Treasury designates Singaporean shipping company for N. Korea weapons trade, but what about the Bank of China?

More than two years after the North Korean merchant vessel Chong Chon Gang was caught trying to sneak a shipment of Cuban MiGs and missiles through the Panama canal hidden under 200,000 sacks of sugar, the Treasury Department has, slowly and slightly, expanded its sanctions against the shipping companies involved in the incident.

Yesterday afternoon, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated Singapore-based Senat Shipping and its Director, Leonard Lai a/k/a Yong Chian Lai, a Singaporean national. It also blocked Senat’s one-and-only known ship, the Mongolian-flagged Dawnlight, IMO number 9110236. Both designations were under Executive Order 13,551, a 2010 order that allows the Treasury Department to sanction entities linked to violations of U.N. Security Council sanctions against North Korea, and also allows sanctions for North Korea’s money laundering. The designations mean that any property of the designated entities that comes within U.S. jurisdiction must be blocked. Significantly, this includes dollars that pass through correspondent accounts held in U.S. financial institutions.

The most recent report of a U.N. Panel of Experts (UN POE) investigating violations of North Korea sanctions found evidence of Senat’s long-standing (and almost certainly willful) participation in prohibited conduct by North Korea. Senat often acted in concert with North Korean shipping company Ocean Maritime Management (OMM), which arranged for the voyage of the Chong Chon Gang, and which was designated by both the U.N. and Treasury in 2014. During its investigation, the POE asked Senat about its links to OMM and the Chong Chon Gang, but Senat did not respond (see Para. 150). Even after the Chong Chon Gang incident resulted in widespread press coverage of a clear violation of U.N. sanctions, Senat continued to engage in transactions for the OMM-owned Mu Du Bong, which later ran around in Mexico (Para. 191).

Senat performed two main roles. The first of these was acting as a financial intermediary for OMM’s bunkering transactions, conducting dollar-denominated transactions through correspondent banks regulated by the U.S. Treasury Department (Para. 192), in a willful effort to evade U.N. sanctions.

192. The Panel has also obtained evidence of intermediaries issuing instructions for vessel names to be omitted from OMM-related financial transactions, including dollar transactions through United States correspondent banks. Such instructions were issued by Mariner’s Shipping for financial transactions made on behalf of vessels associated with OMM, the Am Nok Gang and the Mu Du Bong, and by Senat Shipping when issuing an invoice to the charterer of the Ryong Gang 2 (then owned by an OMM-associated entity, Taedonggang Sonbak Co Ltd) in January 2009 (see annex XLVII.1-14). Such efforts to obscure the true nature of financial transactions were confirmed by financial institutions contacted by the Panel.

193. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has disassociated logistics from the financial aspects of managing its vessels. This frustrates due diligence and allows the country to keep its foreign currency in circulation rather than repatriating it. In the case of the Chong Chon Gang, OMM Dalian arranged for spare parts from a European company to be delivered to Panama, with payments effected through Chinpo Shipping in Singapore (see annex XLVII.15). Mirae Shipping Hong Kong also paid Panama Canal passage costs. Senat Shipping in Singapore has also been heavily used for these types of dissociated transactions (see annex XLVII.1-14).

Senat’s links to Pyongyang are long-standing and extensive, according to Andrea Berger:

Leonard Lai does not hide his affinity for North Korea. In 2008 he went on record for the Singapore Business Federation encouraging companies to do business with the DPRK, adding that “companies can leverage off the strong loyalty and relationship-driven aspects of [North] Koreans.” In fact, Senat Shipping has ten mentions in KCNA, the most recent in mid-2014. Leonard appears to enjoy bringing flowers to the DPRK mission in Singapore and throwing parties in Kim Jong Il’s and Kim Il Sung’s honor. [Andrea Berger, 38 North]

Senat’s second role was reflagging North Korean ships. Berger writes in exhaustive detail about how Lai, along with fellow Singaporeans Chong Koy Sen and Lim Mei Peng, and working through a company called Sovereign Ventures, Inc., arranged for the reflagging of North Korean ships through their offices in Singapore and Panama since the 1980s. In exchange, the North Koreans rewarded Lai, Chong, and Lim with business contracts. The flag states included Cambodia, Mongolia, Tuvalu, Niue, and Kiribati.

Senat 1

[U.N. Panel of Experts]

The UN POE also found that “Senat’s Director travelled to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 2011 to attend a trade fair.” (Page 130, Footnote 89)

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Also yesterday, Treasury expanded its designation of OMM, adding OMM offices around the world: Pyongyang, of course, but also China (Dalian, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong); Russia (Vladivostok); Thailand (Bangkok); Egypt (Port Said); Singapore; and Brazil. It also added the OMM aliases East Sea Shipping Company, Haeyang Crew Management Company, and Korea Mirae Shipping Company.

Treasury also designated additional aliases of two officials of Tanchon Commercial Bank under a separate 2005 executive order focused exclusively on weapons of mass destruction, Executive Order 13,382.

Overall, the consequences of the July 2013 seizure of the Chong Chon Gang have been stupefyingly slow. A year after the seizure of the Chong Chon Gang, the former head of the U.N. Panel of Experts called the lack of action “regrettable.” Shortly thereafter, the U.N. designated OMM. The U.S. Treasury Department followed suit, and also designated 18 vessels in OMM’s fleet. Even so, OMM continued to operate out of ports around the world by reflagging and renaming its ships. 

