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Press Release

Department of Justice Announces Forfeiture of North Korean Cargo Vessel

For Immediate Release
Office of Public Affairs

The Department of Justice today announced the entry of a judgment of forfeiture regarding the M/V Wise Honest (the “Wise Honest”), a 17,061-ton, single-hull bulk carrier ship registered in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (“DPRK” or “North Korea”).  The Wise Honest, one of North Korea’s largest bulk carriers, was used to illicitly ship coal from North Korea and to deliver heavy machinery back to the DPRK.  Payments for maintenance, equipment and improvements of the Wise Honest were made in U.S. dollars through unwitting U.S. banks.  This conduct violates longstanding U.S. law and United Nations Security Council resolutions.  

“This order of forfeiture sinks the Wise Honest’s career as one of North Korea’s largest sanctions-busting vessels,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers.  “The Department of Justice will continue to pursue other property used to violate U.S. and international sanctions, around the globe, with the cooperation of our international partners.”​

​“Today’s judgment of forfeiture finalizes the U.S. government’s seizure of the Wise Honest and officially takes this North Korean vessel out of commission,” said U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman for the Southern District of New York.  “It will no longer be used to further a criminal scheme.  Using the full set of tools at our disposal, we will continue to investigate and prosecute attempts to evade U.S. sanctions, including by the North Korean regime.”

​According to documents filed in Manhattan federal court:

​Pursuant to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) and the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 (NKSPEA), the DPRK and individuals or entities that the Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has determined are involved in the facilitation of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) are prohibited from engaging in transactions with U.S. persons, involving U.S.-origin goods, or using the U.S. financial system.  The United Nations Security Council has similarly prohibited the provision of goods, technology, and services to North Korea, and the sale, supply, or transfer of coal from North Korea.

​From at least November 2016 through April 2018, the Wise Honest was used by Korea Songi Shipping Company, an affiliate of Korea Songi General Trading Corporation, to export coal from North Korea to foreign purchasers and import machinery to North Korea (the “Korea Songi Scheme”).  On June 1, 2017, OFAC designated Songi Trading Company pursuant to Executive 13722 for its involvement in the sale, supply, or transfer of coal from North Korea.  OFAC also determined Songi Trading Company was a subordinate of the Korean People’s Army.

​On or about March 14, 2018, the Wise Honest was loaded with coal in Nampo, North Korea.  On or about April 2, 2018, foreign maritime authorities intercepted and detained the Wise Honest.  Maritime regulations require vessels like the Wise Honest engaged in international voyages to operate an automatic identification system (AIS) capable of providing information about the vessel to other ships and coastal authorities.  However, despite its March 2018 voyage from North Korea, the Wise Honest had not broadcast an AIS signal since Aug. 4, 2017.  

​Participants in the Korea Songi Scheme attempted to conceal the Wise Honest’s DPRK affiliation by falsely listing different countries for the Wise Honest’s nationality and the origin of the illicit coal in shipping documentation.

​In connection with Korea Songi Scheme, Kwon Chol Nam, one of Korea Songi Shipping Company’s Representatives, paid for numerous improvements, equipment purchases, and service expenditures for the Wise Honest in U.S. dollars through U.S. financial institutions.  Such transfers constitute a provision of services, and longstanding U.S. law prohibits banks from providing such services to North Korean parties.  Payments totaling more than $750,000 were transmitted through accounts at a U.S. financial institution in connection with the March 2018 shipment of coal on board the Wise Honest.

​On May 9, 2019, the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York filed a civil forfeiture complaint against the Wise Honest, which had previously been seized pursuant to a warrant issued in the Southern District of New York.  Today’s judgment of forfeiture, which was ordered by the Honorable P. Kevin Castel of the Southern District of New York, confirms the U.S. Government’s ownership of the Wise Honest.  

Assistant Attorney General Demers and U.S. Attorney Berman praised the outstanding investigative work of the FBI and its New York Field Office, Counterintelligence Division, and thanked the Department of Justice’s Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section and Office of International Affairs; the United States Coast Guard; and the Department of State for their assistance.

Assistant Attorney General Demers and U.S. Attorney Berman also thanked Fred and Cindy Warmbier, the parents of the late Otto Warmbier, for their willingness voluntarily to withdraw their claim in the action in order to facilitate the forfeiture of the Wise Honest.

​The case is being handled by Assistant U.S. Attorneys David W. Denton, Jr. and Benet J. Kearney of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Southern District of New York, and Trial Attorney Christian Ford of the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section.    

Updated July 22, 2022

Countering Nation-State Threats
Export Control
National Security
Press Release Number: 19-1129