U.S. Seizes North Korean Ship It Claims is a Sanction-Buster (Updated)

M/V Wise Honest.
Photo: U.S. Government (AP)
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The United States has seized a North Korean vessel it claims was engaged in sanctions-busting behavior, exporting the country’s coal while importing heavy machinery and other goods. The ship, called M/V Wise Honest, was detained at an unknown location, likely by the U.S. Coast Guard. The seizure was the first of a North Korean vessel by the U.S. government under international sanctions and is sure to escalate tensions between the two nations.

According to a statement by the U.S. Department of Justice, M/V Wise Honest is a “17,061-ton, single-hull bulk carrier ship” registered in North Korea. Wise Honest, and ships like it, are used to export the country’s coal in violation of international sanctions.

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On return trips, it is filled with heavy machinery the country is unable to make for itself, and which is used to further the country’s economy—and quite possibly its nuclear and missile programs.

Sanctions approved by the U.N. Security Council prohibit the export of goods, including coal, to North Korea. This has forced the country into coal and equipment smuggling.

A complaint against the Wise Honest was filed by the U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday in the Southern District of New York. The complaint states that the ship is “subject to seizure and forfeiture” due to violations of the International Economic Emergency Powers Act and for money laundering.

The Justice Department complaint alleges that the Wise Honest is controlled by the Songi Trading Company, a sham company controlled by the North Korean military. In addition to UN sanctions, North Korea was reportedly violating U.S. law by using American banks to unwittingly pay for “maintenance, equipment, and improvements” to the ship.

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U.S. Coast Guard boarding team training on the guided missile destroyer USS Russell.
Image: U.S. Navy Combat Camera photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Wyatt Huggett (DVIDS)

On April 2 of last year, the ship was detained by Indonesian authorities after behaving erratically in the Makassar Strait. The ship was inspected and found to have missing or unsatisfactory ship documentation. The ship was reportedly carrying a shipment of Russian coal loaded at Nahkoda, Russia. According to the U.S. government’s complaint against the ship the coal was actually North Korean, loaded in the port city of Nampo.

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A ship identical to Wise Honest is visible in port at Nampo on Google Maps. The ship has the same layout as the seized North Korean vessel, with all five cargo bays open and displaying coal inside. The location is also darker than the rest of Nampo, likely due to the presence of coal dust. The imagery is dated 2019.

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The ship is only a few hundred feet west of where it is in this satellite photo issued to the press by the U.S. government:

M/V Wise Honest
Photo: U.S. Government handout (AP)
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It’s unclear where and how the U.S. government took control of the North Korean ship. According to the Washington Post, Wise Honest is en route to American Samoa with the help of the Coast Guard and U.S. Marshals Service.

While some might expect the U.S. Navy to participate in such an operation, the Navy is not used to directly enforce U.S. laws. U.S. Navy vessels in counternarcotics operations for example embark Coast Guard personnel, technically an arm of U.S. federal law enforcement, to board ships, detain property and make arrests.

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U.S. Coast Guard cutter Bertholf.
Photo: U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class David Weydert (DVIDS)

One option is that a Coast Guard ship boarding team was transported by Navy ship undertake the boarding operation. Alternately it could have been an all-Coast Guard operation, with the boarding team operating from a Coast Guard cutter.

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The USCGC Bertholf, an Alameda, California-based cutter was last reported off the coast of Singapore on May 7th. Bertholf’s Ship’s Automatic Identification System transponder stopped transmitting shortly thereafter. In late March the Bertholf transited the Taiwan Strait with the U.S. Navy guided missile Curtis Wilbur.

How North Korea responds remains to be seen. Today it was reported the nation launched two short-range ballistic missiles, just five days after another weapons test. As the New York Times reports, launching any kind of ballistic missile violates a U.N. resolution that bars North Korea from such actions.

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Update 7 p.m. EST: It turns out the ship was not seized by the U.S. Coast Guard, as had been previously reported today. An AP dispatch says the ship was indeed detained in April 2018 as it headed toward Indonesia. Today, it is “in the process of being moved to American Samoa, Justice Department officials said.”

From the story:

Justice Department lawyers laid out the case for confiscating the ship in a complaint filed in New York, arguing that payments for maintenance and operation of the vessel were channeled through unwitting U.S. financial institutions in violation of American law. The coal trade itself is also believed to fund the isolated country’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

“This sanctions-busting ship is now out of service,” Assistant Attorney General John Demers, the Justice Department’s top national security official, told reporters. He later added: “The U.S. sanctions against North Korea reflect the threat these programs pose to U.S. national security.”

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About the author

Kyle Mizokami

Kyle Mizokami is a defense and security writer based in San Francisco, California.