How We Tracked Secret Oil Deliveries to North Korea

A satellite captured this image over the ocean near Taiwan on a cloudy day in May 2020. At first it just seems to show clouds until you take a closer look and improve the picture. What you are seeing here is a transfer of oil on a ship that is about to land in North Korea, which may violate international sanctions. Covert oil shipments are vital to North Korea’s economy and its ballistic and nuclear weapons program. Our investigation focuses on one way oil is getting into North Korea. We followed the movements of a single tanker and the opaque corporate structures that surround it. We spent months unraveling the ship’s history. It’s called Diamond 8 and has been identified multiple times by the United Nations for its illegal trips to North Korea. We visited companies, ports and tracked tankers at sea to find out who was behind these voyages. What we discovered were sophisticated networks, many of which are connected to the Singapore-based oil trader Winson Group primarily through the Taiwanese subsidiary Winson Shipping. “Respond to your needs. Winson Group. “Our investigation, which includes the results of a new report from research groups RUSI and C4ADS, shows for the first time how the Winson group is playing a role in North Korea’s search for oil. The path from a single tanker to the Kim Jong-un regime is When we have everything in a flowchart, it looks like this – so we’re going to simplify it by focusing on the Diamond 8. We’ll also look at two tankers that carry oil there – the Ever Grandeur and the Superstar Not only are these ships connected by their meetings at sea. They have connections with a handful of people who don’t seem to be connected on the surface, but when we looked closer we found that most of the key people are with the same village in China’s Fujian Province, and they all have ties to both Winson Shipping and the Winson Group, so let’s look first on how the oil gets to North Korea. We analyzed photos and previous videos of the Diamond 8, matched them with satellite imagery, and took measurements to create a visual fingerprint. This enabled us to follow the movements of the Diamond 8 over the past year. We have confirmed our findings with experts who track oil tankers in North Korean ports. We show you two of his trips to North Korea. The first, in February 2020, begins here at idle in the waters off Fujian Province, a region where oil smuggling has been widespread in the past. It goes off and picks up oil from the Ever Grandeur near Taiwan and goes straight to North Korea. This journey is pretty straight forward. The ones we discovered in May 2020, not so much. But here is what we know. The Diamond 8 travels along Taiwan’s coast. On April 30th she drives past a port where a second, much larger red tanker is loading oil. This tanker, known at the time as the Superstar, follows the Diamond 8 according to ship transfers in international waters. Cloudy skies that day seem to shield operations from satellites, but as we’ve seen, a hole in the clouds shows the oil transfer. The Diamond 8 does not enter any ports for three weeks. It mostly only lingers in open waters. Then it sails north. The required transmission signal goes away for eight days, but we found it during that window in that port in North Korea. The dimensions and features are the same as the Diamond 8, a result that has been confirmed by experts. When we see it again, its signal will be on again and it will be near Taiwan again. We meet with the superstar to get more oil. We wanted to know who is behind the Ever Grandeur and the Superstar, the two ships that supplied the oil for the Diamond 8. So we looked at the shipping records to investigate their history and management. Let’s start with the Ever Grandeur. We actually filmed it while it was idling in Kaohsiung Harbor, Taiwan. The company that controls the ship is only five miles away. It’s called Glory Sparkling. Chien Yuan Ju, an executive at Winson Shipping, told us they didn’t start Glory Sparkling. However, we have found evidence that the companies are interconnected. Glory Sparkling’s address was on the Winson Shipping floors. The address didn’t change until after we started asking questions. The name of a Winson Shipping employee was registered on the Glory Sparkling website. We also have evidence that a senior Winson Shipping manager named Zuo Fasheng, seen here with Winson Group founder Tony Tung, also worked for Glory Sparkling. We found his signature on documents for both companies, including paperwork for the Ever Grandeur. Officials from Panama, where the Ever Grandeur is registered, told us that their records show that Zuo Fasheng is currently listed as the operator of the ship. Now let’s take a closer look at the Superstar, the second ship