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How Illicit Oil Is Smuggled Into North Korea With China’s Help

On an overcast day in May 2020, a satellite captures this image over the sea near Taiwan. At first it appears to just show clouds, until you look closer and enhance the image. What you see here is a transfer of oil to a ship that will end up in North Korea in a possible violation of international sanctions. Covert oil deliveries are crucial to North Korea’s economy and its ballistic and nuclear weapons program. Our investigation focuses on one way oil is getting to North Korea. We followed the movements of a single tanker and the opaque corporate structures that surround it. We spent months unraveling the story of the ship. It’s called the Diamond 8, and it’s been identified by the United Nations multiple times for its illicit trips to North Korea. We visited businesses, ports, and tracked tankers at sea, all to find out who was behind these voyages. What we discovered were elaborate networks, many that connect to the Singapore-headquartered oil trader the Winson Group, primarily through its Taiwan operation Winson Shipping. “Catering to your needs. Winson Group.” Our investigation, which includes findings from a new report by the research groups RUSI and C4ADS, reveals for the first time how the Winson Group plays a role in North Korea’s bid to get oil. The path from a single tanker to Kim Jong-un’s regime is convoluted. When we laid it all out in a flow chart, it looks like this — so we’re going to simplify it by focusing on the Diamond 8. And we’ll also look at two tankers that transport oil to it — the Ever Grandeur and the Superstar. These ships are connected by more than just their meet-ups at sea. They have ties to a handful of people who on the surface seem unconnected, but when we looked deeper, we found that most of the key individuals are linked to the same village in China’s Fujian Province. And they all have connections to both Winson Shipping and the Winson Group. Let’s first look at how the oil gets to North Korea. We analyzed photos and past videos of the Diamond 8, matched them with satellite imagery and took measurements to create a visual fingerprint. This allowed us to follow the Diamond 8’s movements last year. We confirmed our findings with experts who track oil tankers in North Korean ports. We’re going to show you two of its trips to North Korea. The first one, in February 2020, starts here, idling empty in the waters off of Fujian province, a region where oil smuggling has historically been rampant. It heads 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 uncovered in May 2020, not so much. But here’s what we know. The Diamond 8 sets off down Taiwan’s coast. It passes a port on April 30, where a second, much larger red tanker is loading up oil. That tanker, called Superstar at the time, follows the Diamond 8 to international waters, according to the ship’s transmissions. Cloudy skies that day appear to shield the operation from satellites, but as we saw, a hole in the clouds reveals the oil transfer. For three weeks, the Diamond 8 doesn’t enter any ports. It’s mostly just lingering in open waters. Then it sails north. Its required transmission signal disappears for eight days, but we found it during that window in this port in North Korea. The dimensions and features match the Diamond 8, a finding confirmed by experts. When we spot it again, its signal is back on and it’s back near Taiwan, meeting up with the Superstar to get more oil. We wanted to know who was behind the Ever Grandeur and Superstar, the two ships that supplied 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 and filmed it while it sat idle in the port of Kaohsiung in Taiwan. Only five miles away is the company that controls the ship. It’s called Glory Sparkling. Chien Yuan Ju, a Winson Shipping executive, told us they didn’t set up Glory Sparkling. But we found clues the companies are interconnected. Glory Sparkling’s address was on floors owned by Winson Shipping. Its address changed only after we started asking questions. And Glory Sparkling’s website, it was registered with the name of a Winson Shipping employee. We also have evidence showing that a high-ranking Winson Shipping manager named Zuo Fasheng, seen here with the Winson Group’s founder, Tony Tung, has also worked for Glory Sparkling. We found his signature on documents for both companies, including on paperwork for the Ever Grandeur. Officials from Panama, where the Ever Grandeur is registered, told us their records show Zuo Fasheng is currently listed as the operator of the ship. Now let’s take a closer look at the Superstar, the second ship supplying oil to the Diamond 8. It’s actually much more straightforward. Winson Shipping owns it, and they confirmed the May 2020 transfer to us, but told us the ship was leased to someone else when the operation took place. But they haven’t said who. Together, these details indicate how Winson Shipping is connected to both ships that provided oil to the Diamond 8, even after the ship had been publicly outed by the UN for illicitly delivering 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 linked to it listed their addresses and office space as owned by Winson Shipping. When we talked to their shipping manager, he said that Winson Shipping sold the ship years ago, but he also made a bold statement: It’s “ten thousand percent impossible” that it ever went to North Korea. That’s not true. Our investigation and U.N. reports show the Diamond 8 has been to North Korea at least four times since late 2019. So finding out exactly who is behind the Diamond 8 is not straightforward or easy. To learn more, we had to look to Indonesia. The registered owner of the ship is Tan Jeok Nam, a 62-year-old retiree who lives here in a modest neighborhood. He told us that he was simply a sailor who couldn’t afford to buy the $1.4 million vessel. Something clearly doesn’t add up. So we set out to find who sold him the ship — at least on paper. When we reviewed the bill of sale, we noticed the seller appears to be the daughter of Hong Kong-based businessman Tsoi Ming Chi. Tsoi is also linked to the company that manages the Diamond 8. When we visited that company in Indonesia, there was no sign of a shipping business. It’s another dead end. So back to the retired Indonesian sailor, Tan. There’s one more thing you need to know about him. He actually used to work on oil tankers. One of the tankers belonged to a Hong Kong company owned by the late Wong Tin Chuk. Wong, Tsoi — these two businessmen have something else in common. They both have links to Winson companies, including through a leased office space, mortgages, and have exchanged ships with each other, according to a report by research groups RUSI and C4ADS. And there’s a personal nexus, too. Wong and Tsoi are tied to the Winson Group’s founder, Tony Tung, through the same village in China’s Fujian region, population 2,600. In fact, all three belonged to the village’s hometown club and the alumni association of the same middle school. Two of them have been accused of smuggling in the past. Take Tony Tung, for example. He’s faced multiple smuggling and bribery investigations. His only conviction was later overturned. Soon after he founded the Winson Group in the 1990s, Tung and his brothers were accused of smuggling cigarettes and oil into China, according to court documents and state media. 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. Over the last 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 did not take any actions in violation of applicable sanctions against North Korea or any sanctioned countries.” 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 official representative of the company. The mysterious retired sailor, the oil trader, the maze of companies — taken together, they expose an elaborate system that conceals one way oil is getting to North Korea despite some of the strongest sanctions in history, and how Kim Jong-un continues to defy the international community. As for the Diamond 8, it’s back in Fujian, China, awaiting its 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 on this story. We spent months investigating who is providing oil to a sanctions-busting tanker that is delivering oil to North Korea. We looked at a lot of satellite images, reviewed corporate records and interviewed key players. It was a massive team effort involving reporters in four countries. What you’ve just watched is only a small part of our reporting, and you can find more details at nytimes.com/ visualinvestigations. If you have any other info on this story, we’d love to hear from you. And, of course, if you like what you’re seeing, subscribe to The New York Times. Thanks.”

