US Seizes North Korean Ship Used to Transport Coal over Sanctions Violation

This undated photo released by the U.S. Justice Department on May 9, 2019, shows the North Korean cargo ship Wise Honest. The Trump administration says it has seized a North Korean cargo ship that U.S. officials say was used to transport coal in violation of international sanctions. Justice Department photo
This undated photo released by the U.S. Justice Department on May 9, 2019, shows the North Korean cargo ship Wise Honest. The Trump administration says it has seized a North Korean cargo ship that U.S. officials say was used to transport coal in violation of international sanctions. Justice Department photo

A North Korean cargo vessel used to transport coal in violation of international sanctions against the rogue regime has been seized, the U.S. Justice Department announced Thursday, just hours after the country fired two suspected short-range missiles.

The 17,061-ton vessel, called the Wise Honest, is one of North Korea's largest bulk carriers used to illicitly ship coal from North Korea and deliver heavy machinery to the nation, officials said. U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said this is the first time a North Korean cargo ship has been seized for violating international sanctions.

"This sanctions-busting ship is now out of service," Assistant Attorney General John Demers said in a 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.

Berman said Thursday that Kim Jong Un's regime was evading sanctions by "concealing" Wise Honest's origin. The ship was used by Korea Songi Shipping Company between November 2016 and April 2018 to export coal from North Korea in exchange for machinery, court documents stated. Those who worked with the company would allegedly then lie about the origin of the vessel and where the coal came from by listing different countries for its nationality in shipping documentation.

"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," Berman said.

The shipping company would pay for repairs and equipment using American dollars obtained through "unwitting" U.S. financial institutions, which violated sanctions barring North Korean citizens or entities from the U.S. financial system. Foreign maritime authorities intercepted a coal shipment in April 2018, court documents state, and officials later discovered more than $750,000 in payments were made through American banks.

The ship is in U.S. custody as of Thursday and heading to American Samoa.

On Thursday, at least one of the projectiles North Korea launched came from the Sino-ri area of North Pyongan province, an area known to have one of the country's oldest missile bases, where a brigade operates mid-range Rodong missiles, South Korea's military said. It added later that there were two launches from the nearby town of Kusong. The town is the same location where North Korea conducted its first successful flight tests of its Hwasong-12 intermediate-range missile and Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile, both in 2017.

The U.S. Air Force on Thursday also tested a Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missile from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California as part of a scheduled ICBMs test. Officials said the launch was unrelated to current events.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who met with Kim in late February for the second U.S.-North Korea summit, told reporters at the White House on Thursday that "nobody's happy" about the recent rocket launches. He added that "we're looking" at the situation "very seriously right now."

-- Fox News' Jake Gibson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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