Singaporean charged for using oil tanker to violate sanctions against North Korea

On April 23, the US has filed charges against Singaporean Kwek Kee Seng, age 61, who remains at large, for conspiring to evade economic sanctions on North Korea and money laundering conspiracy. Each count carries a maximum term of 20 years in prison.  

In addition to these criminal charges, a civil forfeiture complaint was filed against M/T Courageous, an oil products tanker purchased and operated by Kwek to make illicit deliveries of petroleum products through ship-to-ship transfers with North Korean vessels and direct shipments to the North Korean port of Nampo.

For a four-month period between August and December 2019, M/T Courageous illicitly stopped transmitting location information, during which time satellite imagery showed that M/T Courageous engaged in a ship-to-ship transfer of more than US$1.5 million worth of oil to a North Korean ship, the Saebyol, and traveled to the North Korean port of Nampo. 

Kwek and his co-conspirators took additional steps to hide the scheme by operating a series of shell companies, lying to international shipping authorities about M/T Courageous’ dealings with North Korea, and falsely identifying M/T Courageous as another ship in order to evade detection.

In furtherance of the scheme, they arranged for a variety of payments, denominated in US dollars, that were processed through US-based correspondent accounts to purchase oil – including more than $1.5 million to purchase the oil that was transferred to the Saebyol, over $500,000 to buy M/T Courageous, and thousands more dollars to procure necessary services for M/T Courageous and another vessel, including registration fees, ship materials and salary payments for crewmembers. 

Kwek and his co-conspirators sought to conceal these sanctions-evading transactions by, among other things, using front companies to disguise the nature of the transactions; disguising location information for vessels carrying illicit shipments; and conducting ship-to-ship fuel transfers on the open sea in an attempt to hide their counterparties, such as the Saebyol. 

Cambodian authorities seized M/T Courageous in March of 2020, and have been holding the vessel pursuant to a US seizure warrant, which was issued under seal on April 2, 2020. 

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Lee Kok Leong

Lee Kok Leong

Kok Leong, executive editor, has overall editorial responsibility for the direction and focus of Maritime Fairtrade. He has two decades of working experiences, including holding senior regional roles in business-to-business (B2B) print and online publications. He enjoys his work as a journalist, and regards it as a calling.

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