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North Korea oil smuggling

Julien Grossmann
Posted by Julien Grossmann on Apr 8, 2021 11:51:56 AM

In a recent investigation the New York Times and analysts from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) uncovered a complex oil smuggling operation to North Korea.


Through a mix of old fashion on-the-ground journalism and OSINT (open-source intelligence) analysis, including IMINT (imagery intelligence), the researchers shed a light on a complex scheme designed to circumvent the sanctions on oil export to North Korea.


This investigation was a perfect example of the information management challenges associated with such investigations. Researchers had to gather and organise information and data about a myriad of entities, individuals, and items such as ships and offices.


To illustrate how reKnowledge can enhance and streamline such complex investigations, we thought we would re-create the investigation using our software.



To build up the body of evidence, we relied heavily on the evidence uncovered by the NYT and RUSI. In addition, we used our web-browser addon to augment certain data points (such as the ship information).


In this post, we will focus on how reKnowledge helps with the analysis of complex bodies of evidence.


We started our investigation by asking our system to show all the ships that have made deliveries in North Korea. Using the advanced search tool, we created a query to return all the ships associated with positions in North Korea. This query returned three ships, the Diamond 8, the Xin Hai and the Kum Jin Gang 3.



During the collection stage, we noticed that the ships transporting oil to North Korea had loaded their cargo during bunkering operations. As a result, we can now extend the initial query to include the ships involved with the bunkering events. This new query returned 3 more ships, the Super Star, the Aquamarine and the Ever Grandeur.


Having identified six ships involved in the smuggling operations, it is time to understand which organisations or individuals are operating or owning those ships.


So next, we asked the system to show us all individuals and companies owning or operating those ships. While no such information was available for the Xin Hai and the Kum Jin Gang 3, the system nonetheless returned 3 clusters.


One such cluster already yielded a direct connection between the Super Star and the Diamond 8 through the Winson Shipping company. Winson Shipping was the owner of the Super Star during the period the ship was suspected to be involved in the oil smuggling scheme. It had also been an owner of the Diamond 8 between 2012 and 2016.


Having identified those 3 distinct clusters, the next logical question is to find out whether those clusters are somehow connected to each other.

Using our new advanced search functionality, we asked our system to show us connections between the various sub-graphs or clusters.

We initially started with a small degree of separation asking for immediate connections between the various clusters. Then we slowly increased the level of separations to discover new paths.

At one degree of separation, we can identify indirect connections between Winson Shipping and the Ever Grandeur, through Zuo Fasheng and the company Glory Sparkling.


At two degrees of separation, the main cluster is connected to the Aquamarine cluster through the Winson Group and Sze Lai Wan.



As we expand the network of connections between our three clusters, it becomes clear that Winson Shipping is closely interlinked with at least four of the six ships involved in the oil smuggling scheme.


In particular, the numerous connections between Winson shipping and the Diamond 8 are worth having a closer look.


The company owned the ship between 2012 and 2016. In addition, several of the companies that subsequently owned the ship lease their office in a building owned by Winson Shipping.


Winson Shipping also shares employees and directors (Wei Run Chen and Zuo Fasheng) with Glory Sparking which controlled the Ever Grandeur during the period of interest. 


All of these elements make Winson Shipping worth marking as a critical entity in this conspiracy to smuggle oil to North Korea.


Diamond 8 to Winson shipping


Investigating the network of connections surrounding Winson Shipping we noticed that one individual was prominent: Tony Tung. Tung is the founder of the Winson Group, the parent company of Winson shipping.

He is also the founder of one of Winson Shipping subsidiary: Winson Oil. Tung influence and connections to the various Winson companies does not stop at direct connections. He also uses his family in prominent roles throughout the group.


Tung’s wife Sze Lai Wan appears to be extensively involved in the business of her husband. She is a major shareholder in Winson Group and Winson Oil, as well as being a director at Leader Power Global which owns the Aquamarine.

TT network

Tony Tung is also an interesting character due to its suspected connections to criminal organisations and fraudulent activities.


For instance, Tung has long been suspected to have connections to the Xiamen Yuanhua smuggling syndicate. In addition, he has been accused of bribing Taiwanese parliament member Chung Shao-ho. While Tung escaped prosecution, Chung Shao-ho was sentenced to seven years in jail for taking a NT$3 million bribe from Tung to expedite a business license application made by the Winson Group.  


Furthermore, Tung was a business partner of Lai Changxing a famous Chinese smuggler sentenced to life in prison for bribing officials and smuggling goods.


TT network zoom 1


Finally, the NYT journalists and RUSI analysts uncovered one final network of interest connected to Tung. Among the individuals they identified in Tung network two deserve a closer look: Tao Ming Chi and Wong Tin Chuk


Tao Ming Chi is connected to the Diamond 8 through the Vanguard Ship management company with which it shares an office in Indonesia. 


In addition, it was Ming Chi's daughter Tsoi Mui Yung that sold the Diamond 8 to its current owner Tan Jeok Nam.


Wong Tin Chuk has bought and sold ships to Winson Shipping. In addition, he is connected to Tan Jeok Nam through a tanker Tin Chuk owned and on which Jeok Nam used to be a shipmate. 


However, what makes Tin Chuk interesting is its suspected connections to Fujianese organised crime groups. His name has appeared on crowdsourced lists of Fujianese criminals that was published following the violence those gangs committed against Hong Kong protesters in 2019. 


Tony Tung, Tao Ming Chi and Wong Tin Chuk appear to come from the same village in the Fujian province. All three men belong to the same village community association and the same school alumni association.  




TT network zoom 2


As this investigation by the New York Times and the Royal United Services Institute shows, criminals are using increasingly complex scheme to circumvent international sanctions. 


Uncovering such activity is critical to ensure a fair playing field for businesses but also to ensure that global security cannot be threaten by rogue actors such as the North Korean regime.


However, such investigations are highly complex, time consuming and expensive to produce. 


By using a tool such as reKnowledge, analysts and journalists greatly speed up their research project. From evidence gathering, to analysing complex body of evidences and communicating insights to decision-makers, reKnowledge streamline every aspect of research. 


More importantly still, reKnowledge empowers investigative and research organisations with the ability to build an institutional knowledge that can be constantly enhanced and leveraged. All the evidences gathered during this project will be available for any subsequent investigation. 


With reKnowledge, organisations will never lose any information and insights they have worked so hard to get or produce. Would an analyst come across any of the organisations, individuals or ships we have identified in this research project, it will have access to all the knowledge already gathered about those entities and will be able to augment it with new information. 





Topics: OSINT, Investigation, reKnowledge

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