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US to sell North Korean ship, pay proceeds to torture victims’ families

The Wise Honest illegally transported coal on behalf of the North Korean regime from November 2016 to April 2018.

The Justice Department on Oct. 21 said the U.S. now owns a seized North Korean-flagged bulk ship that for several years illicitly transported coal from North Korea and returned with machinery in its hulls.

The 17,061-ton Wise Honest was believed to be one of North Korea’s largest bulk ships.

The forfeiture “finalizes the U.S. government’s seizure of the Wise Honest and officially takes this North Korean vessel out of commission,” U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman in New York said in a statement.

“It will no longer be used to further a criminal scheme,” he added.

Judge Kevin Castel of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York also ordered the Wise Honest to be sold and the proceeds paid to the families of the Rev. Dong Shik Kim and Otto Warmbier, American citizens who died from torture by North Korean authorities in 2000 and 2017, respectively.

From November 2016 to April 2018, according to U.S. authorities, Korea Songi Shipping Co., an affiliate of Korea Songi General Trading Corp., used the Wise Honest to export coal from North Korea to foreign purchasers and import machinery back to North Korea.

On June 1, 2017, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) placed Korea Songi General Trading Corp. on the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN) List for its involvement in shipping coal from North Korea. The agency also determined Songi Trading Co. was affiliated with the North Korean army.

OFAC noted that the North Korean owners of the Wise Honest obtained U.S. dollars through “unwitting” American banks to pay for ship maintenance, equipment and improvements. The Justice Department did not name the banks in its forfeiture announcement.

In mid-March 2018, the Wise Honest took on a load of coal in Nampo, North Korea. Maritime authorities intercepted the ship off the coast of Indonesia on April 2, 2018, for operating without its automatic identification system (AIS) turned on. It was further determined that the Wise Honest last broadcast an AIS signal on Aug. 4, 2017.

The Wise Honest’s owners also attempted to conceal the ship’s flag, as well as the origin of the coal, from authorities.

In addition, OFAC discovered that Kwon Chol Nam, a representative for Korea Songi Shipping Co., initiated payments for equipment and service expenses related to the Wise Honest through various U.S. banks, a violation of the 2016 North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act.

The company’s placement on the SDN List, as well as the ship, prohibits U.S. banks from providing financial services to these North Korean entities.

Payments totaling more than $750,000, for example, were transmitted through U.S. bank accounts in connection with the March 2018 shipment of coal on board the Wise Honest, the Justice Department said.

Chris Gillis

Located in the Washington, D.C. area, Chris Gillis primarily reports on regulatory and legislative topics that impact cross-border trade. He joined American Shipper in 1994, shortly after graduating from Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Md., with a degree in international business and economics.