The vessel Wise Honest, a 30-year old, 17,000-ton bulk carrier, was used to ship coal to China and Indonesia in exchange for delivering cargoes of heavy mining machinery and dump trucks back to North Korea - all in violation of sanctions imposed by both the United States and the United Nations, according to a court filing released by federal authorities on May 9. It was the second test of the U.S. Minuteman III missile this month and the third this year, though the Air Force maintains that such activity is scheduled years in advance, and not in response to any world events.
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", Assistant Attorney General John Demers, the Justice Department's top national security official, told reporters.
"North Korea, and the companies that help it evade USA and United Nations sanctions, should know that we will use all tools at our disposal - including a civil forfeiture action such as this one or criminal charges - to enforce the sanctions enacted by the USA and the global community", Assistant Attorney General Demers said. Under an unusual US civil forfeiture action, the vessel is now in the possession of the United States and is currently approaching US territorial waters heading toward American Samoa, US Justice Department officials said.
Geoffrey Berman, the US attorney for the southern district of NY, said the Wise Honest seizure was the "first-ever seizure" of a North Korean cargo ship alleged to have violated global sanctions.
It was not immediately clear the location where the ship was seized but reports said the U.S. Coast Guard was likely involved.
South Korea's military reported that the missiles were fired from North Korea's western area.
The ship was first confiscated by foreign maritime authorities in Indonesia last April, carrying $3m of coal. The coal trade itself is also believed to fund the isolated country's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Trump walked away from the summit in Vietnam in February because Pyongyang refused to agree to denuclearize before the US would provide sanctions relief.
Court papers filed in federal court in NY said shipments by the Wise Honest and other North Korean vessels "provide a critical source of revenue for DPRK-based companies and for the North Korean government".
North Korea sought to disguise the nationality of the ship and the origin of its cargo, according to the complaint. "In return, large shipments of heavy machinery were returned to North Korea using the same vessels". The complaint was filed in US District Court in Manhattan on Thursday by the US attorney's office for the Southern District of NY.
Experts say sanctions enforcement is dependent on the willingness of foreign countries to assist in seizures and charges when violations are discovered.
"Well, we're looking at it very seriously right now".
Two Trump-Kim summits, the most recent in Vietnam in February, have produced no tangible progress toward persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.
"Nobody's happy about it".