In an unusual civil forfeiture action, the US Department of Justice announced on Thursday it has seized a major cargo vessel belonging to North Korea known as the “Wise Honest”, which officials allege violated US and United Nations sanctions by illicitly shipping coal from North Korea.

The ship, which was first confiscated by other foreign maritime authorities in Indonesia in April 2018, is now in the possession of the United States and is currently approaching US territorial waters, a Justice Department official said.

The 17,061-tonne ship, which also was used to deliver heavy machinery to North Korea, is one of the country’s largest bulk carriers, the Justice Department said.

The case marks the first time the United States has seized a North Korean cargo vessel for violating sanctions.

“Our office uncovered North Korea’s scheme to export tonnes of high-grade coal to foreign buyers by concealing the origin of their ship, the Wise Honest,” US lawyer Geoffrey Berman said in a statement.

“This scheme not only allowed North Korea to evade sanctions, but the Wise Honest was also used to import heavy machinery to North Korea,” Berman said.

According to UN sanctions monitors, the Wise Honest was transporting 25,500 tonnes of coal when it was detained by Indonesia in April 2018.

The UN report estimated that the value of the ship’s coal cargo was around $3m.

“This sanctions-busting ship is now out of service,” John Demers, the head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, said in a statement.

The seizure of the vessel comes at a delicate moment between the two countries. It was announced hours after the North Koreans fired two suspected short-range missiles in an apparent sign of trouble for nuclear disarmament talks.

It also follows a Pentagon decision to suspend efforts to arrange negotiations on recovering additional remains of US service members killed in the North during the Korean War.

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