Pacific News Minute: North Korea Demands Return Of Cargo Ship Seized By U.S.

May 15, 2019

Credit John Pavelka / CC BY 2.0 / Flickr

North Korea has demanded that the United States release a cargo ship seized for violation of United Nations sanctions. A statement from the North Korean foreign ministry described the seizure as a ‘blatant act of robbery” and a “gangster-like act.” The ship has been towed to American Samoa.

The bulk carrier Wise Honest was detained by Indonesian authorities more than a year ago in the Strait of Makassar.

According to the Indonesians, the ship was behaving erratically and had turned off its AIS identification beacon. On boarding, they found a crew of 25 North Koreans and a cargo of coal that paperwork claimed had been loaded in the Russian port of Vladivostok. 

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice claimed that the Wise Honest had, in fact, been photographed loading coal in North Korea and that the ship was part of an on-going scheme by Pyongyang to evade United Nations sanctions. The DOJ said that ship’s owners paid for repairs and equipment in funds passed illegally through the U.S. banking system, which made the Wise Honest subject to civil forfeiture. 

The ship’s crew has reportedly been sent back to North Korea, but, according to the website North Korea News, the three million dollar cargo of coal was transferred to another ship, the Dong Tranh, which has itself been seized in Malaysia. 

At 17,000 tons, the Wise Honest is the second largest ship in North Korea’s small commercial fleet and if, as widely suspected, others are also engaged in sanctions busting, the same procedure could be used to seize them, too.

Last Saturday, Coast Guard officials from Honolulu were on hand as the Wise Honest was towed into Pago Pago. According to RNZ Pacific, some residents expressed concern that American Samoa could now be a target for North Korean attacks.