What we learned from our investigation into secret oil deliveries to North Korea

On a cloudy day in May 2020, a satellite takes this image over the sea near Taiwan. At first, it just seems to show clouds until you look closer and the image improves. What you see here is the transfer of oil to a ship that will end up in North Korea in a possible violation of international sanctions. Secret oil deliveries are crucial to North Korea’s economy and its ballistic and nuclear weapons program. Our investigation focuses on one way oil can get to North Korea. We followed the movements of a single tanker and the opaque corporate structures that surround it. We unraveled the story of the ship for months. It is called the Diamond 8, and it has been identified several times by the United Nations for its illegal travel to North Korea. We visited businesses, ports and navigable tankers at sea, all to find out who was behind these voyages. What we discovered was extensive networks, many of which are connected to the oil retailer Winson Group, which is located primarily in Singapore, primarily through the Winson Shipping company in Taiwan. ‘Take care of your needs. Winson Group. “Our investigation, which contains findings from a new report by research groups RUSI and C4ADS, reveals for the first time how the Winson group plays a role in North Korea’s efforts to obtain oil. The road from a single tanker to the government of Kim Jong-un is winding. When we put it all in a flow chart, it looked like this – so we’ll simplify it by focusing on the Diamond 8. And we’ll also look at two tankers transporting oil there – the Ever Grandeur and the Superstar. These ships are connected by more than just their encounters at sea. They have ties to a handful of people who do not seem connected at first glance, but when we looked deeper, we found that most of the key people were connected to the same town in Fujian province in China. And they all have connections with both Winson Shipping and the Winson Group. Let’s first see how the oil gets into North Korea. We’d analyzed photos and videos of the Diamond 8 in the past, linked them to satellite imagery, and taken measurements to create a visual fingerprint. This enabled us to follow the Diamond 8’s movements last year. We have confirmed our findings with experts locating oil tankers in ports in North Korea. We are going to show you two of his trips to North Korea. The first one, in February 2020, starts here and runs empty into the waters of Fujian province, a region where oil smuggling has been rampant in the past. It goes out and picks up oil from the Ever Grandeur near Taiwan and goes straight to North Korea. That trip is pretty direct. The one we discovered in May 2020, not so much. But here’s what we know. The Diamond 8 departs along the coast of Taiwan. It passes a harbor on April 30, where a second, much larger red tanker picks up oil. The tanker, then called Superstar, follows the Diamond 8 to international waters, according to the ship’s shipments. Cloudy skies during the day seem to protect the operation of satellites, but as we have seen, a hole in the clouds can reveal the oil transfer. For three weeks, the Diamond 8 does not arrive in any ports. It is mostly only in open waters. Then it sails north. The required transmission signal disappears for eight days, but we found it during the window in this port in North Korea. The dimensions and features correspond to the Diamond 8, which is confirmed by experts. When we see it again, the signal is on again and it’s near Taiwan again, meeting the Superstar to get more oil. We wanted to know who was behind the Ever Grandeur and Superstar, the two ships that delivered the oil to the Diamond 8, so we looked at shipping records to examine their history and management. Let’s start with the Ever Grandeur. We actually went to film it while it was sitting idle in the port of Kaohsiung in Taiwan. Only five kilometers away is the company that controls the ship. This is called Glory Sparkling. Chien Yuan Ju, a manager of Winson Shipping, told us that they did not set up Glory Sparkling. But we have found clues that the companies are interconnected. Glory Sparkling’s address was on floors owned by Winson Shipping. Its address only changed after we started asking questions. And on Glory Sparkling’s website, it’s registered with the name of a Winson Shipping employee. We also have evidence that a high-ranking Winson Shipping manager named Zuo Fasheng, here with Winson group founder Tony Tung, also worked for Glory Sparkling. We found his signature on documents for both companies, also on paperwork for the Ever Grandeur. Officials from Panama, where the Ever Grandeur is registered, informed us that Zuo Fasheng is currently listed as the operator of the ship. Let’s now look at the Superstar, the second ship to supply oil to the Diamond 8.. It’s actually a lot more straightforward. Winson Shipping owns it and they confirmed the May 2020 transfer to us, but told us that the ship was leased to someone else when the operation took place. But they did not say who. Together, these details indicate how Winson Shipping connected to both ships that supplied oil to the Diamond 8, even after the ship was publicly issued by the UN for the illegal delivery of oil to North Korea. So let’s look at the Diamond 8 itself. Winson Shipping actually owned it until 2016. And from then until 2018, every company connected to it listed their addresses and office space as the property of 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 would ever go to North Korea. That’s not true. Our investigation and UN reports show that Diamond 8 has been in North Korea at least four times since late 2019. So it’s not easy or straightforward to find out who’s behind the Diamond 8. To find out more, we had to look at Indonesia. The registered owner of the ship is Tan Jeok Nam, a 62-year-old pensioner who lives here in a modest neighborhood. He told us he was just a sailor who could not buy the $ 1.4 million boat. Something is clearly not counting. Therefore, we determined who sold the ship to him – at least on paper. When we reviewed the sales letter, we noticed that the seller is apparently the daughter of businessman Tsoi Ming Chi in Hong Kong. Tsoi is also linked to the company that manages the Diamond 8.. When we visited the company in Indonesia, there was no sign of a shipping company. It’s another dead end. So back to the retired Indonesian sailor, Tan. There’s one more thing you need to know about him. Previously, he worked on oil tankers. One of the tankers belongs to a Hong Kong company owned by the late Wong Tin Chuk. Wong, Tsoi – these two businessmen have something in common. They both have ties with Winson companies, including through a leased office space, and have exchanged ships with each other, according to research groups RUSI and C4ADS. And there is also a personal bond. Wong and Tsoi are connected to the founder of the Winson group, Tony Tung, by the same village in the Fujian region of China, 2,600 inhabitants. In fact, all three belonged to the town’s hometown club and the alumni association of the same high school. Two of them have been accused of smuggling in the past. Take Tony Tung, for example. He has faced several smuggling and bribery investigations. His only conviction was later overturned. Shortly after founding the Winson group in the 1990s, Tung and his brothers are accused, according to court documents and state media, of smuggling cigarettes and oil to China. One of Tung’s brothers was sentenced to life in prison. 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 executive positions at the Winson Group and handed over the reins to his daughter, Crystal Tung. In a statement to The Times, she said: ‘The allegations against Winson Group are unfounded and false. Winson Group has not taken any action in violation of appropriate sanctions against North Korea or any countries approved. After The Times asked questions about the company’s involvement in oil deliveries to North Korea, Winson Shipping Taiwan changed its name to Zheng Yu Shipping. Chien Yuan Ju, the executive who spoke to The Times, was also replaced as the company’s official representative. The mysterious retired sailor, the oil trader, the maze of companies – together they uncover an extensive system that hides one way that oil reaches North Korea, despite some of the strongest sanctions in history, and how Kim Jong-un continues to to defy the international community. As for the Diamond 8, it’s back in Fujian, China, waiting for the next orders. Its operators are now using a new trick: transmitting a fake ship name to hide its true identity. ‘Hey, this is Christoph, one of the reporters of this story. We have been investigating for months the supply of oil to a tanker that supplies oil to North Korea. We looked at a lot of satellite images, checked corporate records and interviewed key players. It was a massive team effort involving reporters in four countries. What you just saw is just a small part of our reporting, and you can find more details at nytimes.com/ visualinvestigations. If you have any other 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. Thank you. ”

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