Korea Launches Missiles, US Seizes Ship for Violating Sanctions

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U.S. authorities have seized a North Korean ship used to sell coal in alleged violation of worldwide sanctions, Justice Department officials said Thursday (May 9). But U.S. law enforcement officials insisted the two events were not linked.

Loaded down with a $3 million shipment of North Korean coal, the vessel had entered Indonesian waters with its AIS tracking transponder turned off and was operating under two registrations, North Korea and Sierra Leone.

The UN Security Council has imposed five rounds of sanctions against North Korea since early 2016, when Pyongyang conducted its fourth nuclear test.

"This sanctions-busting ship is now out of service", said John Demers, the head of the Justice Department's National Security Division.

The launch is a possible sign that nuclear disarmament talks with the US could be in danger.

Officials said the vessel was now in USA custody and on its way to American Samoa, and they're seeking a civil injunction against it.

The court filing says payments for improvements to the Wise Honest were done via US banks, also in violation of sanctions.

North Korea hasn't actually had control of the ship for more than a year - it was seized in April 2018 by Indonesia.

North Korean cargo ship Wise Honest has been seized by U.S. authorities.

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On April 4 of previous year, the Indonesian Navy detained the crew and the ship.

Sometime in 2018 or 2019, an Indonesian court approved the sale of the seized coal, and granted an Indonesian national, Eko Setyamoko, the right to sell the commodity.

"This scheme not only allowed North Korea to evade sanctions, but the Wise Honest was also used to import heavy machinery to North Korea, helping expand North Korea's capabilities and continuing the cycle of sanctions evasion", he said.

The North had not previously fired a missile since November 2017, shortly before a rapid diplomatic thaw eased high tensions on the peninsula and paved the way for a historic first meeting between Kim and Trump.

The vessel was owned by a subsidiary of a North Korean shipping company that is controlled by the country's military and is on a Treasury Department sanctions list, officials said. The ship in turn imported machinery to North Korea. The ship moved between ports in China and North Korea, and according to a contract referenced in the court documents, was scheduled to make at least one stop in Russian Federation. At least one member of the crew appears to have died in custody, one has been hospitalized, and three were already deported for medical reasons.

"When nations who have stated an intent to do harm to the United States evade worldwide sanctions, Americans become less safe", said Geoffrey Berman, the United States attorney for the Southern District of NY. It's Pyongyang's largest bulk carrier, and the first to be seized by the USA for violating sanctions.

The missile launch is likely to be a protest against the USA for refusing to ease sanctions at the failed Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un in February.

When asked about the missiles, Trump said, "Nobody is happy about it, but we're taking a good look and we'll see" Reuters reported.