Texas instead of New Jersey.