THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: So good morning, everyone. Welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center’s briefing on the latest from the State Department’s Rewards for Justice Program. My name is Jake Goshert, and I’m the moderator for this briefing. As a reminder, the briefing is on the record, and we will post a transcript of the briefing on our website, fpc.state.gov. For all the journalists joining us on Zoom, please take a moment now to rename yourself in the chat window with your name, your outlet, and your country so that when we have questions, we will know who we’re calling on.
Our distinguished briefers today are Paul Houston, the deputy assistant – the Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and Assistant Director of the Diplomatic Security Service for Threat Investigations and Analysis, joined by DAS Gonzalo Suarez, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Security in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation.
Following their opening remarks, I will open the floor for questions. But with that, I’m going to turn it over to DAS Houston to begin with opening remarks.
MR HOUSTON: Great. Thank you. Good morning, everyone. The Department of State is committed to countering the DPRK’s unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile program and to keeping the pressure on the DPRK through multilateral sanctions. As part of that policy, the Rewards for Justice offers a reward of up to $5 million for information that leads to the disruption of financial mechanisms of individuals engaged in certain activities that support the DPRK. These mechanisms include money laundering, exportation of luxury goods to the DPRK, certain cyber activities, and certain actions that support weapons of mass destruction proliferation.
Today, for the first time, we are highlighting an individual, Kwek Kee Seng, under this reward offer. Kwek Kee Seng is a Singaporean national and director of the Singapore-based shipping agency Swanseas Port Services. As alleged, Kwek is engaged in an extensive scheme to evade United States and United Nations sanctions by shipping fuel to the DPRK in violation of U.S. law. He has organized the delivery of petroleum products directly to the DPRK as well as ship-to-ship transfers of fuel destined for the DPRK using one of his oil tankers. As alleged, Kwek and his co-conspirators sought to obscure their activities by conducting financial transactions through a series of shell companies based in Panama, Singapore, and other locations.
In April of 2021 the United States District Court of Southern New York issued a warrant for his arrest. Kwek was charged with conspiracy to violate the International Economic Powers Act and conspiracy to commit money laundering. He remains at large. We encourage anyone with information on Kwek Kee Seng to contact Rewards for Justice through its Tor-based tipline. More information on the reward offer is available on the RFJ website at rewardforjustice.net.
The Rewards for Justice Program, which is administered by the Diplomatic Security Service, is an effective law enforcement tool. Since its inception in 1984, we have paid more than $250 million to more than 125 individuals across the globe who provided information that helped resolve threats to U.S. national security. I am hopeful that the reward we are here to announce today will play a similar role in helping bring Kwek Kee Seng to justice. Now, let me turn over the microphone to Deputy Assistant Secretary Suarez.
MR SUAREZ: Good morning, colleagues. Thank you for being here. Thank you to the Foreign Press Center for hosting this event and to DAS Houston and the Diplomatic Security Service team for working tirelessly on this rewards program. My name is Gonzalo Suarez. I am Deputy Assistant Secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, where I oversee the counterproliferation portfolio, and this includes sanctions and export controls and related activities in these areas. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a country of major concern when it comes to proliferation. As many of you are likely aware, the DPRK is continuing its unprecedented pace, scale, and scope of ballistic missile launches this year.
As of – well, as of this morning, it has launched over 50 ballistic missiles, including six intercontinental ballistic missiles, and we assess it’s prepared to also conduct a nuclear test, pending only a political decision to do so. Despite the DPRK’s reckless behavior, our goals have not changed. We support the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Our DPRK policy calls for a calibrated, practical approach that seeks serious and sustained diplomacy. We have made clear that the United States harbors no hostile intent towards the DPRK, and we have repeatedly said we are willing to meet without preconditions. However, North Korea continues to develop and fund its unlawful WMD and ballistic missile programs through sanctions evasion efforts in violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions.
Addressing the DPRK’s unlawful weapons program is necessary to uphold the global nonproliferation regime. We must let proliferators know that they will be held accountable for their actions and that we will do everything we can to impede their efforts. My team and I are committed to using all available tools to counter North Korea’s unlawful activities, hold the regime accountable for its actions, and constrain the expansion of its UN-prohibited weapons programs. This includes not only working to disrupt North Korean efforts to obtain items needed for its unlawful weapons program, but we are also taking actions to deter North Korea’s illicit imports of refined petroleum and to shut down its efforts to generate revenue in support of these programs.
And we, the United States, are not alone in this effort. We have ongoing cooperation with more than 60 countries worldwide to help partner governments and relevant private sector entities understand and more effectively implement UN Security Council resolutions against North Korea. UN Security Council resolutions prohibit ship-to-ship transfers of any cargo to or from North Korean-flagged vessels and also limit the DPRK’s import of refined petroleum products to 500,000 barrels per year, a cap that the DPRK has broken every year since it was imposed in 2018.
