WASHINGTON – The United States was awarded ownership of a North Korean cargo ship that was seized for violating international sanctions, the U.S. Justice Department said.
The Wise Honest — the first North Korean vessel to be seized by the U.S. for sanctions violation — was caught carrying a $3 million shipment of coal in Indonesian waters last year and later handed over to the US.
The latest ruling by the Southern District of New York finalizes the U.S. government’s seizure of the North Korean vessel and ends its use in a “criminal scheme,” the Justice Department said in a statement.
“This order of forfeiture sinks the Wise Honest’s career as one of North Korea’s largest sanctions-busting vessels,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers.
The court ordered the vessel to be forfeited to the U.S. government and for the Treasury Department to “dispose of” it.
Washington filed a civil forfeiture complaint for the ownership of the Wise Honest in May, court documents showed.
Petitions were filed in July and September by the families of two victims of North Korean torture including the parents of Otto Warmbier, a U.S. student who died shortly after Pyongyang released him in a state of coma.
The Warmbiers and the family of Kim Dong Shik — a pastor believed to have been detained, tortured and executed in the North in 2000 — were seeking a claim in the vessel but had “resolved” their petitions, the documents showed.
The Justice Department thanked the Warmbiers for “their willingness to voluntarily withdraw their claim” in its statement.
The Wise Honest — one of the largest cargo ships in North Korea’s fleet — was detained in Indonesia in April 2018 and seized by the U.S. a year later.
It marked the first such seizure after years of high seas cat-and-mouse games in which North Korean shippers renamed their vessels, used false flags and turned off their tracking devices to avoid detection.
The seizure came with nuclear talks deadlocked since the collapse of a second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi in February.
Pyongyang has protested the seizure and has warned of “undesirable consequences” if it was not returned.
North Korea is sanctioned under multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions for its nuclear and missile programs, and lifting of some of the measures was a key demand from Pyongyang at the Hanoi summit that ended without a deal.