The Panel of Experts opined that under UNSCR 2094, all states should seize any OMM vessels entering their ports (see Paragraph 133), but compliance has been mixed. Mexico seized the OMM ship Mu Du Bong when it ran aground in one of its ports. Japan sanctioned OMM, but then allowed an OMM ship to quietly slip in and out of one of its ports earlier this year. As recently as last week, an OMM ship was in the Russian port of Vanino. China has completely ignored the sanctions, as usual. Cuba, the most flagrant violator of them all, got away from the Chong Chon Gang incident scot-free.

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The use of Executive Order 13,551 — rather than the sweeping Executive Order 13,687 — suggests that the Obama Administration is still not ready to cross the key threshold from conduct-based sanctions to status-based sanctions, a move that the General Accountability Office recently found would greatly improve the lagging enforcement of North Korea sanctions.

Together with the EU’s recent designation of the Korea National Insurance Corporation, the actions suggest combined, but uncoordinated, concentration on North Korean shipping networks, a strategy advocated by Hugh Griffiths and Lawrence Dermody of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), in this must-read post.

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The designation of Senat again raises questions about another Singapore-based shipping company that Treasury has not designated, the regrettably named Chinpo Shipping, which shares the same address as North Korea’s local embassy. The UN POE found that OMM used Chinpo for the “payment of costs related to the voyage” of the Chong Chon Gang, and that “OMM arranged for payment for the ship’s passage through the Panama Canal to be made by a firm in Singapore, Chinpo Shipping, which told the Panel that OMM had provided it with funds and requested it to pay fees due a Panamanian firm.”

In June 2014, Singapore’s Public Prosecutor filed criminal charges against Chinpo and one of its officers, Tan Hui Tin, a citizen of Singapore, in connection with the Chong Chon Gang incident.

One possible reason for Treasury’s hesitation to go after Chinpo Shipping is the fact that, according to multiple open-source reports, Chinpo ran its transactions through the local branch of the Bank of China, in U.S. dollars. Blocking Chinpo (now, stop that) would raise serious questions about the Bank of China’s compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions, and also with Know-Your-Customer obligations under U.S. law. According to the POE’s 2014 report, the Equasis database (link here) also associates Chinpo with Pyongyang-based Korea Buhung Shipping Company. 

Banks that use the U.S. financial system — and the U.N. POE reports that most of North Korea’s transactions are still denominated in dollars — must comply with Treasury’s Know-Your-Customer rules, which require banks to make reasonable, due-diligence inquiries into who their customers are, who their beneficial owners are, and whether their business activities seem legitimate. If the transactions seem suspicious for any reason, the banks are required to report them to Treasury, and may also be required to block them.

Since 2011, the global Financial Action Task Force and Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network have repeatedly warned banks about North Korea’s deceptive financial practices and misuse of the financial system, and told them to apply “countermeasures” against that misuse. The FATF has specifically warned jurisdictions to “protect against correspondent relationships being used to bypass or evade counter-measures and risk mitigation practices.” The Chong Chon Gang incident also closely followed the adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2094, which directs member states to require “enhanced monitoring” of North Korean transactions to prevent violations, and to freeze any funds that could be used to further prohibited activities.

If the Bank of China was aware of Chinpo’s links to North Korea, then, it would have been obligated to disclose them to its U.S.-based correspondent banksEarlier this month, this blog post at the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time alleged that Chinese banks, and the Bank of China in particular, have become lax in their anti-money laundering compliance. The Bank of China has come under scrutiny for shadowy dealings with North Korea before. In 2005, the Asia Wall Street Journal reported that Treasury was investigating the Bank of China for laundering funds for Kim Jong-Il’s regime. The Bank of China denied the allegation.

As Acting Treasury Undersecretary Daniel Glaser recently reminded us, “China’s not going to do us any favors. China is going to work with us because it’s in their interests…. We’ve seen that with China’s commercial banks time and time again.” Indeed.

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Update: Additional coverage from NK News (via Leo Byrne), the AP, the Wall Street Journal, and Yonhap. Deutsche Welle contacted Senat, which called Treasury’s allegations “groundless and unwarranted.” It admitted to chartering ships for North Korea — including the Chong Chon Gang — but insisted that all of its dealings have been “legal” and “transparent.”

Treasury’s announcement of the designations contains this very interesting statement:

“Arms shipments transported by OMMC serve as a key resource for North Korea’s ongoing proliferation activities.  Sales from these shipments contribute to North Korea’s other illicit programs,” said Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Adam J. Szubin.  “We are working to make it as challenging as possible for North Korea to continue its unlawful behavior by actively targeting anyone or any business that supports these illicit arms transfers.”

I wonder whether Treasury bases this statement on specific financial intelligence about Pyongyang’s innermost financial circulatory system, or on the reasonable assumption that Bureau 39 profits from OMM’s arms shipments, and uses those proceeds to fund proliferation. Again, it’s a reasonable assumption, but why isn’t it equally reasonable to assume the same about the Kaesong Industrial Park? If protecting South Korea from North Korean proliferation was the driving motivation for these resolutions, why is South Korea given a special dispensation to violate the sanctions that Singapore isn’t?

3 Comments

  1. Sorry to be (slightly) off-topic here; but you didn’t enable comments on the “U.N. must confront the political causes of North Korea’s food crisis” article.

    Is it worth pointing out that Zimbabwe’s leader was trained in Pyongyang? That country’s food issues are deliberate. And I believe the North’s are, too. “Shared suffering”, “Stockholm Syndrome”. I don’t know how to address it without a regime change and selfishly I want my friends and relatives in Seoul to live without a war.




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  2. BTW, I know I come across as a bit of a troll; but I do greatly respect your website and your thorough analysis. Your questions reveal a lot of truth about the people who are supposed to be keeping us safe. Like (in this case) being afraid of or beholden to the PRC.




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