By John Hayward
May 11, 2019 - The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday announced the seizure of a North Korean ship called Wise Honest, which was allegedly engaged in selling North Korean coal in violation of international sanctions.
“This sanctions-busting ship is now out of service,” Assistant Attorney General John Demers declared.
According to the Washington Post, the ship is one of North Korea’s largest bulk carrier vessels at 17,000 tons. Papers filed in U.S. federal court described its shipments as “a critical source of revenue for DPRK-based companies and for the North Korean government.” DPRK is the North Korean government’s preferred name for itself.
U.S. investigators allege the Wise Honest ferried large amounts of banned coal out of North Korea and returned with shipments of heavy machinery, the trades financed through American banks in violation of sanctions and conducted at sea to keep them secret.
The Wise Honest’s activities were reportedly arranged through the North Korean embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, with the money run through JPMorgan Chase bank by an Indonesian broker.
Numerous other North Korean “ghost ships” with false, stolen, or obscured identification markings are said to engage in similar practices, but the Wise Honest is the first one seized by the United States.
NBC News reported on Thursday the ship was stopped in Indonesia last year en route to American Samoa after it was discovered to be hauling banned coal under false identification.
The Wise Honest was allegedly tasked with conducting an illegal ship-to-ship transfer off the Indonesian coast, with a South Korean corporation called Enermax slated to be the ultimate recipient of approximately $3 million in North Korean coal. Enermax denied knowledge of North Korea’s involvement in the delivery and said it believed it was purchasing Indonesian coal.
The captain was charged with violating Indonesian law. Last July the U.S. initiated the process of seizing the ship, an action legally justified on the grounds that payments to maintain the vessel were made through American banks.
“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,” Assistant Attorney General Demers said.
The Indonesian government reported to the United Nations in March that repatriation procedures for the 25 detained crew members of the Wise Honest are underway. At least one member of the crew appears to have died in custody, one has been hospitalized, and three were already deported for medical reasons. The charges against the captain were dismissed in February 2019.
As for the coal, according to Voice of America News it was released to a broker by the Indonesian government after fraudulent certification of Russian origin was presented to inspectors.
United Nations sanctions monitors informed all parties that the coal had to be confiscated and held as directed by U.N. resolutions, but the coal found its way onto a Panamanian-flagged Vietnamese ship, only to be impounded again by Malaysia in April. Both U.N. and U.S. officials criticized the Indonesian government for failing to properly secure the illegal shipment.