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US Officials Announce ‘First-Ever Seizure’ Of North Korean Ship Allegedly Used To Bust Sanctions

(SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

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Chuck Ross Investigative Reporter

In an unprecedented move, the U.S. government seized a North Korean cargo vessel that was allegedly used to violate sanctions placed against the North Korean government.

National security officials announced Thursday the U.S. had seized the Wise Honest, a 17,061-ton ship that is registered in North Korea.

The Wise Honest was intercepted April 2, 2018, while carrying coal from North Korea. The ship had not operated its automatic signaling system since Aug. 4, 2017, according to the Justice Department.

The ship was used to “illicitly ship coal from North Korea and to deliver heavy machinery” to the North Korean government, the Justice Department said. Payments to maintain the vessel were reportedly made in American currency routed through unwitting American banks. (RELATED: North Korea Launches ‘Unidentified’ Rocket)

“This conduct violates longstanding U.S. law and United Nations Security Council resolutions,” reads a Justice Department press release.

US President Donald Trump (R) walks with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un during a break in talks at the second US-North Korea summit at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi on February 28, 2019. (Photo by Saul LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

US President Donald Trump (R) walks with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un during a break in talks at the second US-North Korea summit at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi on February 28, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

The seizure comes in the wake of escalating tensions between Washington and Pyongyang. North Korea has launched two short-range missiles in the past five days, even as President Donald Trump has claimed publicly that he hopes to continue negotiations over nuclear weapons with Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s dictator.

Trump made a surprise announcement March 22 on Twitter that he was withdrawing a new round of sanctions the Treasury Department had placed against North Korea earlier that day.

The Wise Honest was used by the Korea Songi Shipping Company to export coal from North Korea to foreign clients from November 2016 through April 2018. The ship in turn imported machinery to North Korea.

The company is an affiliate of the Korea Songi General Trading Corporation, which was sanctioned June 1, 2017, by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

The Songi Trading Corporation is a subordinate of North Korea’s army, the government said.

As part of a scheme to mask the Wise Honest’s country of origin, the Songi company allegedly “falsely” listed other countries on shipping documents. A representative of Songi also allegedly routed over $750,000 in payments for coal shipments through unwitting U.S. banks.

Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, said the Wise Honest seizure was the “first-ever seizure” of a North Korean cargo ship alleged to have violated international sanctions.

“This scheme not only allowed North Korea to evade sanctions, but 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,” Berman said in a statement.

“With this seizure, we have significantly disrupted that cycle. We are willing and able to deploy the full array of law enforcement tools to detect, deter, and prosecute North Korea’s deceptive attempts to evade sanctions.”

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