Our efforts to disrupt North Korea’s proliferation networks are extensive. Kwek Kee Seng is a prime example of the type of individual we are trying to disrupt. Mr. Kwek has engaged in extensive scheme to evade UN and U.S. sanctions to covertly transport fuel to the DPRK, both through ship-to-ship transfers and at least one direct delivery to a North Korean port. In 2019, Kwek’s shipping company transferred $1.5 million worth of oil to the DPRK, turning off the automatic identification system signal of their ship, the Courageous, to avoid detection. This is a tactic that is consistent with other DPRK-related efforts to avoid sanctions, and it’s also in contravention of the International Maritime Organization requirement for ship operations.
Kwek and his team sought to hide their scheme by lying to international shipping authorities about their dealings with the DPRK and by falsely identifying his ship as a different ship to evade detection. He and his co-conspirators sought to obscure their identities and illicit activities by conducting financial transactions through a series of shell companies, another common DPRK sanctions evasion tactic.
The FBI criminal complaint against Kwek and civil forfeitures complaint against Courageous, the OFAC sanctions against Kwek and his team from several weeks ago, and today’s announcement of the Rewards for Justice offer for Kwek send a clear message that we will continue to take actions against those who violate UN sanctions and put in place – that were put in place to prevent the development and sustainment of North Korea’s military and UN-prohibited weapons programs. We look forward to continuing this close collaboration with our law enforcement partners and the Rewards for Justice colleagues.
And once again, thank you for having me here today. Happy to take any questions.
MODERATOR: We will now be taking questions. Thank you both, DAS Suarez and DAS Houston, for your remarks. Journalists on Zoom, this is a reminder to raise your hand if you have a question, but change your name in Zoom to your name, your outlet, and your country. But we’ll first take questions from the room.
Yes. And if you could state your name and your outlet and country.
QUESTION: Hi. This is Soyoung Kim from Radio Free Asia. I have two questions. So I remember Kwek Kee Seng – the guy you mentioned today – he was designated on sanction list early October 7th by Treasury Department, and then I remember there was another individual, Chen Shih Huan, I believe – I’m reading the press release here. Are there any specific reasons why you just are highlighting only this individual today?
And then my second question is, since he is Singaporean-based, is there any cooperation with the Singaporean Government searching his – him or his information? Thank you.
MR HOUSTON: So I can answer your first question as to why today. So the Rewards for Justice program works with all of our partners, and as we look at this larger reward that we actually released with – in 2018 to look at these types of violations and financial assistance to the DPRK, we continue to work with our partners to identify multiple individuals so that we can continue to put the pressure on the DPRK and disrupt these activities. So while today we’re only announcing one individual, we continue to look for other individuals that may be directly connected to Mr. Seng or similar operations, or any other operations that are in violation of UN and United States sanctions.
MR SUAREZ: And to respond to your question about cooperation with Singapore, the short answer is yes, we have engaged Singapore on this issue throughout the case. They are very important and close counterproliferation partners. And I don’t want to go into details of those discussions, but we do have active engagement with a range of partners, certainly on North Korea counterproliferation issues.
MODERATOR: Any other questions in the room? Okay. Please state your name, outlet, and country.
QUESTION: Yes. Thank you so very much. Alex Raufoglu, Turan News Agency. I just want to follow up with a previous question. The warrant, as I understand, was issued in April 2021. Can you walk us through what has been done between 2021 April and now in terms of going after this particular individual?
And secondly, I came here to hear more about also potential quid pro quo between Russia and North Korea, or yesterday we heard about many countries are involved in to North Korea’s arms deal with Russia. Are those countries potentially in your radar in this particular situation? And which comes back to again, why now? Thanks so much.
MR HOUSTON: Thank you for that. So as to the question of what has been done since the indictment was released in 2021, so the Rewards for Justice Program that we’re talking about today is just one of many efforts that the United States is looking to address not only this individual but other individuals that are a part of it. I’ll leave it to the others, as my specialty today is just talking about the Rewards for Justice. But I do know that there is a larger U.S. Government effort that is in place for that, and identifying the Rewards for Justice program and the success of that program, again identifying other individuals for our responsibilities in bringing them to justice has proven a success, and that’s why we want to focus on this effort to, again, what we can do as our part of the U.S. Government, again to address this issue with Mr. Kwek.
MR SUAREZ: And regarding your second question for cooperation with Russia, I guess what the perspective I would put on this is that the threat of proliferation from North Korea is a concern for a range of countries. There’s been multiple UN Security Council resolutions specifically targeting North Korean proliferation that all UN member-states have an obligation to uphold and prevent violations. Russia is not exempt from that obligation. Neither is China. And it would be useful if China and Russia had more active roles in preventing proliferation related to North Korea. Over.
MODERATOR: Any other questions in the room at this moment? Yes, in the back? Again, please state your name and your outlet and your country.
QUESTION: Hi. My name is Byoungki Mun from Dong-a Ilbo, South Korea. And actually this could be a little bit broader question. And as you mentioned, North Korea is firing like barrage of missiles recently and there’s concern that North Korea could conduct another further nuclear test right now. So I’m just wondering if you – if there’s preparation to impose further sanctions, like including financial sanctions against North Korea if they conduct further nuclear tests. Thank you.
