US seizes North Korea cargo ship for violating sanctions

North Korean cargo ship Wise Honest, which was recently impounded by the US for bypassing sanctions (Photo by MarineTraffic) The United S...

North Korean cargo ship Wise Honest, which was recently impounded by the US for bypassing sanctions (Photo by MarineTraffic)
The United States has for the first time seized a cargo ship over what it claims is violating economic sanctions by Washington and the United Nations, another sign that relations between the two countries are once again heading south after a brief thaw.

The US Justice Department announced on Thursday that the ship, known as the “Wise Honest,” was in the possession of the United States for illegal shipments. The vessel was first impounded by Indonesia in April 2018.

According to the DOJ statement, the ship was operated by the Korea Songi Shipping Company.

The firm stands accused of violating US laws by paying American dollars for improvements, equipment purchases, and service expenditures for the vessel through unwitting US financial institutions.

“Payments totaling more than $750,000 were transmitted through accounts at a US financial institution in connection with the March 2018 shipment of coal on board the Wise Honest,” the statement said.

Washington filed a seizure warrant for the ship in July 2018. The Wise Honest was approaching US territorial waters off American Samoa, department officials said.The unusual civil forfeiture action comes after North Korea test-launched a number of missiles on two occasions in the space of a few days in what is believed to be a protest by leader Kim Jong-un to US President Donald Trump's refusal to dial down sanctions during a collapsed summit in Vietnam in February.

However, the Department of Justice insisted that the timing of the move on Thursday was unrelated to the missile launches.

“There is no connection at all between the recent activities by North Korea,” Geoffrey Berman, the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, claimed. “We have been pursuing this for months.”

In a bid to block North Korea's funding for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, Washington has spearheaded several rounds of sanctions against the Southeast Asian country at the UN Security Council since 2006.

The bans have mostly targeted Pyongyang's exports, including coal, iron, lead, textiles and seafood while also hindering imports of crude oil and refined petroleum products.

North Korea remains largely unaffected according to UN sanctions monitors, who reported in March that Pyongyang continues to defy the measures “through a massive increase in illegal ship-to-ship transfers of petroleum products and coal.”The 17,000-ton Wise Honest is the second largest bulk carrier operated by North Korea and has also been used to deliver heavy machinery to North Korea, the DOJ said.

“This sanctions-busting ship is now out of service,” said John Demers, the head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, warning that Washington would do the same to North Korea's largest ship as well if it even gets caught bypassing US sanctions.

“If it is, we’d love to get our hands on it,” Demers added.

Payments for maintenance and equipment for the ship were processed by three American banks.

Upon detention by Indonesia, the Wise Honest was carrying 25,500 tons of coal, according to UN sanctions monitors. A UN report in March estimated that the ship’s coal cargo was worth around $3 million.

Indonesia had reported in April last year that the ship was registered under both the flags of Sierra Leone and North Korea.

A thorough probe of the ship found “cargo documents and clearance received from a Russian cargo ship intending to conduct an STS (ship-to-ship) transfer” in waters off the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan.  Russia has repeatedly denied violating UN sanctions on North Korea.

Pyongyang has 60 days to contest the civil asset forfeiture complaint.  The US government could either sell off the ship or put it to use if it wins the case.

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