WASHINGTON — The Senate is considering hitting North Korea with more stringent sanctions in the wake of Pyongyang’s satellite launch and technical advances that U.S. intelligence agencies say the reclusive Asian nation is making in its nuclear weapons program.
The bill that senators are expected to vote on Wednesday targets North Korea’s ability to access the money it needs for developing miniaturized nuclear warheads and the long-range missiles to deliver them, according to the legislation’s backers.
The House overwhelmingly approved a similar measure last month and there is strong bipartisan support in the Senate for the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act.
“The kind of belligerence we’ve seen from Pyongyang must not be ignored,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Tuesday.
North Korea on Sunday launched a long-range rocket carrying an Earth observation satellite into space. The launch, which came about a month after the country’s fourth nuclear test, was quickly condemned by world leaders as a potential threat to regional and global security.
Washington, Seoul and others consider the launch a banned test of missile technology. That assessment is based on Pyongyang’s open efforts to manufacture nuclear-tipped missiles capable of striking the U.S. mainland and that the technology used to launch a rocket carrying a satellite into space can be applied to fire a long-range missile.
In the annual assessment of global threats delivered to Congress on Tuesday, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said 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 that 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 said that Pyongyang has not flight=tested a long-range, nuclear-armed missile but is committed to its development.
Underscoring the difficulty of understanding North Korea’s actual intentions, Clapper said the U.S. does not know whether North Korea would use nuclear weapons for defensive or retaliatory purposes.
“We have long assessed that Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities are intended for deterrence, international prestige, and coercive diplomacy,” he said.
North Korea already faces wide-ranging sanctions from the United States and under existing U.N. resolutions is prohibited from trading in weapons and importing luxury goods.
The new legislation seeks additional sanctions — both mandatory and at the discretion of the president — against the government of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and those who assist it.
It would require the investigation and punishment of those who knowingly import into North Korea any goods or technology related to weapons of mass destruction; those who engage in human rights abuses, money laundering and counterfeiting that supports the Kim regime; and those who engage in “cyber-terrorism.”
The bill also bans foreign assistance to any country that provides lethal military equipment to North Korea, and targets Pyongyang’s trade in key industrial commodities.
The Senate bill was crafted by Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Cory Gardner, R-Colo. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously approved the legislation.
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