US wins forfeiture of North Korean cargo ship used to evade sanctions

Justice Department officials on Monday announced the forfeiture of a North Korean ship used to sell coal and haul heavy machinery -- a violation of economic sanctions imposed on the regime of Kim Jong Un.

The 17,000-ton Handysize bulk carrier known as the “Wise Honest" was seized by the U.S. last year after it had been detained in Indonesia while transporting a large amount of coal.

From November 2016 to April 2018, the "Wise Honest" was used by the Korea Songi Shipping Company, an affiliate of Korea Songi General Trading Corporation, to export coal to other nations. The Treasury Department determined in June 2017 that the Korea Songi General Trading Corporation was a subordinate of the Korean People's Army.

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​“Today’s judgment of forfeiture finalizes the U.S. government’s seizure of the Wise Honest and officially takes this North Korean vessel out of commission,” U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman for the Southern District of New York said in a statement. “It will no longer be used to further a criminal scheme."

This May 11, 2019, file photo shows the North Korean cargo ship Wise Honest, middle, being towed into port in Pago Pago, American Samoa. (AP Photo/Fili Sagapolutele, File)

This May 11, 2019, file photo shows the North Korean cargo ship Wise Honest, middle, being towed into port in Pago Pago, American Samoa. (AP Photo/Fili Sagapolutele, File)

Participants in the scheme evaded international sanctions by attempting to conceal the ship's affiliation to North Korea by falsifying shipping documentation of its origin and nationality, federal prosecutors said.

They alleged payments of more than $750,000 were made through an American bank for a March 2018 batch of coal aboard the ship. Other expenses for the ship -- such as equipment purchases and repairs -- were made in U.S. dollars through “unwitting” U.S. financial institutions.

The parents of Otto Warmbier initially filed a claim for the ship to collect a $500 million judgment against North Korea for the death of their son. The American college student was convicted in North Korea of being a spy after attempting to steal a propaganda poster.

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He fell into a coma while being detained and was allegedly tortured. He died less than a week after returning to the U.S. in June 2017.

The Warmbiers dropped their claim of the ship to allow the case to move forward. Authorities have indicated they may auction the vessel, Bloomberg reported.

"Using the full set of tools at our disposal, we will continue to investigate and prosecute attempts to evade U.S. sanctions, including by the North Korean regime," Berman said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.