The Lighthouse Winmore, a Hong Kong-flagged vessel suspected of transferring oil to North Korea in defiance of international sanctions, is seen in the sea off Yeosu, South Korea on Dec. 29, 2017. (Yonhap via REUTERS)
The case of illicit tankers shipping oil to North Korea gets curiouser and curiouser.
South Korea seized a Hong Kong-flagged ship, the Lighthouse Winmore, in late November, after suspecting it of transferring oil to North Korea. The ship’s registered manager, Lighthouse Ship Management, is located in the southern Chinese port city of Guangzhou.
South Korean customs officials concluded that the ship had loaded about 14,000 tons of refined oil in South Korea on Oct. 11.
It then transferred as much as 600 tons to the North Korea-flagged Sam Jong 2 on Oct. 19 in international waters between China and the Korean peninsula, on the order of its charterer, Billions Bunker Group Corp., according to a Reuters report published in December.
South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo cited South Korea government sources that said U.S. spy satellites had detected Chinese ships transferring oil to North Korean vessels about 30 times from October to December.
A day before South Korea announced the news, U.S. President Donald Trump took to Twitter to reprimand China for smuggling oil into North Korea.
The case has highlighted the difficulties in tracking ship ownership and determining the culprit behind smuggling operations. Billions Bunker, it turns out, is a company registered in Marshalls Island by a Taiwanese businessman named Chen Shih-hsien.
In early January, Chen was summoned to court in Taiwan, and released after he paid a bail of 1.5 million Taiwan dollars (about $511,000). Prosecutors allege that he had leased Lighthouse Winmore to provide oil to North Korea, in violation of international sanctions. In addition, another ship that the United States accuses of smuggling, Billions 18, is owned by Bunker’s Taiwan Group Corp. That company is registered in the British Virgin Islands, and Chen is the sole shareholder, according to prosecutors in the Kaohsiung district, Taiwan.