Lawsuit filed over ‘failure’ of Hong Kong officials to help retrieve tanker detained for alleged oil transfer to North Korea
Marine Department hit with legal action by shipowner who claims authorities plan to abandon vessel to South Korea ‘indefinitely’ after it was seized on suspicion of transferring 600 tonnes of refined oil to North Korean carrier in contravention of UN sanctions
The owner of a Hong Kong-registered tanker detained by South Korea for about eight months for allegedly transferring oil to the North is suing city authorities for not helping retrieve the vessel.
The 16,500-tonne carrier Lighthouse Winmore is owned by Win More Shipping, incorporated in Hong Kong.
On Wednesday the company’s director submitted documents charging that the Hong Kong Marine Department’s failure to demand the return of the vessel was illegal. The department had also failed to write to the United Nations to ask for the ship’s release, even though Win More had explained its innocence.
Hong Kong authorities were planning to cancel the ship’s registration by August 22, which would leave the tanker detained in South Korea “indefinitely”, the court documents said.
The carrier, which specialises in delivering petroleum and chemical products, has been detained in waters off the southern coast of Yeosu since November 24 last year, after it was caught allegedly “carrying out ship-to-ship operations” with a North Korean vessel, Sam Jong 2.
In January South Korea’s foreign ministry said the Lighthouse Winmore had been seized on suspicion of transferring 600 tonnes of refined oil to a North Korean vessel in international waters, breaking UN Security Council sanctions against the hermit state.
In the court documents filed by their solicitor, Brenda Chark & Co, the Hong Kong firm revealed that the Marine Department intended to deregister the tanker because certifications required to maintain its registration had been withdrawn by an international vessel-classifying body.
The company argued, however, that the body, Bureau Veritas, was only cutting links because it feared the allegations against Win More would hurt its reputation and business.
In the documents, the firm said South Korean authorities were willing to release the ship “if the [UN] committee decides, on a case-by-case basis and upon the request of the flag state [Hong Kong], that adequate arrangements have been made to prevent the vessel contributing to future violations.
“If the director proceeds to close the registration of the tanker on August 22 without making a request to the committee, the tanker, with the crew on board, will be left with being detained in South Korea indefinitely,” it said.
The writ went on to state that since the tanker was detained, its suppliers in South Korea had refused to send food for the 25 crew members on board, 23 of whom are Chinese. The remaining two are from Myanmar.
No maintenance has been carried out on the tanker as it can only be done at a dock. The company claimed this meant the vessel risked catching fire or capsizing at any moment, which would result in pollution for which the Hong Kong government would have to foot the bill because insurance firms had also abandoned the ship.
A spokesman for the Marine Department said it would not comment on the matter as legal proceedings had commenced.
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Win More is owned by Gong Ruiqiang, according to the writ. In July last year, the documents said, the firm was contacted by a Joey Bay from the Singapore branch of shipbroker Brazilship/Scanbrasil Comercio Maritimo. Bay told the company that a Taiwanese firm called Oceanic Enterprise was keen to charter the tanker.
Win More accepted the offer on July 19 on the condition that the tanker be deployed in the 12 months after August last year for fuel deliveries in the waters between Taiwan and Korea. But Win More insisted it was never told the Taiwanese firm was dealing with North Korea.
Zeng Weicheng, a business associate of Gong, told the Post previously that Gong had never dealt with the Taiwanese firm before.
“We have no idea about any deal between the Taiwanese company and North Korea,” Zeng said.