Singapore shipper guilty of funding illegal N. Korean arms deal through Bank of China

In 2013, Panamanian authorities seized a huge haul of surplus Cuban weapons, including MiG fighters and surface-to-air missiles, aboard a North Korean ship at the entrance to the Panama Canal. Multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions prohibit North Korea from buying or selling most weapons, so the Cuban stevedores covered the weapons with sacks of sugar. An investigation by the U.N. Panel of Experts found that a North Korean shipper, Ocean Maritime Management (OMM), owned the ship, and that the regrettably named, Singapore-based Chinpo Shipping handled the financial transactions behind the shipment. According to multiple open-source reports, Chinpo used its account in the local branch of the Bank of China for those transactions.

chong chon gang sugar

After lengthy delays by the U.N. bureaucracy, a Security Council-appointed committee and the U.S. Treasury Department designated OMM. Since then, Treasury has designated multiple OMM offices, agents, and enablers. Chinpo was neither designated nor blocked, but the authorities in Singapore charged it with violating a local law codifying U.N. Security Council sanctions against North Korea, and for running an illegal money transmitting business without meeting the financial due diligence requirements that apply to such businesses. Now, Reuters and the AP are reporting that the court has convicted Chinpo:

In announcing the verdict, Singapore District Judge Jasvender Kaur said the firm, Chinpo Shipping Company, could have contributed to the nuclear-related programs or activities of North Korea.

The company was also found guilty of running a remittance business without a valid license for more than four years.

Chinpo had wired $72,017 from its Bank of China account to a Panama-based shipping agent in July 2013 for the return passage of the MV Chong Chon Gang through the Panama Canal. [….]

Chinpo violated a United Nations law adopted by Singapore that prohibits the provision of financial services, assets or resources to North Korea that “may be reasonably be used to contribute to the nuclear-related, ballistic missile-related, or other weapons of mass destruction-related programs or activities.” The maximum sentence is a fine of 100,000 Singapore dollars ($71,000) and five years in jail. [AP]

If you’ve read all of the links I so laboriously embedded in those first two paragraphs, there isn’t much question that Chinpo willfully facilitated the North Korean shipment using deceptive financial practices.

That shouldn’t be the end of the story, however, because financial institutions like the Bank of China are supposed to have compliance and know-your-customer programs in place to ensure that they don’t service illicit transactions. In the specific case of North Korea, the Global Financial Action Task Force has called for “countermeasures” against its money laundering and arms dealing for years.

You would think, then, that one of the world’s largest banks would employ compliance officers competent enough to detect such suspicious activity, which (if denominated in dollars, and in this case, it was) must be reported to the Treasury Department. In fact, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network has published specific guidance on the reporting of suspicious North Korea-related transactions.

The U.N. Security Council’s adoption of specific financial measures to address this conduct reinforces long-standing Treasury Department concerns regarding North Korea’s involvement, through government agencies and associated front companies, in financial activities in furtherance of a wide range of illicit activities. These activities include currency counterfeiting, drug trafficking, and the laundering of related proceeds. FinCEN has previously noted such conduct, most recently in 2007.4 The Treasury Department remains especially concerned about the use of deceptive financial practices by North Korea and North Korean entities, as well as individuals acting on their behalf. Such deceptive practices may include North Korean clients’ suppression of the identity and location of originators of transactions; their practice of arranging for funds transfers via third parties; repeated bank transfers that appear to have no legitimate purpose; and routine use of cash couriers to move large amounts of currency in the absence of any credible explanation of the origin or purpose for the cash transactions. [….]

FinCEN notes that with respect to correspondent accounts held for North Korean financial institutions, as well as their foreign branches and subsidiaries, there is now an increased likelihood that such vehicles may be used to hide illicit conduct and related financial proceeds in an attempt to circumvent existing sanctions. Financial institutions should apply enhanced scrutiny to any such correspondent accounts they maintain, including with respect to transaction monitoring. [….]

Consistent with the standard for reporting suspicious activity as provided for in 31 C.F.R. part 103, if a U.S. financial institution knows, suspects, or has reason to suspect that a transaction involves funds derived from illegal activity or that a customer has otherwise engaged in activities indicative of money laundering, terrorist financing, or other violation of federal law or regulation, the financial institution shall then file a Suspicious Activity Report. [FINCEN Advisory, June 18, 2009]

FINCEN and FATF have both renewed their North Korea advisories repeatedly in recent years. And yet, from the fact that the transactions went through unimpeded, we can infer that nothing here seemed suspicious to the Bank of China’s compliance officers:

Chinpo had applied for a total of 605 outward remittances totaling $40 million from 2009 to 2013 on behalf of North Korean entities. Chinpo’s director, Tan Cheng Hoe, also heads associated companies Tonghee Shipping Agency and Great Best Trading.

When The Associated Press visited Chinpo’s listed address, another company said it has occupied the premises for more than a year. The case was adjourned until Jan. 29 to give prosecution and defense lawyers time to make submissions. [AP]

As one immediate consequence of this conviction, Treasury will almost certainly designate Chinpo Shipping, and possibly some of its officers. I’d expect to see those designations this week, if not today.

But Chinpo Shipping is a small fish, and no one should view that result as the end of this story. This isn’t the first time the Bank of China has come under suspicion for shady North Korea-related transactions, after all. Just as Treasury has recently taken enforcement actions against other big banks, such as BNP Paribas, Credite Agricole, and Commerzbank, for evading sanctions against other countries, Treasury should investigate whether the Bank of China violated the Bank Secrecy Act by failing to file Suspicious Activity Reports on Chinpo, and perhaps other North Korea-linked customers.

We’ll soon know just how serious the Obama Administration is about enforcing the Security Council’s sanctions by the message it sends — or doesn’t — to the Bank of China.

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