In what the New York Times calls "a move certain to escalate tensions already on the rise" between the US and North Korea, the US has seized a North Korean cargo ship. The Justice Department says Wise Honest, the second-largest shipping vessel in Pyongyang’s fleet, was violating US law and international sanctions by exporting North Korean coal; both the US and the United Nations have imposed sanctions on coal as part of their attempts to get the country to end its nuclear weapons program. Officials say the ship was also used to smuggle heavy machinery into North Korea, USA Today reports. Indonesian authorities intercepted and seized the ship in April 2018 after it was photographed taking on a load of coal at a North Korean port; the captain of the ship was convicted of violating Indonesia's maritime laws. It's not clear what happened to the ship's crew, the AP reports.
The US obtained a sealed seizure warrant for the ship in July, and officials have now filed a complaint seeking the vessel's forfeiture and explaining the reasoning for confiscating the ship, which is in US custody and en route to American Samoa. Officials say US banks were unwittingly involved in the scheme because payments for maintenance and operation of the ship were channeled through them. "This sanctions-busting ship is now out of service," said the head of the Justice Department’s national security division in announcing the move Thursday. It's the first time the US has seized a North Korean ship, per the AP; North Korea can contest the seizure in court, but if the US prevails, it can sell the ship. The department said the timing of its complaint has nothing to do with the current tensions between the US and North Korea. (The move came as North Korea has been running weapons tests, a sign that nuclear disarmament talks may be in danger.)