WASHINGTON A U.S. Senate committee approved legislation on Thursday that would broaden sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear program, human rights record and cyber activities, the latest bid by U.S. lawmakers to crack down on Pyongyang after its fourth nuclear test.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the measure by unanimous voice vote and members said they expected it would be approved by the full Senate within weeks, and signed into law by President Barack Obama.
U.S. lawmakers have been clamoring for a clampdown on North Korea since Pyongyang earlier this month tested a nuclear device which it said was a hydrogen bomb. The U.N. Security Council is also discussing more action against the country, although it is not clear what would be supported by China, North Korea's lone major ally and main business partner.
The Senate bill would sanction anyone who engages in, facilitates or contributes to North Korea's proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, arms-related materials, luxury goods, human rights abuses, activities undermining cyber security and the provision of metals or coal for use in such activities.
Penalties include the seizure of assets, visa bans and denial of government contracts.
Committee members said they wanted to make Washington's resolve clear not just to Pyongyang, but to other governments. They said they expected the House of Representatives would back the Senate legislation.
"We must also send a strong message to China," said Republican Senator Cory Gardner, chairman of the panel's Asia subcommittee and co-author of the legislation.
An Obama administration official said the administration does not oppose the legislation, saying it is deeply concerned about North Korea's recent actions and sees the most recent test as a "serious setback."
U.S. officials told Reuters on Thursday the United States had seen increased activity around a North Korean site suggesting preparations for a possible space launch in the near future, raising concerns that the country was seeking to develop an inter-continental ballistic missile.
North Korea conducted a nuclear test on Jan. 6 that it said was the explosion of a hydrogen bomb, although the United States and other governments and experts voiced scepticism that it had made such a technological advance.
The House passed its own, less extensive, bill to broaden sanctions on Jan. 12 by a near unanimous 418-2 vote.
The Senate is due to begin considering the bill approved by the foreign relations committee during the week of Feb. 8.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Mohammad Zargham, Bernard Orr and Alistair Bell)