S'porean man wanted by FBI for allegedly flouting US, UN sanctions assisting in police investigations here

Kwek Kee Seng is wanted in the United States for allegedly flouting sanctions by doing business with North Korea and laundering money. PHOTO: US FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION

SINGAPORE - A Singaporean wanted by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is here, it has been confirmed.

Kwek Kee Seng, the director of a shipping agency here, is assisting in investigations by the Singapore police into possible offences under the United Nations Act.

The 61-year-old is wanted in the United States for allegedly flouting sanctions by doing business with North Korea and laundering money.

He was charged last week in the US with one count each of conspiring to violate sanctions and to commit money laundering.

According to court documents released by the US Department of Justice (DOJ), Kwek was involved in the scheme from February 2018 to March last year.

Responding to queries from The Straits Times, a police spokesman said Singapore will assist the US authorities.

"The Singapore authorities are aware that criminal charges have been filed in the courts of the US against Kwek for conspiracy to evade economic sanctions on the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and conspiracy to commit money laundering," she said.

"Singapore will assist the US authorities within the ambit of our laws and international obligations.

"We are unable to comment further because investigations into the matter are ongoing."

Kwek is listed as the director of Swanseas Port Services, which is registered with an address in Paya Lebar.

The company was started in 2018 and deals in the chartering of marine vessels.

Kwek is alleged by the FBI to have directed petroleum oil shipments worth more than US$1.5 million (S$2 million) to North Korea, violating sanctions imposed on North Korea to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons.

When ST visited Kwek's flat in Choa Chu Kang on Tuesday (April 27), a man in his 20s who claimed to be his son declined to comment on the allegations.

When shown the FBI wanted notice, the man confirmed that his father was still in Singapore, but said the police had not been to their home or questioned them.

FBI Special Agent Kevin Samaroo said Kwek had "engaged in an extensive scheme to evade US and United Nations sanctions" and had tried to hide his identity by using a series of shell companies.

The companies implicated are Swanseas Port Services in Singapore, Courage Maritime SA in Panama and New Eastern Shipping in China.

The money involved in the scheme was purportedly moved through various accounts at US financial institutions in an attempt to evade detection.

Kwek allegedly bought the M/T Courageous in July 2019 for about US$580,000 (S$770,000). The vessel is a 2,700-tonne oil tanker built in 1987, and is also registered as the Sea Prima.

Between August and December 2019, it allegedly switched off its automatic identification system.

Agent Samaroo said that in September that year, Kwek allegedly bought more than 2.8 million kg of oil, with the cargo clearance permit listing Swanseas Port Services as the carrier agent for the transaction. The oil was later transferred from Courageous to a North Korean vessel in the Korea Bay.

Court documents released by the DOJ included satellite images of Courageous tethered to the North Korean vessel on Sept 25, 2019, and another image of the ship in the North Korean port of Nampo on Nov 4.

The Courageous, which was owned and operated by Kwek, was seized in March last year in Cambodia.

A search of the ship allegedly showed that it had falsely identified itself as another ship called the Sea Cheetah.

The oil tanker M/T Courageous, also known as the Sea Prima, was spotted via satellite in the North Korean port of Nampo in 2019. PHOTO: US DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE

A federal arrest warrant was issued last Friday (April 23) for Kwek by the US District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The case is being handled by the Terrorism and International Narcotics Unit of the US Attorney's Office.

FBI assistant director William F. Sweeney Jr said Kwek is now a fugitive on its radar.

According to the wanted notice, Kwek is wanted for conspiracy relating to the enabling of North Korea's nuclear proliferation programmes.

US Attorney Audrey Strauss said Kwek conspired to violate international sanctions by arranging illicit deliveries of petroleum products to North Korea, and used front companies and false documentation to send money through the US financial system in support of the country.

"As a result of his illegal activities, not only does Kwek face criminal charges, but his sanctions-evading ship, the Courageous, has been seized and will no longer enable North Korea's pattern of evading the global community's prohibitions on support for that regime," she said.

The DOJ said the US will be working with its foreign partners to bring Kwek to justice.

If tried and convicted in the US, Kwek could be jailed for up to 20 years on each charge.

There is an extradition treaty between the US and Singapore, which may allow for Kwek to be legally handed over to the US authorities.

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