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U.S. Charges Singaporean Trader With Laundering Money For North Korea

The FBI accuses Tan Wee Beng of laundering money through the U.S. and Singapore for North Korea.
The FBI accuses Tan Wee Beng of laundering money through the U.S. and Singapore for North Korea.

The Department of Justice is accusing a Singaporean trader of helping North Korea circumvent sanctions, saying Tan Wee Beng laundered millions of dollars through the U.S. and Singapore.

"Tan Wee Beng and his co-conspirators made deliberate efforts to launder money through the U.S. financial system on behalf of North Korea," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement on Thursday from the agency announcing the DOJ's charges.

The Treasury Department also announced "North Korea-related designations" on two of Tan Wee Beng's associated businesses, Wee Tiong (S) Pte Ltd and WT Marine Pte Ltd.

A representative at Wee Tiong (S) Pte Ltd, where Tan is director and a major shareholder, told NPR Tan was not available to comment on the charges.

However, in comments tothe BBC, the 41-year-old Tan denied the charges, telling the network, "Nobody has contacted me. The FBI has not called me, the Singapore police have not called me."

"We are an international trading company, and not a front [for laundering]," he reportedly said, saying he found out about the charges through news reports.

The Treasury Department alleged that since at least 2011, Tan and at least one other person at the company completed contracts for commodities worth millions of dollars for North Korea.

"To do so, Tan Wee Beng made a concerted effort to obfuscate payment origins and structure transactions to avoid regulatory scrutiny," the agency said — adding that in one instance, Tan and the company "orchestrated payment in bulk cash, hand-delivered to a North Korean."

Wee Tiong (S) Pte Ltd says it trades in marine fuels, rice and sugar and is "one of the largest privately owned commodities trading house[s] in Asia."

U.S. authorities issued a federal arrest warrant for Tan in August, after officials leveled charges against him including conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, bank fraud and money laundering.

North Korea has been called"one of the most heavily sanctioned countries in the world," imposed by both the U.S. and United Nations in response to its nuclear weapons tests — though North Korea takes creative measures to evade them.

The Treasury Department said last year that North Korea uses "state-owned entities and banks, as well as bulk-cash smuggling and trade" to access finance networks outside of the country. North Korea uses "aliases, agents, and individuals in strategic jurisdictions, as well as through long-standing networks of front or shell companies and embassy personnel," the department said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un earlier this month in Pyongyang — Pompeo's fourth visit to the country — in continuing talks with Kim over denuclearization. North Korea wants sanctions lifted immediately, while the U.S. wants the "final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea" before that, as Mnuchin described it.

On Thursday, a senior North Korean official touted progress since the historic summit between President Trump and Kim in June in Singapore, in addition to multiple meetings between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in this year.

Song Il-hyok, deputy director general of the North Korean foreign ministry's Institute for Disarmament and Peace, told a gathering of security officials in Beijing that Trump and Kim "recognised that the mutual confidence-building can promote the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula."

But according to The South China Morning Post, Song said the U.S. should "immediately lift the sanctions and the hindrance to confidence-building," saying sanctions are "confidence-destroying measures."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

James Doubek is an associate editor and reporter for NPR. He frequently covers breaking news for NPR.org and NPR's hourly newscast. In 2018, he reported feature stories for NPR's business desk on topics including electric scooters, cryptocurrency, and small business owners who lost out when Amazon made a deal with Apple.
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