S'porean wanted by FBI for money laundering & illegal petroleum deliveries to North Korea

A ship that he used to deliver petrol to the country was also seized.

Matthias Ang | April 27, 2021, 07:11 PM

A 61-year-old Singaporean, Kwek Kee Seng, has been charged by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for violating U.S. and UN sanctions against North Korea.

According to a press release by the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Southern District of New York, Kwek had allegedly arranged for illicit deliveries of petroleum to North Korea through a ship called the M/T Courageous.

He also faces a second charge of laundering money on behalf of North Korea via the U.S. financial system by using front companies and false documentation, Manhattan U.S. attorney Audrey Strauss added.

He is now wanted by the FBI as he remains at large.

Ship used for evading sanctions has been seized

Strauss highlighted that Kwek's ship, the M/T Courageous, was seized in Cambodia by the country's authorities in March 2020, where it has since been held.

According to the Maritime Executivethe ship had sailed from Taiwan and was reportedly flying the Cambodian flag in an attempt to disguise its identity.

It was also operating under the name Sea Prima which was registered in St. Kitts and Nevis.

Upon seizure, 16 crew on board were charged with violating sanctions against North Korea by Cambodian authorities.

Prior to its detainment, the ship had illicitly stopped transmitting location information for four months, from August 2019 to December 2019.

Satellite imagery showed that the vessel had directly transferred more than US$1.5 million (S$1.98 million) worth of oil to a North Korean ship named The Saebyol, which then travelled to the North Korean port of Nampo.

Money laundering was for the purpose of supporting the delivery

In addition, Kwek and his co-conspirators were also found to have allegedly laundered money for the purpose of supporting the delivery, through multiple U.S.-based correspondent accounts.

The money that was laundered included the amount for the oil, over US$500,000 (S$663,000) for the purchase of the M/T Courageous, and thousands of dollars to obtain the necessary services for the ship and another vessel, as well as to pay the registration fees, ship materials and salaries of the crew.

The press release elaborated that Kwek had sought to hide the transactions by using front companies to disguise the nature of the transactions. He also disguised location information for vessels carrying illicit shipments, and conducted ship-to-ship fuel transfers on the open sea, among other things.

Each charge carries a maximum jail term of 20 years

Should Kwek be found guilty, he faces a maximum jail term of 20 years for each charge.

Strauss emphasised the stance of the U.S. on the matter, saying:

"This Office has pioneered the deployment of the full array of criminal and civil enforcement tools to curb North Korea’s deceptive and illicit activities, and today’s actions send a message that anyone who supports the DPRK’s sanctions-busting efforts stands to lose both their liberty and their property."

FBI Assistant Director, William F. Sweeney Jr., echoed his words: 

"The FBI will not allow adversaries to evade sanctions designed to protect our nation. Kwek is now a fugitive on our radar, and his ship is now ours. We are grateful to our international partners who have worked with us to ensure the safety of the citizens we serve."

Under UN-imposed economic sanctions, the conduct of ship-to-ship transfers with North Korea-flagged vessels and the provision of petroleum products to the country are banned.

Top photo via U.S. Department of Justice