North Korea Demands Return of Cargo Ship Seized by U.S.

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Choe Sang-Hun

c.2019 New York Times News Service

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea on Tuesday demanded the release of a ship impounded by the United States for evading international sanctions, calling the seizure a “flagrant act of robbery” that violated the spirit of the agreement reached last year between the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un, and President Donald Trump.

U.S. prosecutors say the North Korean ship, the Wise Honest, was used to export coal and import heavy machinery in violation of sanctions imposed on the North over its nuclear arms program. The ship was detained in Indonesian waters by authorities there in April 2018, and its seizure by the United States was announced last week. The ship has since been taken to American Samoa.

“The United States’ action is an extension of its calculation aimed at subjugating us through the so-called maximum pressure and flatly denies the spirit of the June 12 Joint North Korea-U.S. Declaration where both sides agreed to build new relations,” the North Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement, referring to the broad agreement reached between Trump and Kim at their first meeting, in Singapore.

“The United States must mull over what repercussions its gangster-like act will entail, and must return our vessel without delay,” the ministry said.

The seizure of the Wise Honest was the first time the United States had impounded a North Korean cargo vessel for alleged international sanctions violations. The United States announced it soon after North Korea fired off two short-range missiles, its second such launch in five days.

Analysts said the North’s resumption of short-range missile tests was aimed at pressuring Washington to ease its stance on sanctions relief, after the collapse in February of the second summit between Trump and Kim. Those talks, in Vietnam, ended early after Trump rejected Kim’s offer to dismantle one of its nuclear facilities in exchange for lifting the most painful sanctions. Trump insisted on a full dismantlement of its nuclear program.

North Korea is desperate to lift a series of U.N. Security Council sanctions imposed in 2016 and 2017. Unlike previous sanctions that targeted the North’s ruling elite, these penalties sought to strangle North Korea’s economy by banning all the country’s key exports, including coal, iron ore, textiles, fisheries and cheap workers. They also sought to drastically curtail North Korea’s ability to import fuel.

Kim has said he would abandon diplomatic engagement with the United States and find a “new way” of protecting his country’s national interests unless the United States changed course. He gave Trump until the end of the year to offer a new proposal for ending the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

But the seizing of the Wise Honest indicated that the United States was redoubling its efforts to enforce the sanctions, particularly by cracking down on illegal ship-to-ship transfers of fuel and coal.

Analysts said the North’s recent short-range missile launches were meant to warn the United States that it would return to bolder missile tests unless the United States compromised on sanctions. They said the impounding of the Wise Honest provided North Korea with an excuse to escalate tensions that were already on the rise.

If North Korea resumes intermediate- and long-range ballistic missile tests, it will undermine Trump’s biggest diplomatic achievement in dealing with North Korea so far. The North has not launched a long-range missile since late 2017, something that Trump has repeatedly cited as proof that his diplomacy was working.

In their broadly worded Singapore agreement, Trump and Kim promised to build a “new” relationship between the two nations and work toward the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”