U.S. authorities have taken custody of a North Korean cargo ship for the first time for allegedly violating sanctions, announcing the seizure Thursday shortly after Pyongyang fired two short-range ballistic missiles, its second weapons test in less than a week.
U.S. officials said the 17,061-ton Wise Honest, North Korea’s second-largest bulk carrier, was impounded by maritime authorities in Indonesia in April 2018 after it was used to smuggle coal out of North Korea and heavy machinery back in, violating U.S. law and United Nations resolutions.
More than $750,000 was paid through unsuspecting U.S. banks in connection with the ship’s final smuggling attempt, officials said, giving federal prosecutors in New York an opportunity to obtain a warrant and confiscate the vessel recently in a civil forfeiture action.
“This sanctions-busting ship is now out of service,” said John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security.
The U.S. government has sought for decades to crack down on North Korean sanctions-busting schemes, including the use of so-called ghost ships that use phony names and false documentation, turn off identification signals to hide their course, and offload cargo to other ships at sea to avoid scrutiny in port.
But the latest case marks the first U.S. seizure of a North Korea cargo vessel for violating international sanctions.
Officials said the 581-foot-long ship is approaching U.S. territorial waters near American Samoa in the South Pacific, reportedly under control of the U.S. Marshals Service and the Coast Guard.
The Justice Department announcement came amid fraying ties with North Korea. President Trump’s efforts to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear arsenal have stalled since an unsuccessful summit in February with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
On Wednesday, the Pentagon announced it had suspended efforts for the rest of this fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30, to recover remains of Americans killed in the Korean War of the early 1950s.
Trump had heralded the operation, which brought home remains of up to 50 people last year, as a major achievement of his diplomatic outreach to Kim. But Pentagon officials said North Korean authorities stopped cooperating after the collapse of the summit in Hanoi.
Working-level talks on nuclear issues also have stopped since then, as have most North Korean exchanges with South Korea.
Speaking to reporters Thursday at the White House, Trump sought to minimize the difficulties, saying the latest missile tests would not derail his efforts to strike a nuclear deal with Kim.
“They were smaller missiles, short-range missiles,” Trump said. “Nobody's happy about it, but we're taking a good look and we'll see. The relationship continues, but we'll see what happens.”
The U.S. special representative on North Korea, Stephen Biegun, was reported to be in South Korea to discuss ways of getting the denuclearization talks back on track.
In Seoul, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said he believed North Korea’s weapons tests and other actions were aimed at gaining leverage with Washington. He said Pyongyang was being careful not to be so provocative that it risked scuttling the possibility of resuming the talks.
“I would like to caution the North that if actions like this continue from North Korea, conversations and negotiations will become difficult,” he said.
Although the North Korean ship was seized a year ago, Thursday’s announcement by the Justice Department — and release of a 32-page complaint filed in federal court in New York City — appeared timed to turn up U.S. pressure on Pyongyang.
The latest missiles tested flew less than 372 miles and thus were capable of hitting U.S. forces and allies in South Korea and Japan.
But North Korea has not tested any nuclear weapons or intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland since November 2017, shortly before the diplomatic thaw began.
Trump has maintained economic sanctions despite Kim’s efforts to ease the U.S. pressure. U.N. reports have documented smuggling by China, Russia and other nations.
According to prosecutors, the Wise Honest was used from at least November 2016 through April 2018 by Korea Songi Shipping Co. to export high-grade coal from North Korea to ports in Russia, China and elsewhere, and to import heavy machinery to North Korea.
The Treasury Department put the parent company, Korea Songi General Trading Corp., on a blacklist in June 2017. U.S. officials said the company is controlled by the Korean People’s Army.
Coal is one of the impoverished country’s few exports, and cracking down on its trade is aimed at cutting off a crucial revenue source for Kim’s government and military.
A commercial satellite captured images of the Wise Honest being loaded with coal at Nampo, a seaport in western North Korea, on March 14, 2018, U.S. officials said.
United Nations investigators said it was intercepted by Indonesian maritime authorities in the East China Sea about two weeks later hauling 25,500 tons of coal worth nearly $3 million. U.S. officials said the ship previously was used to import dump trucks, spare parts, cranes, tires and mining machinery to North Korea.
The crew sought to conceal the ship’s nationality and cargo, prosecutors said. Documents falsely claimed the Wise Honest’s home port was in the West African nation of Sierra Leone.
The vessel also turned off an automatic identification system intended to alert other ships of its course and location. The AIS signals, which are required for international voyages, had not been used since August 2017, U.S. officials said.
The ship’s captain was charged in Indonesia with violating its maritime laws and convicted, according to the U.S. complaint. The fate of the rest of the crew, originally about two dozen North Koreans, was not disclosed.
On July 17, 2018, a U.S. judge issued a warrant to seize the ship. Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, would not say when U.S. officials took custody, saying only that it happened recently.
North Korea does not have diplomatic relations with the United States, but its representatives can challenge the civil forfeiture in federal court in New York. If they do not or are not successful, U.S. authorities can sell the ship at auction.