MR SUAREZ: So I guess the first point is that we don’t really preview any sanctions decisions before they take place, but we are obviously closely tracking the spate of missile launches. We continue to seek the peaceful denuclearization of the peninsula. The diplomatic discussions, that’s our main objective. But we do have, of course, a range of tools available. Sanctions is one of those. And while I can’t preview any sanctions decisions, certainly it’s a tool we’ve used before in such situations and we’ll probably use again.
MODERATOR: Let’s go to Zoom. We have a question from Nike Ching with VOA. Nike, if you can please turn on your microphone and your camera and ask the question.
QUESTION: Thank you very much for the briefing. Just a quick question. Is today’s announcement of the $5 million bounty the same – excuse me – today’s announcement of $5 million rewards in addition to the one announced in July 13, which only targeted a North Korean cyber threat? And can you give us an update – how much rewards have been offered up today to disrupt all DPRK-related illegal activities by the United States? Thank you.
MR HOUSTON: So let me answer your second question first. So we don’t get specific as to the amount of money or the individuals or the number of tips that we’ve received for any specific – and that’s to protect the confidentiality both of the program and of the individuals that have come in. But we can say, as I mentioned earlier, over $250 million has been paid out to more than one hundred and – 125 individuals who have reached out to us. And again, that’s on many different topics that we have reward programs on that.
And I’m sorry, could we repeat the first part of that question just to make sure I have that?
QUESTION: The first part of question is: Is today’s announcement of the $5 million award – rewards in addition to the rewards announced on July 13, which only targeted North Korea cyber threat? Are they two different bounties, or are they the same? Thank you.
MR HOUSTON: Right. No, thank you for clarifying on that. So this one is specific directly for Mr. Kwek, so that is very separate from the one previously announced.
MODERATOR: Any other questions in the room or on Zoom? Again, on Zoom, please raise your hand in the Zoom chat if you have a question. And we’ll go here to the front row. Please state your name and country and outlet.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this. My name is Shincihi Akiyama. I am a reporter for the Mainichi Newspaper in Japan. My question is I wonder why and how North Korea can keep their activities on ballistic missiles. I mean, they are under the heavy sanctions, but still they’re doing these activities repeatedly. Could you give us any analyze on how they are keeping these activities with, like, financial resources or materials? How can get these resources?
MR SUAREZ: So North Korea employs a wide range of proliferation networks, such as the one directed by Mr. Kwek Kee Seng, to collect revenue from overseas operations to support a WMD program, including a ballistic missile program.
Overseas revenue generation is one of the major sources of funding for these things, and the activities that they include under these overseas revenue generations are things like ship-to-ship transfers, smuggling products. There’s arms sales, but there’s also increasingly use of IT workers overseas to do things that are ostensibly benign, such as web development. And this is – the people that are North Korean that are deployed to act as IT workers are then hired by companies, for example, and that revenue (inaudible) goes straight into some of these weapons programs.
Other overseas revenue generation activities are in things like heists of cryptocurrency. There’s been several cases of those instances. So these are the kinds of activities that North Korea undertakes to support their UN-prohibited WMD weapons programs and that we’re trying to curb.
MODERATOR: Any other questions for either of the briefers today?
Yes. Again, please state your name, country, and outlet.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this. This is Ken Harada from JiJi Press, Japan. So two questions. And so he was involved in this illicit transfer of petroleum to the North Koreans, so do you have any information how long he was doing this, when and how much he earned from this business?
And also another one is about the – so when the last time you heard of about him, and where was he or where – when he was at that place? Did he escape to any other countries from Singapore? If you have any question, please share with us.
MR HOUSTON: Unfortunately, I don’t have any information to answer your first question on that. But as to the second question, as to where he is right now, I think that’s why we’re asking everyone to please go to the RewardsforJustice.net website, which is in multiple languages. It also – will give you – give anyone who has information as to his location – provide an opportunity through various social media — both secure and unsecure — that are out there. If anyone knows where he is and is interested in providing information towards that, please contact the RewardsforJustice.net website.
MR HOUSTON: So as I think everybody knows, sometimes it’s a little bit easy – it’s a lot easier now to travel around. So as to the location, those are the questions that we’re actually looking for of where he’s actually located and encourage people to reach out to us to let us know.
MODERATOR: Any other last questions today?
Okay, seeing none, I’d like to give a last chance to our two briefers, DAS Houston and DAS Suarez, to share some final thoughts with us before we end the briefing.
MR HOUSTON: So again, as we’ve been able to talk about today and share with everyone, this is a very important national security priority to the United States, and then obviously to a lot of others around the world. So we are looking today just for this one individual, but we know we have – again, are looking for other individuals as part of our Rewards for Justice program. And so we would encourage anyone that’s out there, please reach out to RewardsforJustice.net and share that information with us. Thank you.
MR SUAREZ: Well, and then just to close my portion by again noting that North Korea remains a significant proliferation country of concern. And we, the United States, will continue to use all tools available to try to interfere with, impede, and stop North Korean proliferation, while at the same time noting that our policy remains to seek a peaceful, negotiated, diplomatic denuclearization of the peninsula. Thank you.
MODERATOR: And that ends our briefing for today. Thank you so much.