A North Korean Coal Tanker Is Blocking Talks on Nuclear Disarmament

North Korea tanker seized negotiations US Wise Honest
Tankers sail Maracaibo Lake, in Maracaibo, Venezuela on March 15. A North Korean tanker was seized earlier this month and accused of violating international sanctions on the country. JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images

North Korea is refusing to re-engage with stalled disarmament talks until the U.S. returns a seized container ship accused of violating international sanctions.

The U.S. Justice Department said on May 9 that the 17,061-ton Wise Honest vessel had been seized after transporting coal in violation of international sanctions. The vessel with two dozen crew members on board was detained by Indonesia.

North Korea has already voiced its anger at the move, but now Pyongyang's ambassador to the United Nations has said the ship represents the most significant barrier to the continuation of disarmament talks with Washington.

"It is the biggest issue…and a wanton violation of international law," Han Tae Song told Reuters in Geneva on Wednesday. "It is because it is…infringing upon the sovereignty of our country," he added.

Han, who also serves as the hermit nation's disarmament ambassador, told the agency, "It would be the greatest miscalculation if America thought my country is among the countries where American-style logic of strength or pressure might work."

Asked about the consequences if the ship remained detained, the ambassador simply replied, "We don't want, the Americans also don't want and the international community don't want the situation again worsening."

Han's comments came quick on the heels of similar remarks from North Korea's most senior diplomat at the United Nations, Kim Song. The envoy gave a press conference in New York on Tuesday condemning the "outrageous act," which he claimed was designed to make his country "kneel down."

Kim said the seizure is the "product of an extreme hostile policy of the United States." His strong words echoed a North Korean foreign ministry statement issued on May 14 that also denounced the detention of the Wise Honest.

"The U.S. should deliberate what kind of consequences will be caused by its gangster-like behavior for the development of circumstances in the future and return our vessel without any delay," the statement read. "We will sharply watch the future movement of the U.S."

U.S.-North Korean negotiations have been stalled since the collapse of a bilateral summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February. The two sides were reportedly too far apart on sanctions relief in exchange for denuclearization, and leaders President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un departed the meeting early.

After a year of thawing relations between Washington and Pyongyang, tensions rose this month after North Korea test-fired several short-range missiles. The Wise Honest was seized soon after. The weapons test was the first missile launch since November 2017, the BBC reported.