U.S. Seizes North Korean Vessel, Transports it to American Samoa

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

Published May 9, 2019 10:20 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday that the United States has seized the bulker Wise Honest, a North Korean vessel accused of sanctions-busting. She is now nearing American Samoa, according to the Washington Post. 

In April 2018, Indonesian authorities caught the Wise Honest carrying 25,000 tonnes of North Korean coal. She was allegedly preparing to conduct a ship-to-ship transfer off the coast of East Kalimantan, 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. He was convicted of offenses related to improper documentation in November. Indonesia is now in the process of deporting the remaining members of her crew, according to NK News.

The cause for PSC detention was not described, but at the Wise Honest's last recorded port state control inspection in 2017, officials at the port of Nakhodka listed 28 separate deficiencies in almost every category. These included corrosion of her beams, frames and floors; multiple issues with watertightness, fire systems and SOLAS equipment; and shortcomings in her documentation and nautical charts. 

Trade in North Korean coal is generally prohibited under UN Security Council and United States sanctions on Pyongyang. North Korea's state-owned shipping companies go to great lengths to circumvent the prohibition, transshipping cargoes at foreign ports, conducting ship-to-ship transfers at sea, turning off AIS and falsifying their ships' identities and flag registrations.

According to American prosecutors, the vessel 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 vessel were made in U.S. dollars through U.S. banks, without the banks' knowledge - another breach of U.S. sanctions on Pyongyang. 

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 is now bound for American Samoa.

“This sanctions-busting ship is now out of service,” said Assistant Attorney General John Demers.  “North Korea, and the companies that help it evade U.S. and U.N. sanctions, should know that we will use all tools at our disposal — including a civil forfeiture action such as this one or criminal charges — to enforce the sanctions enacted by the U.S. and the global community."

The exact circumstances of the vessel's seizure have not been released, but the Department of Justice thanked the Department of State and the U.S. Coast Guard for their assistance.

The announcement followed just hours after North Korea conducted a short-range missile test over the Sea of Japan. The Department of Justice told American media that the timing of the news release was coincidental.