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US awarded ownership of seized North Korean vessel

The Wise Honest is the first North Korean vessel to be seized by the US for sanctions violation

A New York court has formally handed the US ownership of a North Korean cargo ship seized for violating international sanctions, the Justice Department said.

The 17,061 ton bulk carrier Wise Honest -- the first North Korean vessel seized by Washington for sanctions violations -- was caught carrying a $3 million shipment of coal in Indonesian waters last year and later handed over to US authorities.

The court in the Southern District of New York ordered the vessel to be forfeited to Washington and for the Treasury Department to "dispose of" it, an order released by the Justice Department showed.

The sale process has already taken place, according to the US Coast Guard, which earlier this month said the ship had been auctioned in a court-ordered process.

A tug had towed it away from Pago Pago in American Samoa, where it was held, the Coast Guard added, without specifying the buyer or the price.

The families of both Otto Warmbier, a US student who died shortly after Pyongyang released him in a coma, and Kim Dong Shik -- a pastor believed to have been detained, tortured and executed in the North in 2000 -- had filed petitions making legal claims against the vessel.

But it was not clear whether they would receive any funds from the sale, as Monday's court order said both families had "resolved" their petitions with the US.

In its statement the Justice Department thanked the Warmbiers for "their willingness to voluntarily withdraw their claim".

The ruling finalises the forfeiture and ends the vessel's use in a "criminal scheme", it said.

Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers added: "This order of forfeiture sinks the Wise Honest's career as one of North Korea's largest sanctions-busting vessels."

The seizure of the ship was the first by the US after years of high seas cat-and-mouse games when North Korean shippers renamed their vessels, used false flags and turned off their tracking devices to avoid detection.

Pyongyang has protested the seizure and warned of "undesirable consequences" if it was not returned.

North Korea is sanctioned under multiple UN Security Council resolutions over its nuclear and missile programmes.

It demanded the lifting of some of the measures at the Hanoi summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that ended without a deal in February, since when nuclear talks have been deadlocked.