North Korea Asks United States to Return Seized Bulker

The Wise Honest loading coal at Nampo, North Korea, March 14, 2018 (DOJ)

Published May 14, 2019 8:29 PM by The Maritime Executive

North Korea has demanded that the United States return the bulker Wise Honest, which was seized in Indonesia last year for safety deficiencies and suspected sanctions violations. Wise Honest was recently confiscated by the U.S. Justice Department and towed to American Samoa, and North Korea described the American action as a “flagrant act of robbery."  

"This act is an extension of the US-style calculation of trying to hold us in submission with its 'maximum pressure' and is a total denial of the fundamental spirit of the June 12 DPRK-US joint statement," said the North Korean foreign ministry, referring to an agreement between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un last year. “The United States must mull over what repercussions its gangster-like act will entail, and must return our vessel without delay."

In April 2018, Indonesian authorities caught the Wise Honest off East Kalimantan carrying 25,000 tonnes of North Korean coal. She was allegedly preparing to conduct a ship-to-ship transfer, a method used to disguise the origin of sanctioned cargoes. Indonesia's ministry of transport detained her for serious PSC deficiencies, and the state court of Balikpapan charged her captain with violations of Indonesian maritime laws. 

Trade in North Korean coal is generally prohibited under UN Security Council and United States sanctions on Pyongyang. According to American prosecutors, the Wise Honest was used to transport coal abroad and to deliver heavy machinery back to North Korea between at least 2016 and 2018. Her operator, Korea Songi Shipping Company, is also blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury and is believed to be owned by the North Korean army.  

In addition to her sanctioned activities, $750,000 worth of payments for maintenance, equipment, and improvements of the Wise Honest were made in U.S. dollars through U.S. banks, without the banks' knowledge, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.  

U.S. authorities filed a warrant to seize the Wise Honest in July 2018 and asked for Indonesia's assistance. Last month, they carried out the warrant in an undisclosed manner, and the Wise Honest has arrived safely in Pago Pago, American Samoa.