US takes ownership of ship suspected in N. Korea oil scheme

Jul 30, 2021, 1:52 PM | Updated: 2:47 pm

NEW YORK (AP) — A tanker ship allegedly used in an illegal scheme to smuggle oil to North Korea has a brand-new owner: the U.S. government.

A federal judge in New York City issued a judgment of forfeiture Friday authorizing the U.S. to take ownership of the 2,734-ton M/T Courageous, which is currently in Cambodia.

“The Courageous is permanently out of service,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said in a statement.

Prosecutors say the ship delivered petroleum products to North Korea through ship-to-ship transfers and direct shipments to the North Korean port of Nampo.

One exchange caught on satellite imagery showed the M/T Courageous transferring more than $1.5 million worth of oil to a North Korea-flagged ship, prosecutors said.

The deliveries and related transactions that were made with U.S. currency through U.S. banks violated U.S. and United Nations sanctions on North Korea, prosecutors said.

Cambodian authorities, acting on a U.S. warrant, seized the M/T Courageous in March 2020 and have held it there since.

The ship’s suspected owner and operator, Kwek Kee Seng, of Singapore, remains at large.

U.S. prosecutors have charged Kwek with conspiracy to evade economic sanctions and money laundering conspiracy. Court records do not list a lawyer who could speak on Kwek’s behalf.

Prosecutors say Kwek and his co-conspirators engaged in an extensive scheme to evade sanctions by using vessels, including the M/T Courageous, to covertly deliver vital fuel supplies to North Korea while other ships were barred from doing so.

They allegedly tried to hide their scheme by using shell companies, lying to international shipping authorities and falsely identifying the M/T Courageous as a different ship.

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US takes ownership of ship suspected in N. Korea oil scheme