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US expands sanctions on North Korea, detects possible space launch

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
KCNA | Reuters

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved legislation on Thursday to broaden sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear program, human rights record and cyber activities, amid growing international concern over Pyongyang's weapons program.

The committee passed the measure by unanimous voice vote and members said they expected it would be approved by the full Senate and, eventually, signed into law by President Barack Obama.

Republican Senator Bob Corker, the panel's chairman, said the full Senate was due to begin considering the legislation during the week of February 8.

U.S. lawmakers have been clamoring for a clampdown on North Korea since Pyongyang's announcement early this month that it had tested a hydrogen bomb. The House of Representatives passed its own, less extensive, bill to broaden sanctions on January 12 by a near unanimous 418-2.

The Senate bill calls for sanctions on 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 send a strong message not just to Pyongyang, but to other governments to work with the United States. They said they expected the House would back the Senate legislation.

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The vast majority of North Korea's business dealings are with its ally China.

"We must also send a strong message to China... that the United States would use every economic tool at its disposal" to stop Pyongyang, said Republican Senator Cory Gardner, chairman of the panel's Asia subcommittee and co-author of the legislation.

Japan's Kyodo news agency reported on Thursday that North Korea may be preparing to launch a long-range missile as soon as in a week, citing an unnamed Japanese government official. The report came as the U.N. Security Council discusses tougher sanctions against Pyongyang.

North Korea said on January 6 it exploded a hydrogen bomb, although the United States and other governments and experts voiced skepticism that it had made such a technological advance.