The U.S. has filed a civil forfeiture suit against an oil products tanker, the M/T Courageous, currently held in Cambodia under a U.S. seizure warrant, issued under seal on April 2, 2020. In the meantime, the FBI has issued a wanted poster for Singaporean national Kwek Kee Seng, who is charged with a leadership role in a scheme to use the ship to violate U.S and U.N. sanctions against North Korea.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, Kwek Kee Seng, 61, is charged with conspiring to evade economic sanctions on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and money laundering conspiracy. The civil forfeiture complaint against M/T Courageous says the tanker was purchased and operated by Seng 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.
According to the criminal and civil documents filed April 23 in Manhattan federal court, “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. Seng 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, Seng 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.
Seng 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.”
More details — including satellite imagery — in the charging documents: