WASHINGTON • The United States has seized a North Korean shipping vessel that was violating American law and international sanctions, the Justice Department announced, a move bound to escalate tensions already on the rise because of recent North Korean weapons tests.
Prosecutors said on Thursday the carrier ship, the Wise Honest, was being used to export North Korean coal, a critical sector of the North's economy that the US and United Nations have aggressively imposed sanctions on in an effort to force Pyongyang to end its nuclear weapons programme. The ship was also being used to import heavy machinery.
It is the first time the US has seized a North Korean cargo vessel for international sanctions violations, the Justice Department said. Officials said the seizure is part of a broad plan to enforce the international sanctions and ultimately pressure North Korea to dismantle its nuclear programme.
"This sanctions-busting ship is now out of service," said Mr John Demers, head of the Justice Department's national security division.
The move comes as North Korea's weapons tests over the past several days have threatened the disarmament discussions that President Donald Trump opened. Mr Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un abruptly ended their second meeting earlier this year when Mr Trump refused to ease sanctions unless the North dismantled all of its nuclear weapons.
Though the Justice Department obtained a sealed seizure warrant for the ship in July, officials said the timing of the complaint seeking the vessel's forfeiture had nothing to do with the tensions between the two countries. On Thursday, the Wise Honest was in US custody on its way to American Samoa, the Justice Department said.
The ship was used in a North Korean scheme to export coal to foreign countries and to import heavy machinery in violation of international sanctions, prosecutors said.
The Indonesian authorities detained the ship in April last year after it was photographed at a North Korean port, loading what prosecutors said appeared to be coal.
When the ship travelled to Indonesia, it tried to conceal details about its location by disabling its Automatic Identification System. The ship's signal had been turned off since August 2017.
Three US banks were unwittingly ensnared in the scheme, officials said, transmitting payments around the world for maintenance, equipment and improvement of the shipping vessel. The Wise Honest's coal haul from March last year drew payments of more than US$750,000 (S$1 million) through accounts at one of the banks, the complaint said.
"With this seizure, we have significantly disrupted that cycle," said Mr Geoffrey Berman, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
The Justice Department seized the vessel from the Indonesians, and the US Coast Guard evaluated it to ensure it was safe enough to make the trip, a spokesman said.
The UN Security Council has imposed five rounds of sanctions against North Korea since early 2016, when Pyongyang conducted its fourth nuclear test. China and others argued at the time that the sanctions would disproportionately affect ordinary North Koreans and could backfire.
In March, there were reports that the US-led sanctions on exports were causing economic dysfunction by depriving North Korea of its main source of income.
Meanwhile, a research group has revealed a huge, years-old base that appears to have been designed to hide and protect the North's growing arsenal of long-range missiles.
New satellite images analysed by the Beyond Parallel programme of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies show what appears to be a long-secret North Korean base, spread over nearly 8 sq km of mountainous terrain.