North Korean diplomats to the United Nations, including Ambassador Kim Song (R) spoke at a press conference at U.N. headquarters on Tuesday. Photo by Elizabeth Shim/UPI
UNITED NATIONS, May 21 (UPI) -- North Korea accused the United States of violating international law on Tuesday at the United Nations during an unprecedented press conference delivered by Pyongyang's top envoy to the U.N.
Ambassador Kim Song, who recently delivered a letter to U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres to protest the U.S. seizure of North Korea-flagged ship Wise Honest, slammed the Trump administration for "sovereignty infringement."
"The United States did not care about international law and violated principles recognized worldwide," Kim said.
"The United States has committed an act of sovereignty infringement by dispossessing our cargo ship," he said in English before U.S. and foreign correspondents.
The Wise Honest was carrying illicit shipments of North Korean coal in 2018 when it was detained in Indonesia. The coal was released but the ship stayed at port until the U.S. Department of Justice used a civil forfeiture action to confiscate the property.
The ship was towed to American Samoa and docked at a port in Pago Pago.
"The United States has committed an unlawful and egregious act of dispossessing our cargo ship Wise Honest by possibly taking it to American Samoa under the pretext of unilateral sanctions and [under U.S.] domestic law," Kim said. "We are condemning this act of dispossessing our cargo ship, this instance of the extreme hostile policy of the United States."
Kim, who began serving as North Korean ambassador in 2018, also said the U.S. confiscation of the Wise Honest is an "outright denial of the underlying spirit of the June 12" U.S.-North Korea joint statement, signed in Singapore last year.
"The United States must return our cargo ship without delay," the North Korean diplomat said.
While Kim claimed Washington was in violation of international law, he also said North Korea does not accept as law any sanctions resolutions of the U.N. Security Council.
Pyongyang is under heavy embargoes. U.N. sanctions Resolution 2371, adopted in August 2017, bans all North Korean exports of coal, iron, lead and seafood.
"We will sharply watch every move of the United States with regard to this...egregious act," Kim said.
Kim issued tough warnings on Tuesday but he also took questions from reporters, including a question from a U.S. journalist about North Korea accountability for the death of Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student who died shortly after release from North Korea captivity.
Kim listened to all the questions but did not provide specific responses. He returned to the issue of the seized ship.
"This is a man-made incident, the intervention of the United States," he said.
The U.S. position
On May 9, the Department of Justice asked a federal judge to grant the United States ownership of the Wise Honest, citing evidence payments for maintenance, equipment and improvements of the sanctions-violating Wise Honest were made through "unwitting U.S banks."
Kyle Ferrier, director of academic affairs and research at the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, told UPI the Trump administration could have been building a legal case for the ship for a long time.
The North Korean briefing at the U.N. signals a "backlash to the U.S. position," Ferrier said.
"The thing about Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump is that both of them keep us on our toes," the analyst said. "It doesn't necessarily help create a better environment toward more congeniality, but it by no means undermines the diplomatic progress that has been made so far.
"There still could be a meeting at Panmunjom next month, but we'll have to wait and see," Ferrier said, referring to Trump's planned visit to South Korea in June.
The press conference's relatively open format is also raising speculation Pyongyang could be experimenting amid a shift toward openness and engagement.
"In terms of the press conference, the fact that the ambassador took questions, that may be an opportunity for him to get a pulse on what the American public is interested in right now," Ferrier said.
"That could be an interesting tactic the North is taking, when they're not sure what is really going on in the White House."