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U.S. seizes North Korean ship suspected of violating U.N. sanctions

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Image:  The North Korean ship, "Wise Honest."
The North Korean ship, "Wise Honest." -
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The U.S. has seized a North Korean freighter that was caught shipping coal in violation of U.N. sanctions, the Justice Department revealed Thursday.

The action applies to the Wise Honest, a 17,000-ton cargo ship that was stopped in Indonesia last year after it was found to be carrying coal. The ship's captain was charged with violating Indonesian law, and last July, the U.S. filed an action to seize the ship, according to court papers.

On Thursday, the U.S. sought a civil forfeiture action — the same thing prosecutors do when they seek to take ownership of planes or boats used by drug smugglers. The Justice Department says the U.S. is entitled to take this action because payments to maintain and equip the vessel were made through American banks.

The effort to seize the ship follows a report in March by a U.N. panel of experts that found North Korea is successfully evading United Nations sanctions through elaborate smuggling and deceptive tactics, allowing the regime to import oil and ship coal to China and other countries.

The sanctions are designed to deprive Pyongyang of cash for its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs and force the regime to abandon its arsenal. The Trump administration has led international efforts to tighten sanctions against North Korea, vowing to impose "maximum pressure" to persuade North Korea agree to relinquish its weapons in return for an end to sanctions.

"These violations render the latest United Nations sanctions ineffective by flouting the caps on the import of petroleum products and coal oil" by North Korea imposed by the U.N. Security Council in 2017, according to the U.N. report. "These transfers have increased in scope, scale and sophistication," it said.

Despite U.S. warnings to keep up the economic pressure on North Korea, the regime has not suffered a spike in fuel prices in recent months, a sign that analysts say shows the country is able to secure enough fuel to keep its economy afloat.

North Korea has adapted to sanctions over the years and now employs increasingly sophisticated methods, the U.N. panel found in its March report. Pyongyang used to alter sections of shipping documents but now creates entirely fake registration and other papers that enable it to smuggle illicit cargo through ports around the world.

The regime also steals the identities of other ships and spoofs the location of vessels on the global electronic tracking system for ships, according to the U.N. panel.