Parents of Otto Warmbier File Suit to Seize North Korean Ship

U.S. surveillance imagery allegedly showing the Wise Honest loading coal at Nampo, North Korea (file image)

Published Jul 5, 2019 5:51 PM by The Maritime Executive

The parents of Otto Warmbier, an American student who died after suffering injuries in detention in North Korea, have filed a petition to seize the North Korean bulker Wise Honest in order to satisfy a court award for wrongful death. 

After Warmbier's death in 2017, his family filed a civil suit against the government of North Korea in U.S. federal court. Last December, a judge ruled in favor of the family and awarded them a judgement of $500 million. The parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, say that North Korea has not been willing to discuss a settlement, and they will move instead to seize Pyongyang's assets to partially fulfill the judgement. 

The bulker Wise Honest is currently in American custody. She was seized in Indonesia last year after Indonesian authorities caught her off East Kalimantan carrying 25,000 tonnes of North Korean coal; North Korea's commodity trading is tightly restricted under UN and U.S. sanctions, and Wise Honest was allegedly preparing to conduct a ship-to-ship transfer, a method used to disguise the origin of sanctioned cargoes. 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.  

After an inspection, Indonesia's ministry of transport detained Wise Honest for serious PSC deficiencies. The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York then filed a warrant to seize her for violations of American sanctions. In April, the SDNY worked with the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI to carry out the warrant, and the Wise Honest was towed to Pago Pago, American Samoa under the control of American federal agents. North Korea described the action - ordered by independent federal prosecutors, not by the White House - as a "gangster-like," “flagrant act of robbery" and demanded the vessel's return.

Moon Chung-in, a senior official in the administration of South Korean president Moon Jae-in, called last month for the United States to release the vessel as part of the ongoing negotiations over North Korea's nuclear program.