Senate Unanimously Backs Tougher North Korea Sanctions

Ri Yong Gil makes a speech in Pyongyang, North Korea, on August 24, 2014, in this still image. North Korea has executed General Ri Yong Gil on corruption charges, South Korean media reported on Wednesday. KRT/Reuters TV

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate voted unanimously on Wednesday to toughen sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear program, human rights record and cyber activities, as U.S. lawmakers sought to crack down on Pyongyang for its nuclear tests.

The House of Representatives passed a similar bill last month. Differences between the two are expected to be resolved quickly and Senate Democrats said they expected President Barack Obama would sign the measure into law.

The White House has not threatened a veto, but a spokesman told reporters he did not have a response to the bill.

Lawmakers said they wanted to make Washington's resolve clear not just to Pyongyang, but to the United Nations and other governments, especially China, North Korea's lone major ally and main business partner.

The Senate vote for the "North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act" was 96-0.

Backing for the bill was so strong that two Republicans vying to be their party's 2016 presidential nominee, Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both left the campaign trail to vote. Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democratic contender, missed the vote.

"China, the very entity that could do something about this, is blocking the U.N. Security Council's action toward this being done on a multilateral basis," said Republican Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"It will be much more effective if we can get the international community to support us," said Senator Ben Cardin, the panel's top Democrat. He drew parallels to U.S. sanctions that became multilateral regimes against Iran and South Africa.

Congress has been clamoring for a clampdown since Pyongyang tested a nuclear device in January. Its weekend satellite launch fueled the calls.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate on Tuesday that North Korea has followed through on plans to re-start a plutonium production reactor and could begin to assemble a plutonium stockpile within months.

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 materials for such activities.

Penalties include the seizure of assets, visa bans and denial of government contracts.

Unusually, the measure makes most of the sanctions mandatory, rather than giving the president the option to impose them. He can temporarily waive them by making the case that doing so would threaten national security.