The U.S. has taken possession of a North Korean cargo ship for violating global sanctions, a first-of-its-kind seizure that came amid escalating tensions between the two countries over North Korea's nuclear weapons program. On Thursday, the Justice Department asked a federal judge to give the USA ownership of the vessel through a civil forfeiture action.
In a statement, senior Justice Department officials called the seizure the first of its kind, and said it was part of the United States campaign of "maximum pressure" against the North Korean government.
Officials with the Southern District of NY in Manhattan and the Department of Justice say that operators of the Wise Honest, one of North Korea's largest bulk-carriers, used US currency and USA banks to bolster their coal- and machinery-shipping operation - in clear defiance of US sanctions.
"This sanctions-busting ship is now out of service", Assistant Attorney General John Demers said in announcing the seizure. "North Korea, and the companies that help it evade USA and United Nations 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 USA and the global community".
The announcement of the seizure of one of North Korea's largest bulk carriers came the same day that North Korea launched two suspected "short-range missiles,"according to South Korea's military, further complicating Pyongyang's stalled negotiations with the United States and peace talks with South Korea".
"This conduct violates longstanding US law and United Nations Security Council resolutions", reads a Justice Department press release.
Indonesia did not obtain clearance from the Wise Honest's destination port when it detained the ship, which was sailing under Sierra Leonean and North Korean flags. "At around 4.29 p.m and 4.49 p.m today, North Korea fired unidentified projectiles in the eastern direction from Sino-ri, North Pyongan province", South Korea's Joint Chief of Staff (JCS) said in a statement, Washington Post reported.
USA officials say payments for maintenance and equipment for the ship were made unwittingly in American dollars through US banks. It was used to transport North Korean coal to China, Russia and other countries. Trump walked away from the summit in Vietnam in February because Pyongyang refused to agree to denuclearize before the USA would provide sanctions relief. The coal trade itself is also believed to fund the isolated country's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. "In return, large shipments of heavy machinery were returned to North Korea using the same vessels".
The missile launch is likely to be a protest against the US for refusing to ease sanctions at the failed Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un in February. The U.S. special representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, was in Seoul on Thursday to speak to South Korean officials.
"North Korea seemed to be discontented it could not reach a deal in Hanoi", South Korean President Moon Jae-in told broadcaster KBS.
The U.S. has prosecuted people and businesses for violating sanctions but has never before seized a North Korean ship.
The Songi Trading Corporation is a subordinate of North Korea's army, the government said.
It had been exporting coal, which is banned by the United Nations as punishment for Pyongyang's nuclear programme.
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