U.S. Seized North Korean Cargo Ship Over Violating Sanctions in April 2018

May 09: 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 paidthrough 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.

Source: LA Times / Victoria Tim, Tracy Wilkinson, and Chris Megeria

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