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US confiscates tanker caught secretly giving oil to North Korea

The M/T Courageous in port. (Department of Justice photo/Released)
August 03, 2021

On Friday a U.S. federal court in New York entered a forfeiture judgment against the M/T Courageous, a 2,734-ton oil-products tanker alleged to have used ship-to-ship transfers with North Korean vessels and direct shipments to the North Korean port of Nampo, in violation of both U.S. and United Nations sanctions against the country.

The oil tanker belonged to Kwek Kee Seng, a Singaporean national who remains at large. The Department of Justice said, “Kwek and his co-conspirators engaged in an extensive scheme to evade these U.S. and U.N. sanctions by using vessels under their control to covertly transport fuel to North Korea, thereby providing a critical resource for the North Korean government and for [the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea]-based companies. One of those vessels was M/T Courageous — formerly known as the Sea Prima — which was purchased by Kwek through front companies to further the scheme to evade sanctions and launder money.”

Cambodian authorities originally seized Courageous in March 2020 and held the vessel pursuant to a U.S. seizure warrant issued in April of that year. On April 23, 2021, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York filed a civil forfeiture complaint against Courageous.

With the Friday decision by U.S. Judge Hon. Valerie Caproni to issue a judgment of forfeiture, the U.S. is now authorized to take ownership of the Courageous.

The Justice Department said as part of efforts to evade detection, the Courageous turned off its geolocation transmitter. Though the ship’s transmitter was turned off satellite imagery caught it engaging 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 allegedly 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’s dealings with North Korea, and (3) falsely identifying M/T Courageous as another ship in order to evade detection,” the DOJ statement continued.

According to the DOJ, Kwek’s scheme further funneled U.S. dollars through unwitting U.S. banks, in violation of U.S. law and United Nations Security Council resolutions. 

“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,” the DOJ said. “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.”