It might all feel like a dramatic escalation, a potential act of war — really it is just the first time that America, or any other country, have taken their own sanctions of North Korea seriously.
Detained in Indonesia, the inappropriately named ‘Wise Honest’ is now the property of the United States government, and the “first-ever seizure of a North Korean cargo vessel for violating international sanctions” according to U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey Berman.
This “sanctions-busting ship” had been in regular violation of international law since 2016, for smuggling coal out of North Korea and heavy machinery the other way. What scratched most invasively at the U.S. Department of Justice was the use — or misuse — of American banks to orchestrate cargo payments and maintenance work on the vessel.
North Korea are banned from conducting any form of business in the United States, and yet beyond this obvious transgression the payments are also — unless there has been an unlikely miscalculation here — in contravention of multiple United Nations resolutions
Just what the Trump administration has in mind for the Wise Honest, or the 25,000 tonnes of coal on board, is an open question — and perhaps a little irrelevant now — but the civil forfeiture that has been underway for months is an insight into both the limitations of sanctions, and a realisation of how they can be made more effective.
Until 2016, the restrictions on trade with North Korea were narrow and poorly enforced. A spider’s web of broader sanctions began to emerge at this time, with United Nations Security Council Resolutions 2270, 2371 and 2375 complimented by a range of domestic regulations from significant UN member states.
Cross-border trade with China bore the most immediate impact. Trafficking of goods in large quantities is hard to camouflage, so instead smaller traders — making lighter yet more regular journeys — picked up as much slack as they could. But the total volume was seriously reduced nonetheless. Backlogs of this kind tend to find release valves — and for anyone with a grasp on ocean navigation, it was not surprising that the managed chaos of the open seas became this.
What can’t be driven, can easily be shipped. And once out of North Korean ports, flags can be changed, documents forged, and location broadcasting transponders — mandated for use under international maritime law — can simply be turned off. The Wise Honest did all these things, flying Sierra Leone colours, not properly disclosing the origin or destination for its cargo, and transiting around South East Asia for years without ever announcing its geolocation.
And can you blame them? The sanctions hurt (as intended), and the messy process of hunting illegal vessels is one that no country is very interested in doing.
The prohibitions now in place require United Nations member states to inspect all goods coming out of, entering, or even transiting through, North Korea. And that is everything, from the contents of freight liners to the handbags of tourists. Vessels flaunting these regulations must be refused entry into ports, and business of any kind with them is prohibited. This is not a passive obligation: any ship suspected of carrying cargo of North Korean origin or destination, must be boarded.
The list of contraband items entering or exiting North Korea hits at every conceivable industry — worthy of the name — that they have. Of course, any hardware that can be used in chemical, biological, nuclear or missile programs is particularly targeted here, but the whole North Korean military is under heavy scrutiny now. As are all luxury goods and all exports of any significance — iron ore, rare earth minerals, nickel, copper, lead, silver, zinc, iron, textiles, seafood, and of course coal.
The level of imposition here should be increasingly apparent — not on North Korea, but on the global community charged with enforcing the particulars of these resolutions. The seizure of related funds is also mandated, as is the charging of those companies that continue to do business with Pyongyang, as well as the third party agents who connect buyers with sellers. We’re not done yet: assets must be confiscated, as must the actual vessels in question, and anything beyond that must be destroyed or disposed of.
Yet through all this, the Wise Honest is reported to have stopped-in at multiple international ports, conducted regular ship-to-ship on-water transfers (something highlighted for particular concern in the language of the new sanctions regime), on one occasion actually conducted business with a South Korean company, and even pulled anchor at the South Korean city of Busan.
In truth, the Wise Honest was unlucky. The authority to board, search and confiscate in accordance with international law is something that no-one really wants to do. It takes too long, often requires military force, carries a high degree of risk, and then only blocks-up a single leak in what is an overwhelming cascade.
If anyone were serious in fulfilling their commitments here, they would have to execute a naval blockade of all major North Korean ports, and start patrolling the Yellow Sea to deter Chinese merchants from conducting the daily ship-to-ship transfers.
The spin-offs from this — legally and morally — would be huge. Sanctions would be enforced for the first time and the full scope of their intended pain finally felt, but what else? The intensity of civil conflicts in places as far away as Syria and Zimbabwe would be limited without North Korea selling them military hardware, the worldwide movement of drugs and counterfeit currency (a long term source of hard currency for the Kim dynasty) would dip, and if implemented years ago the routine kidnapping of Japanese and South Korean citizens would have been impossible.
Naval interceptions of this kind would increase the economic pressure on Pyongyang, deter international facilitators, appease the most hawkish of foreign governments, and offer some long overdue grit to an increasingly powerless United Nations.
But this will never happen… and it hasn’t happened here.
The Wise Honest was detained in port, and the near year long legal wrangling over its confiscation only adds another layer of caution to those few countries who are genuinely interested in fulfilling their international obligations.
On the same day as the seizure, South Korean president Moon Jae-in announced that he had agreed to send more humanitarian aid to North Korea, with a senior Blue House official saying: “Nothing has been decided yet, and we still need to discuss everything, including what we’re going to send, how we’re going to send it, and how much we’re going to send. What we do know is that the two UN organizations have said that [North Korean] children and families need help to get through this difficult time.”
North Korea are living in a culture of international impunity, and they know it. No matter what their behaviour, there is always a significant portion of the world clamouring to forgive them before an apology is ever offered.
We focus on the nuclear issue because we don’t have the energy for more pressing humanitarian questions, there is a chronic refusal to pay the world’s single greatest — and longest running — human rights disaster any concern until a missile is fired, we insist on the use of sanctions against a regime that gains its legitimacy through military, and not economic, success, only then for there to be a near complete unwillingness to enforce those sanctions with any attention or coordination.
It feels like every problem with North Korea at the present moment, is a problem of our own making. Unless of course, the seizure of the Wise Honest is the unlikely start of an unflinching strangulation of the North Korean regime from outside its borders.