By Bridget Johnson and Jeremy P. Jacobs - 06/09/09 02:14 PM EDT
Senators pushing to have North Korea put back on the terrorism list have been undeterred by the sentencing of two American journalists to 12 years of hard labor.
Euna Lee and Laura Ling were working for former Vice President Al Gore's Current TV when arrested by North Korean authorities on March 17 for allegedly crossing the country's border from China. On Monday, Korea's state-run media announced the lengthy prison term for "hostility toward the Korean people."
One effort launched by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) last week is an amendment tacked onto a tobacco-regulation bill that designates North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. It now has 16 Republican co-sponsors.
The designation was removed by the administration of former President George W. Bush, who once included North Korea in the "axis of evil" along with Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
The DeMint amendment states that North Korea would be re-designated "as a country that has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism," unless it dismantles all nuclear programs, halts missile proliferation, releases all prisoners of conscience and, specifically, frees Lee and Ling.
"We'll definitely still be pushing for a vote" in light of the sentencing, DeMint spokesman Wesley Denton told The Hill on Monday. "As of yet we have not heard from [Majority] Leader [Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] if he'll allow a vote on it.
"Sen. DeMint believes we need to have a vote on the amendment immediately."
Don Tatro, spokesman for co-sponsor Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), also said that the sentencing wouldn't ease their push for the terror designation.
Reid's office said Tuesday that the senator was focused on the tobacco legislation and that votes would only come up on germane amendments.
If the DeMint amendment doesn't make it to a vote in the midst of the delicate diplomatic dance that is likely under way to secure the women's release, legislation introduced April 20 by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) to re-list North Korea as a terrorism sponsor is still in the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.
"Since being removed last year from the list of state sponsors of terror, the North Korean regime has committed a shocking list of provocative, hostile and terrorist actions against the United States and our allies," Brownback told The Hill on Monday. "It is high time, and long overdue, for the United States Congress to vote on re-imposing sanctions that were lifted, and to provide for new and stronger measures that would protect our national security and strengthen our allies in the region."
Republican officials also hinted to The Hill that a much larger bill is in the works to push North Korea back onto the terror list.
“North Korea’s recent actions further the case that it will terrorize and manipulate international security to achieve its own ends,” Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who signed on to a letter last week urging Clinton to put North Korea back on the terror list, said Monday.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday that the sentencing of the journalists should not be linked to efforts to counter a North Korean nuclear program.
"I think their detainment is not something that we've linked to other issues," Gibbs said. "And we hope the North Koreans don't do that either. I think this is a humanitarian issue. And these women are innocent and should be released to their family. And the administration is working to see that happen."
North Korea continued its war of words Tuesday in a commentary on the state-run Korean Central News Agency by threatening to use nuclear weapons.
"Our nuclear deterrent will be a strong defensive means ... as well as a merciless offensive means to deal a just retaliatory strike to those who touch the country's dignity and sovereignty even a bit," the piece said.
Russian news agency Interfax reported Tuesday that Russian government sources confirmed North Korea was preparing to test a long-range missile capable of striking U.S. territories and mid-range ones — with a reach of Japan — as well.