The US Justice Department has taken possession of North Korea’s second-largest freighter, seized in Indonesia last year for allegedly shipping coal in violation of UN sanctions, ratcheting up tensions between the two countries.
The DoJ has asked a federal judge to transfer ownership of the 17,000-ton Wise Honest – North Korea’s second-largest bulk cargo ship – to the US through civil forfeiture, a controversial legal process that allows authorities to take possession of vehicles and other property involved in felonies like drug smuggling.
This process has never been used to seize a North Korean ship for sanctions violations, but because the DPRK used American banks to finance the ship’s upkeep, the US is entitled to take it, according to the complaint, which charges the vessel itself with crimes including money laundering.
Accusing the Korea Songi Shipping Company of “concealing the origin of their ship” to sell coal in violation of UN sanctions, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman alleged the Wise Honest was also used to “import heavy machinery to North Korea, helping expand North Korea’s capabilities and continuing the cycle of sanctions evasion.”
Korea Songi, reportedly a subsidiary of a company controlled by the North Korean military, is additionally charged with breaking American law by using three different US banks to pay for the ship’s upkeep to the tune of $750,000.
Indonesian authorities detained the ship en route to American Samoa after receiving a photograph that appeared to show the vessel being loaded with coal. The captain was charged with improper documentation, a violation of Indonesian maritime law, and convicted. The US seized the ship under warrant in July, but it is only now being towed to American Samoa, according to the Justice Department.