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U.S. seizes North Korean cargo ship

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One of North Korea’s largest coal-hauling vessels has been taken out of service by U.S. authorities in the first-ever cargo ship seizure related to sanctions violations by Pyongyang.

The vessel Wise Honest, a 30-year old, 17,000-ton bulk carrier, was used to ship coal to China and Indonesia in exchange for delivering cargoes of heavy mining machinery and dump trucks back to North Korea – all in violation of sanctions imposed by both the United States and the United Nations, according to a court filing released by federal authorities on May 9.

Caught up in the sanctions-evading scheme were unwitting New York and other American banks, one of which provided payments totaling more than $750,000 for the ship’s maintenance and improvements, according to the filing.

“North Korea, and the companies that help it evade U.S. and U.N. sanctions, should know that we will use all tools at our disposal – including a civil forfeiture action such as this one or criminal charges – to enforce the sanctions enacted by the U.S. and the global community,” commented U.S. Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers. “We are deeply committed to the role the Justice Department plays in applying maximum pressure to the North Korean regime to cease its belligerence.”

The vessel seizure follows recent renewed missile testing by North Korea amid steadily rising tensions between the two countries since negotiations over Pyongyang’s nuclear program broke down earlier this year.

In March, the U.S. published new guidelines for the maritime sector based on updated intelligence on tactics being used by North Korea to evade sanctions, which includes turning off vessel location transponders and falsifying ship flags.

Those tactics were apparently used by Wise Honest, operated by Korea Songi Shipping Company and affiliate Korea Songi General Trading Corporation, to avoid being detected while conducting the illicit export and import shipments. Songi Trading was already on the U.S. Treasury Department’s sanctions list for being involved in the “sale, supply or transfer” of coal from North Korea.

After Indonesian authorities intercepted and detained the vessel on or about April 2, 2018, it was discovered that the ship “attempted to conceal information about its location, course, speed or other navigational status while in the course of transporting coal from North Korea to Indonesia” by turning off its transponder, according to the Justice Department.

The ship’s captain, a North Korean national, was charged in the incident for violating Indonesian maritime law and convicted in November 2018.

John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.