Following the move by the US in filing a civil forfeiture suit against oil products tanker Courageous (see Wednesday’s IMN) (IMO 8617524) which is currently being held in Cambodia under a US seizure warrant that was issued under seal on April 2nd, the FBI has issued a wanted poster for Singaporean national Kwek Kee Seng. Seng is charged with holding a leadership role in an alleged scheme to use the ship to violate US and UN sanctions against North Korea.
The US Justice Department said that Seng, 61, had been charged with conspiring to evade economic sanctions on North Korea and money-laundering conspiracy.
The civil forfeiture complaint against Courageous alleges that the tanker was purchased and operated by Seng to make illicit deliveries of petroleum products through ship-to-ship transfers with North Korean vessels, as well as direct shipments to the North Korean port of Nampo.
The criminal and civil documents filed in Manhattan federal court (links below) on April 23rd said that “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 $1.5m worth of oil to a North Korean ship, the Saebyol, which had been designated by OFAC, and travelled to the North Korean port of Nampo”.
The documents further claimed that Seng and his co-conspirators took additional steps to hide the scheme by:
- operating a series of shell companies
- lying to international shipping authorities about M/T Courageous’ dealings with North Korea, and
- falsely identifying M/T Courageous as another ship in order to evade detection.
The suit continued: “In furtherance of the scheme, Seng and his co-conspirators arranged for a variety of payments, denominated in US dollars, that were processed through US-based correspondent accounts to purchase oil – including more than $1.5m to purchase the oil that was transferred to the Saebyol, more than $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 were said to have sought to conceal these sanctions by 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.
The US revealed that Cambodian authorities seized M/T Courageous in March and had been holding the vessel pursuant to a US seizure warrant, which was issued under seal on April 2nd.
The 1987-built, 2,734 gt vessel also appears to have sailed under the name Sea Prima and under the flag of the St Kitts & Nevis. No AIS since September last year, when it was en route from Kaohsiung, Taiwan, to Sihanoukville, Cambodia.
It is currently listed as owned and managed by New Eastern Shipping Co of Xiamen, Fujian, China. ISM manager is Courage Maritime SA-BZE of Taoyuan City, Taiwan.