WASHINGTON — A bill aimed at restricting North Korea's access to hard currency passed a legislative hurdle Friday as pressure grows in Congress for tougher action over Pyongyang's nuclear program and alleged involvement in a hacking attack on Sony Pictures.
The House Committee on Foreign Affairs approved the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, which has bipartisan support and envisions the kind of restrictions that have been imposed on banks in dealing with Iran.
The committee's Republican chairman, Rep. Ed Royce of California, said the legislation is intended to press the U.S. administration to use all the tools it has to impose sanctions against North Korea and on countries and companies that assist the North in bolstering its nuclear weapons program.
The bill also has provisions to sanction North Korea officials over dire human rights abuses and individuals who facilitate cyberattacks on the U.S.
The legislation now goes to the full House. A sanctions bill is also planned in the Senate but has yet to be introduced.
"Last November, with its cyberattack on Sony Pictures, North Korea once again reminded the world that behind its belligerent rhetoric is a country that poses a very real and serious threat to our security," Royce said.
North Korea denied involvement in the hacking although it was enraged by a Sony movie, "The Interview," a comedy that depicted the assassination of its leader, Kim Jong Un.
The Obama administration last month blacklisted additional North Korean officials and entities in response to the Sony hack, targeting its ability to earn currency from illicit weapons sales.
The administration has not taken a public position on the new legislation, but U.S. officials say they already have the power to target any entity that supports the North. Lawmakers, however, remain skeptical that sanctions to date have had much impact.
"It's time to raise the costs on the Kim Jung Un government," said the committee's top Democrat, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York.
A U.N. panel of experts reported Thursday on North Korea's efforts to circumvent sanctions. It found that a state-run shipping company that last year attempted to smuggle fighter jets and missiles from Cuba has renamed most of its vessels.
But the administration likely wants to retain some flexibility in applying sanctions in case negotiations with North Korea, stalled for years, resume.
Senior U.S. diplomat Wendy Sherman on Friday said the U.S. has been open to resuming bilateral negotiations but also has "inexhaustible" patience to achieve a lasting solution.
"At the end of the day North Korea cannot obtain the security, prosperity or respect it wants without negotiating an end to its provocative nuclear and missile program," Sherman told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Estimates about North Korea's nuclear arsenal vary, but U.S. researchers this week predicted its stockpile could grow from 10 weapons to as many as 100 in the next five years.