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U.S. seizes oil tanker ‘M/T Courageous’; Singaporean charged over DPRK sanctions

26 Apr 2021

Singaporean National Kwek Kee Seng on Friday (23 April) was charged by the U.S. government over conspiracies to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) and to commit money laundering.

A criminal complaint against Kwek for conspiring to evade economic sanctions on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) and money laundering has been made by several U.S. authorities.

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 shows that M/T Courageous engaged in a ship-to-ship transfer of more than $1.5 million worth of oil to a North Korean ship, the Saebyol, which had been designated by OFAC, and traveled to the North Korean port of Nampo.

Kwek and his co-conspirators took additional steps to hide the scheme by (1) operating a series of shell companies, (2) lying to international shipping authorities about M/T Courageous’ dealings with North Korea, and (3) falsely identifying M/T Courageous as another ship in order to evade detection.

In furtherance of the scheme, Kwek and his co-conspirators arranged for a variety of payments, denominated in U.S. dollars, that were processed through U.S.-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 overseas 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 U.S. seizure warrant, which was issued under seal on April 2, 2020. 


Photo credit: Federal Bureau of Investigation

Published: 26 April, 2021

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