Largely due to his friendly overtures to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in the hopes of obtaining improved relations and a peace deal, not to mention the ultimate goal of denuclearization, some have argued that President Donald Trump has been too soft toward the communist regime and hasn’t taken the tough economic sanctions imposed against the regime seriously enough.
That particular narrative was seriously undermined on Thursday following an announcement from the Department of Justice that revealed that a North Korean cargo ship had been seized by the United States on suspicion of purposely violating both U.S. and United Nations sanctions, according to Fox News.
The 17,061-ton North Korean cargo ship known as the “Wise Honest” is reportedly one of the regime’s largest bulk carrier vessels. It is believed to have explicitly violated international sanctions on multiple occasions by concealing its national registration as a North Korean ship as well as the origin of its typical cargo — tons of sanctioned North Korean coal that was sold to other nations in exchange for banned heavy machinery — most likely, but not exclusively, to China — that was then transported back to North Korea.
The announcement of the ship’s seizure by the U.S. came just hours after North Korea fired off two short-range missiles on Thursday, though it remains unclear if there was any coordination or relation between the two events.
According to a news release from the Department of Justice, the Wise Honest was not only caught red-handed exchanging coal for heavy machinery, but was also found to have circuitously arranged for the ship’s “maintenance, equipment, and improvements” -related payments to be made with U.S. dollars obtained via “unwitting U.S. banks,” yet another overt violation of the international sanctions against the North Korean regime.
“This sanctions-busting ship is now out of service,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers said in the news release.
“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.”
According to the release, Geoffrey Berman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said the ship’s seizure will hit North Korea hard.
“Today’s civil action is the first-ever seizure of a North Korean cargo vessel for violating international sanctions,” he said.
“Our office uncovered North Korea’s scheme to export tons of high-grade coal to foreign buyers by concealing the origin of their ship, the Wise Honest. 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.
“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,” he added.
Similar statements were also issued by the two top FBI officials on the case — Counterintelligence Division Assistant Director John Brown and New York Field Office Assistant Director William F. Sweeney, Jr. — who both praised the role the bureau had played in enforcing the laws against the foreign nation.
The release noted that the Wise Honest was owned and operated by a specifically designated-for-sanctions shipping company in North Korea known as the Korea Songi Shipping Company, which was an affiliate of the sanctioned Korea Songi General Trading Corp., which itself is believed to be a subordinate of the regime’s Korean People’s Army.
From as early as November 2016 to as late as April 2018, according to the release, the Wise Honest had been tracked and monitored as it shipped coal from North Korea to other nations and returned bearing heavy machinery for use by the regime.
The ship’s last voyage began on March 14, 2018, but appears to have never reached its intended destination with that load of coal, as it was detained by “foreign maritime authorities,” according to the release.
No other details about the seizure were in the release, but the CBS News reported Thursday that the ship was “intercepted and seized” by Indonesia on April 2, 2018.
In spite of international maritime regulations that require all vessels operate an automatic identification system, it was revealed that the “Wise Honest” had been sailing without broadcasting the required AIS signal since at least August 2017, according to the release.
Furthermore, it was discovered that the ship had taken steps to conceal its North Korean registration by falsely listing different countries as both the origin of the ship as well as the illicit cargo of coal, the release stated.
Further investigation of the ship following its detention revealed a scheme by which the North Korean ship’s operators had obtained upwards of $750,000 in U.S. currency that moved through “unwitting” U.S. financial institutions in relation to that March 2018 shipment of coal.
The U.S. funds were used to make improvements, purchase new equipment, pay for services, and conduct regular maintenance on the ship, all in violation of economic sanctions, according to the release.
This is a major blow to the North Korean regime and its nearly non-existent economy, as this massive cargo ship was one of the nation’s largest and played a significant role in its efforts to illicitly bypass international sanctions and move the country’s only real exportable raw material out in exchange for desperately needed manufactured goods.
It’s worth noting that the seizure of the ship occurred more than a year ago, even before the first Trump-Kim summit between Trump and Kim took place in Singapore.
Considering this is the first news about it to become public, it goes to show that behind Trump’s diplomatic push with Pyongyang is a steely resolve — the kind that led Trump to walk away from the two leaders’ second summit in February in Vietnam.
Judging by the Justice Department announcement Thursday, that resolve remains firm on maintaining severe economic pressure on the North Korean regime in order to dissuade further illicit and belligerent activity from the communist nation.
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