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North Korea

We had no idea, says shipping company manager about vessel seized for North Korean oil delivery

Business associate of Lighthouse Winmore’s mainland Chinese owner says crew of impounded vessel is safe in South Korea

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 January, 2018, 7:18pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 January, 2018, 10:02am

A senior executive of a shipping company which manages a tanker seized for transferring oil to North Korea said the ship was chartered out, but denied knowledge of it being used for trade with the reclusive state.

The Hong Kong-registered Lighthouse Winmore was seized and inspected by South Korean customs officials on November 24 for transferring 600 tonnes of refined oil to a North Korean vessel in international waters in the Yellow Sea on October 19, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said on Friday.

The vessel is owned by Win More Shipping, and managed by Lighthouse Shipping Development, which have registered addresses in Guangzhou, according to the Hong Kong Companies Registry. The two companies also share a director, Gong Ruiqiang.

Zeng Haibo, a deputy general manager of Lighthouse Shipping Development, told the South China Morning Post that it was unaware the tanker had been used to breach United Nations sanctions imposed on North Korea because of its nuclear weapons programme.

“We just rent the ship out. We are not aware of what goods the ship carried or whether it was used to trade with North Korea,” Zeng said.

“We are liaising, through our mainland lawyers, with the relevant authorities,” he said, adding that those authorities comprised the South Korean, mainland and Hong Kong governments.

The Lighthouse Winmore remains impounded in the South Korean port of Yeosu, with its 25 crew – 23 Chinese and two Myanmese – still being questioned by the South Korean authorities.

Zeng Weicheng, a business associate of Gong, told the Post on Tuesday that the Lighthouse Winmore had been chartered by a Taiwanese company, with which Gong had never dealt before.

Zeng is a manager at Lingdong Freight International, a company in which Gong owns a small stake. The company used to be based in the same Guangzhou building as another company he controlled.

“Gong just rented the ship to a Taiwanese company for a few months … we have no idea about any deal between the Taiwanese company and North Korea,” Zeng Weicheng said.

South Korea seizes Hong Kong tanker after ‘oil delivery to North Korean ship’

Although he did not disclose the name of the firm that rented the Lighthouse Winmore, South Korean officials said on Friday that the 144-metre-long, 11,200-tonne vessel had been chartered by the Taiwanese company Billions Bunker Group. They said also that it had docked in Yeosu on October 11 to load Japanese refined oil before heading towards its purported destination in Taiwan.

Contact details for Billions Bunker could not be found and Taiwan’s presidential office has said the company was not incorporated in Taiwan.

Zeng Weicheng refused to provide any further details on how the incident was being handled, but confirmed the tanker’s Chinese crew members were still in South Korea.

“The ship’s Chinese crew members are our employees and are safe now on the ship,” he said, adding that Gong might have more to say in Guangzhou on Wednesday.

Lighthouse Shipping Development’s office, in the city’s Panyu subdistrict, was open on Tuesday morning, with about 10 people working there. Pictures of the impounded ship could be seen hanging on the walls.

A manager, who declined to be named, said he had heard nothing about the company being involved in trade with North Korea.

A woman working in the building’s property management office said Lighthouse Shipping Development had been operating there for years.

“The boss [Gong] is a wealthy businessman in his late 40s,” she said. “We’ve heard he owns several ships.”

The woman said she had not seen any officials or police visit the shipping company’s office following the reports that one of its ships had been involved in illicit trade.

China says secret oil trade with North Korea ‘does not exist’

The Lighthouse Winmore is one of 10 ships the United States is urging the UN to blacklist for involvement in the illicit transfer of oil in the Yellow Sea in breach of tough new UN sanctions, Reuters reported on Sunday.

South Korea has also seized another tanker with a mainly Chinese and Myanmese crew suspected of transferring oil to North Korea, a report said on Sunday. The 5,100-tonne, Panama-flagged KOTI was detained two weeks ago at the port of Pyeongtaek-Dangjin and its crew was being investigated over alleged ship-to-ship transfers, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted local maritime officials as saying.

South Korean media reported last week that US reconnaissance satellites had spotted Chinese and North Korean ships illegally transferring oil about 30 times since October.

On Thursday, US President Donald Trump accused China of violating sanctions designed to force North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons programme.

“Caught RED HANDED – very disappointed that China is allowing oil to go into North Korea,” Trump said on his personal Twitter account.

Speaking later to The New York Times, Trump said he had “been soft” on China in regards to trade because he had hoped its leaders would do more to rein in North Korea.

He called on China “to help us much more” and signalled he might otherwise launch punitive trade actions targeting China.