(Adds quotes from House co-sponsors, details on bill, background)
By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON, Feb 5 (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers introduced legislation on Thursday to broaden sanctions against North Korea by imposing stiffer punishments on international companies that do business with Pyongyang.
“In the wake of the state-sponsored cyber-attack on Sony Pictures, the bipartisan legislation targets North Korea’s access to the hard currency and other goods that help keep the regime in power,” the bill’s co-sponsor, U.S. Republican Representative Ed Royce said.
“Additionally, it presses the Administration to use all available tools to impose sanctions against North Korea and on countries and companies that assist North Korea in bolstering its nuclear weapons program,” Royce, the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, said in a statement.
Current sanctions are focused largely on Americans and U.S. companies.
The initiative responds to concern in Congress about last year’s cyberattack on Sony Pictures, which was blamed on Pyongyang, as well as what lawmakers see as the international failure to rein in the reclusive state’s nuclear weapons program.
The measure is co-sponsored by Republicans and Democrats, including the leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Royce, and Democrat Eliot Engel, which handles sanctions legislation in the chamber.
A similar bill is likely in the U.S. Senate. It is expected to enjoy strong bipartisan support in both chambers.
The bill would authorize U.S. officials to freeze assets held in the United States of those found to have direct ties to illicit North Korean activities like its nuclear program, as well as those that do business with North Korea, providing its government with hard currency.
It would also target banks that facilitate North Korean proliferation, smuggling, money laundering, and human rights abuses, and target people who helped in the cyber attacks against the United States, Royce said.
North Korea is already heavily sanctioned by the United States and United Nations for its arms programs and nuclear tests. President Barack Obama imposed new sanctions last year aimed at cutting the country’s remaining links to the international financial system. [ID:nL1N0US2FR}
The vast majority of North Korea’s business dealings are with companies in neighboring China.
The bill is intended to push the Obama administration, which contends the president already has sufficient authority to punish Pyongyang.
“The activities of the Kim Regime threaten regional security through reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons, irresponsibly deploying offensive cyber capabilities, and a range of other illicit activities,” Engel said.
He added that effectively enforcing sanctions against North Korea “is not something that the United States can do alone - it requires our allies, our partners, and the rest of the global community to join in this effort.”
Sony said on Thursday that Amy Pascal would step down as co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment after the hackers, angry about a movie she championed mocking North Korea’s leader, exposed a raft of embarrassing emails between her and other Hollywood figures. (Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Sandra Maler and Grant McCool)