to supply the Diamond 8 with oil. It’s actually a lot easier. Winson Shipping owns it and they confirmed the transfer to us in May 2020 but informed us that the ship was rented to someone else at the time of the operation. But they didn’t say who. Taken together, these details show how Winson Shipping is connected to both ships that supplied the Diamond 8 with oil, even after the ship was publicly extradited by the United Nations for illegally delivering oil to North Korea. So let’s take a look at the Diamond 8 itself. Winson Shipping actually owned it until 2016. From then until 2018, every affiliate listed their addresses and offices as owned by Winson Shipping. When we spoke to their shipping manager, he said that Winson Shipping sold the ship years ago, but he also made a bold statement: It is “ten thousand percent impossible” that it could ever go to North Korea. That is not true. Our research and UN reports show that the Diamond 8 has been to North Korea at least four times since late 2019. It is therefore not easy or straightforward to find out who exactly is behind the Diamond 8. To find out more, we had to look to Indonesia. The registered owner of the ship is Tan Jeok Nam, a 62-year-old retiree who lives in a modest neighborhood here. He told us that he was just a seaman who couldn’t afford to buy the $ 1.4 million ship. Something clearly doesn’t go together. So we set out to find out who sold him the ship – at least on paper. When we checked the sales contract, we found that the seller appears to be the daughter of Hong Kong-based businessman Tsoi Ming Chi. Tsoi is also affiliated with the company that manages the Diamond 8. When we visited this company in Indonesia there was no sign of a mail order business. It’s another dead end. So back to the retired Indonesian sailor Tan. There’s one more thing you need to know about him. He actually worked on oil tankers. One of the tankers was owned by a Hong Kong company owned by the late Wong Tin Chuk. Wong, Tsoi – these two businessmen have something else in common. Both have ties to Winson companies, including through rented office space, mortgages, and have exchanged ships with each other, according to a report by the RUSI and C4ADS research groups. And there is also a personal connection. Wong and Tsoi are connected to the founder of the Winson Group, Tony Tung, through the same village in the Fujian region of China with 2,600 inhabitants. In fact, all three belonged to the village homeland club and the alumni club of the same middle school. Two of them have been accused of smuggling in the past. Take Tony Tung, for example. He has been repeatedly investigated for smuggling and bribery. His only belief was later overturned. Shortly after he founded the Winson Group in the 1990s, Tung and his brothers were charged with smuggling cigarettes and oil into China, according to court records and state media. One of Tung’s brothers was sentenced to life imprisonment. He served three years and was later pardoned. At the time of the trial, Tung had already left China. For the past five years, Tung has stepped down from leadership positions at Winson Group and passed the reins to his daughter Crystal Tung. In a statement to The Times, she said: “The allegations against the Winson Group are unfounded and false. The Winson Group has not taken any action that violates any applicable sanctions against North Korea or sanctioned countries. “After The Times asked questions about the company’s involvement in oil shipments to North Korea, Winson Shipping Taiwan changed its name to Zheng Yu Shipping. Chien Yuan Ju, the executive who spoke to The Times, has also been replaced as the company’s official representative. The mysterious retired sailor, the oil trader, the maze of corporations – taken together, they reveal an elaborate system that hides the fact that oil is entering North Korea despite some of the toughest sanctions in history, and how Kim Jong-un continues to defy the international community. The Diamond 8 is back in Fujian, China, waiting for its next orders. The operators are now using a new trick: transmitting a fake ship’s name to hide its true identity. “Hey, this is Christoph, one of the reporters for this story. We spent months researching who is supplying oil to a sanction tanker that is delivering oil to North Korea. We looked at many satellite imagery, reviewed company records, and interviewed key stakeholders. It was massive teamwork that involved reporters in four countries. What you’ve just seen is only a small part of our coverage. For more information, visit exploration. If you have more information on this story, we’d love to hear from you. And of course if you like what you see, subscribe to the New York Times. Many Thanks.”

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