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North Korean Sanctions Evasions Reveal Hong Kong’s Middleman Role

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The Beaumont, a Hong Kong luxury residential complex where according to shipping databases the company that owns the Wan Heng 11 maintained an address, is seen on March 20.

HONG KONG (AP) — In the dead of night last month, two tanker ships pulled alongside each other in the East China Sea. One was a North Korean vessel, the other was the Belize-flagged Wan Heng 11.

Lights on both ships were blazing, arousing a Japanese spy plane’s suspicion they were carrying out a “ship-to-ship” transfer banned under United Nations sanctions imposed over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Records for the Wan Heng and a number of other ships identified in recent U.N. and U.S. sanctions blacklists and Japanese surveillance reports reveal ties to Hong Kong through front companies based here. The findings underscore rising concern over the southern Chinese financial capital’s role as a nexus for North Korea’s underground business network, which has led the U.S. government to urge Hong Kong authorities to crack down.

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This Feb. 13 image released by the Japanese Defense Ministry shows what it says is the Belize-flagged tanker Wan Heng 11 next to the North Korean-flagged Rye Song Gang 1 in the East China Sea carrying out a suspected banned “ship-to-ship” transfer.

The corporate registration agents that set up these front companies “present a key vulnerability in the implementation of financial sanctions,” said a report by the United Nations Panel of Experts on North Korean sanctions released on March 16. Researchers say North Korea relies on front companies acting as middlemen to mask its overseas trading links, many of which involve China.

Successively tighter rounds of sanctions aim to deprive North Korea of key sources of revenue by choking off its ability to smuggle exports, including through oil transfers between ships on the high seas.

[Read the full story here, at The Japan News]

Hong Kong, an Asian business hub, is “staying highly vigilant about activities and suspected cases” of sanctions violations and is “looking into the cases” involving Hong Kong-registered companies, the government said in a statement.

The city often tops business and economic freedom rankings, based on criteria that include ease of setting up business. That can also facilitate illicit dealings.

The city hosts a vast industry of company formation experts who can register corporations quickly and with minimum information from their clients. Many operate out of anonymous, one-room offices with as little as a single employee. They promise to set up a firm within a day for clients who can apply online if they’re not in Hong Kong.

Out of 11 companies based outside North Korea named in a U.S. Treasury sanctions list last month, two each were in China and Taiwan and one each in Singapore and Panama. The remaining five were in Hong Kong.

The U.N. report said separate investigations of a Singaporean company and Glocom, identified as a North Korean military equipment supplier, found evasion tactics included the use of Hong Kong front companies.

Hong Kong has imposed new rules aimed at preventing money laundering that took effect this month that require … (read more)

via The Japan News

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