The story is a) significant and b) less dramatic that the headline would indicate.
The North Korean freighter Wise Honest (a helluva misnomer) was named as a violator of UN sanctions by the United States in 2016. It’s owner, Korea Songi General Trading Corporation, was designated as a sanctions violator in 2017. (A note here, notice how the Obama administration sanctioned the ship but let the owning company continue to operate.) On April 2, Wise Honest was detained by Indonesia:
Bulk carrier Wise Honest (IMO 8905490) has been detained by the Indonesian authorities in the Makassar Strait near Balikpapan, Eastern Kalimantan. On April 2nd the ship was seen by authorities to be acting erratically, leaving shipping lanes and straying into Indonesian waters. Upon inspection the authorities found several detainable deficiencies, mostly regarding ship documents either missing or unsatisfactory. The ship had a crew of 25, all North Koreans, and was loaded with coal from Vladivostok, which was to be transferred onto another ship. The AIS signal of the bulk carrier appeared not to have been functioning since August 2017. 1989-built, North Korea flagged, 17.061 gt Wise Honest is owned by Korea Songi Shipping Co of Pyongyang, North Korea.
Here's the Wise Honest (the North Korean ship now seized by the US), docked in Nampo port, loading up with coal on March 11, 2018, and off Indonesia in April. It was the last journey the ship took before being seized by Indonesia. Source is UN PoE report: https://t.co/JvKShXDACE pic.twitter.com/ycoaiZQV0H
— Martyn Williams (@martyn_williams) May 9, 2019
US seizes North Korean coal ship ‘Wise Honest’, accuses Pyongyang of violating sanctions https://t.co/PRqW4eW5mE
— SCMP News (@SCMPNews) May 9, 2019
Now, in a first ever action, the US government has carried out the maritime equivalent of civil asset forfeiture.
“This sanctions-busting ship is now out of service,” said Assistant Attorney General 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. We are deeply committed to the role the Justice Department plays in applying maximum pressure to the North Korean regime to cease its belligerence.”
“Today’s civil action is the first-ever seizure of a North Korean cargo vessel for violating international sanctions,” said U.S. Attorney Berman. “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.”
“Although barred from doing business in this country, North Korea continues to violate U.S. and international sanctions while simultaneously taking advantage of unwitting U.S. companies,” said Assistant Director Brown. “The FBI is committed to ensuring that North Korea be held responsible for their blatant disregard for U.S. law. I am proud of the work done by the many men and women of the FBI who pursued this case.”
“Working with our law enforcement and intelligence partners around the world gives the FBI the ability to interdict illicit activity globally,” said Assistant Director in Charge Sweeney. “Our counterintelligence efforts are squarely focused on protecting the American people. This seizure should serve as a clear signal that we will not allow foreign adversaries to use our financial systems to fund weapons programs which will be used to threaten our nation.”
And now the Wise Honest is nearly in US waters.
— Steve Herman (@W7VOA) May 9, 2019
All of this takes place in an atmosphere of uncertainty. There was a failed summit in Hanoi. The North Korean military liaison team has snubbed its ROK counterparts for several months. The US military suspended casualty recovery operations in North Korea because of lack of communication. North Korea has launched two short range missiles in the past week. Taking a step to not only seize a North Korean ship but to turn it into a media event is simply part of the ongoing negotiations between the US and North Korea. It is an escalation in US sanctions enforcement. It represents a real loss to North Korea. It is a retaliation and shaming activity in response to North Korea’s acting out in recent months. There will be more like it in the future.