Congress vows to turn the screws on North Korea with tough new sanctions

Congress paved the way for a tough new sanctions bill against North Korea on Tuesday.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said he would soon introduce new legislation to bleed Kim Jong Un's regime dry. Royce convened a hearing Tuesday aimed at creating bipartisan support for tougher measures following what he called the “bipartisan failure” of U.S. policy in recent years.

“The purpose of today's hearing is to examine how best to pressure North Korea's ruling elite by systematically restricting their access to hard currency,” he said. “I'll be introducing legislation based on some of the ideas we'll hear today.”

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The stepped-up action seeks to punish North Korea for its recent missile and nuclear tests and its ramped-up rhetoric — including Tuesday's threat to end the 1953 armistice with South Korea — that have been condemned around the world. 

Royce’s efforts come as China appeared ready to back a U.S.-sponsored resolution at the United Nations Security Council targeting North Korean diplomats and cash transfers. The Security Council is expected to vote on the measure later this week. 

The resolution “takes U.N. sanctions imposed on North Korea to the next level,” said Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. “The commitment to take further significant measures in the event of further tests will demonstrate clearly to North Korea the cost of its provocations.”

Royce said his bill would build on recommendations of a 2007 white paper from his staff that examined proposals to prevent North Korea from benefiting from illegal activities such as missile sales, drug trafficking and currency counterfeiting. 

“North Korea likely employs other financial institutions both in Asia and Europe to conduct its illicit activities,” that report concluded. “The Treasury Department should aggressively track North Korea’s illicit activity, taking aggressive action against complicit financial institutions as necessary.”

Royce said the George W. Bush administration successfully targeted a Macao-based bank in 2005 because of its role in laundering illicit North Korean money, but eased up on its actions as the U.S. tried to reengage with the regime after its first nuclear test in 2006.

“I've had an opportunity to talk to defectors who worked in their missile program — including their former propaganda minister, who shared with me that he thought the single best approach would be to do this, but also in conjunction with broadcasting into North Korea,” Royce told The Hill.

Other lawmakers share his goal.

“The question is, what steps can we take to combat North Korea's illicit activities?” said ranking member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). “And can our efforts to prevent these activities be used to pressure North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs?”

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) said the United States could start by putting to rest proposals to aid the country until it abandons its weapons program. America has provided more than $1 billion in food and fuel aid in recent years.

“We act like idiots,” he said. “And we should be expected to be treated like idiots by our enemies.”

Witnesses said the sanctions might have to target Chinese banks to have any bite. 

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is holding its own hearing on the issue Thursday.

The White House on Tuesday warned that North Korea’s aggressive actions would only invite further international condemnation. 

“The DPRK will achieve nothing by threats or provocations, which will only further isolate North Korea and undermine international efforts to ensure peace and stability in Northeast Asia,” said press secretary Jay Carney. “We have urged the North Korean leadership to heed President Obama's call to choose the path of peace and come into compliance with its international obligations.

“These provocations are not new ... they certainly are not helpful to the North Korean people and — and they're not helpful to the effort to bring North Korea into compliance with its international obligations,” he added.

—This story was updated at 2:35 p.m.