Hours after North Korea conducted its second missile test in a week, the Justice Department announced the U.S. has seized a North Korean freighter that was caught shipping coal in violation of U.N. sanctions.
Last July, the U.S. filed an action to seize the 17,000 ton cargo ship, called the Wise Honest, after it was stopped in Indonesia and found to be carrying coal, NBC News reported. On Thursday, the Justice Department asked a federal judge to give the U.S. ownership of the vessel through a civil forfeiture action.
Also on Thursday, the South Korean joint chiefs of staff announced North Korea launched two short-range missiles from the northwest city of Kusong that traveled roughly 260 miles to the east.
American negotiators are currently in South Korea for discussions on the current impasse following two high-level summits between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump walked away from the summit in Vietnam in February because Pyongyang refused to agree to denuclearize before the U.S. would provide sanctions relief.
Speaking to reporters Thursday at the White House, Trump downplayed the missile tests.
“They were smaller missiles, short-range missiles,” he said. “Nobody’s happy about it, but we’re taking a good look, and we’ll see.
“The relationship continues, but we’ll see what happens,” the president said. “They want to negotiate, they’re talking about negotiating, but I don’t think they’re ready to negotiate.”
It’s the first time the U.S. has taken possession of a North Korean ship for violating international sanctions, according to federal prosecutors.
“This sanctions-busting ship is now out of service,” said John Demers, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s National Security Division.
Geoffrey Berman, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said his office “uncovered North Korea’s scheme to export tons of high-grade coal to foreign buyers by concealing the origin of their ship, the Wise Honest.”
“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.
Berman said the effort to take control of the Wise Honest already had been underway at the time of North Korea’s missile launch.
U.S. News noted Trump previously has cited North Korea’s lull in missile and nuclear tests as evidence that his outreach to the communist regime was proving successful.
A spokesman for North Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Thursday insisted the test on Saturday was “nothing more than part of the regular military training, and it has neither targeted anyone nor led to an aggravation of [the] situation in the region.”
But the North Korean statement condemned the continuation of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises in the region.
Kim has described the joint exercises as “war games.”
Last month, the communist dictator traveled to Russia for his first face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.