US seizes tanker used to evade North Korea sanctions

The United States has seized a Singapore-owned oil tanker that was used to make oil deliveries to North Korea in violation of international sanctions, the Justice Department said.

A New York federal judge issued a judgement of forfeiture authorising the US to take ownership of the M/T Courageous, which is currently in Cambodia.

The ship, which has a capacity of 2,734-tonne, was bought by Singaporean national Kwek Kee Seng, who remains at large, according to a Justice Department statement on Friday.

The statement said the ship was reportedly used to transfer oil products to North Korean vessels and to make direct shipments to the North Korean port of Nampo.

“Criminal charges of conspiracy to evade economic sanctions on the DPRK and money laundering conspiracy are pending against the alleged owner and operator of the Courageous, Kwek Kee Seng, a Singaporean national who remains at large,” it said, using the acronym of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The statement did not say why the charges against Kwek had not yet been brought more than a year after the ship was seized, but added that a New York federal court had entered a judgement of forfeiture regarding the vessel on Friday.

North Korea is the subject of United Nations and other international sanctions for its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes. The sanctions restrict its imports of oil and other items.

The DoJ statement charged that across a four-month period between August and December 2019 the M/T Courageous illicitly stopped transmitting information of its location and during this time satellite imagery showed it transferring more than $1.5 million worth of oil to a North Korean ship, the Saebyol.

Cambodian authorities seized the tanker in March 2020 on a US warrant and have held the Courageous there since.

The statement said payments to buy the Courageous and the oil were made using US dollars through unwitting US banks, in violation of US law and UN resolutions.

“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,” it said. It did not name any co-conspirators.

Relations between Washington and Pyongyang are strained, with North Korea’s foreign minister in June ruling out any talks with the US, saying such dialogue would “get us nowhere”.

Negotiations between the two countries have long been stalled over the international sanctions imposed on the nuclear-armed state and what North Korea should give up in return for their lifting.

AFP, Reuters

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