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Police Find 16 People Hidden in a Truck in England

LONDON — The authorities in Britain have arrested a Turkish truck driver on suspicion of attempting to smuggle people to France from England after discovering 16 people in the trailer of his vehicle.

The 36-year-old driver, who was not identified, was stopped on Sunday at a junction on the M25 highway southwest of London, the National Crime Agency said in a statement. The people who were discovered, including Algerian, Moroccan and Pakistani citizens, were also arrested on suspicion of immigration offenses.

Although there were no deaths, the case had echoes of a fatal episode of smuggling from 2019, when 39 people from Vietnam died in a refrigerated tractor-trailer in southeastern England. The people-smuggling trade is a huge and dangerous market, with people fleeing conflict and poverty across Africa and Asia forced to pay thousands of dollars to smugglers in return for shaky promises of transport across borders to Western Europe.

In the National Crime Agency statement, Chris Hill, a branch operations manager, said, “People-smuggling networks move migrants in both directions across the border, threatening the security of both the U.K. and our European neighbors, but also putting lives at risk.”

agreed to double the number of officers patrolling a 93-mile stretch of the French coast that the countries said was regularly used by smugglers.

The United Nations’ refugee agency has pressed the national authorities to combat the smuggling rings but has also expressed concern at proposals to intercept boats in the English Channel, noting that deploying vessels to “block small, flimsy dinghies may result in harmful and fatal incidents.”

While increasing numbers of people tried to cross the English Channel illegally by boat last summer, the U.N. agency noted in a briefing in August that “the numbers remain low and manageable,” adding that many took on the risky journeys to flee war and persecution. “Saving lives should be the first priority — both on land and at sea,” the agency said.

This month, Britain and France said that they had cooperated in the dismantling of a gang suspected of buying secondhand boats that were deflated and then buried on French beaches for later use in smuggling people across the English Channel. Each boat could carry 10 to 15 migrants, who would be charged 2,500 to 3,000 euros, or $3,000 to $3,600, apiece for the journey, the National Crime Agency said.

The British immigration authorities made 418 arrests and secured 203 convictions in 2019, the Home Office said, with about half of those convicted found guilty of people-smuggling offenses.

Chris Philp, the British minister for immigration compliance, said, “These dangerous crossings are facilitated by serious organized criminals exploiting people and profiting from human misery.”

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How We Tracked Secret Oil Deliveries to North Korea

On an overcast day in May 2020, a satellite captures this image over the sea near Taiwan. At first it appears to just show clouds, until you look closer and enhance the image. What you see here is a transfer of oil to a ship that will end up in North Korea in a possible violation of international sanctions. Covert oil deliveries are crucial to North Korea’s economy and its ballistic and nuclear weapons program. Our investigation focuses on one way oil is getting to North Korea. We followed the movements of a single tanker and the opaque corporate structures that surround it. We spent months unraveling the story of the ship. It’s called the Diamond 8, and it’s been identified by the United Nations multiple times for its illicit trips to North Korea. We visited businesses, ports, and tracked tankers at sea, all to find out who was behind these voyages. What we discovered were elaborate networks, many that connect to the Singapore-headquartered oil trader the Winson Group, primarily through its Taiwan operation Winson Shipping. “Catering to your needs. Winson Group.” Our investigation, which includes findings from a new report by the research groups RUSI and C4ADS, reveals for the first time how the Winson Group plays a role in North Korea’s bid to get oil. The path from a single tanker to Kim Jong-un’s regime is convoluted. When we laid it all out in a flow chart, it looks like this — so we’re going to simplify it by focusing on the Diamond 8. And we’ll also look at two tankers that transport oil to it — the Ever Grandeur and the Superstar. These ships are connected by more than just their meet-ups at sea. They have ties to a handful of people who on the surface seem unconnected, but when we looked deeper, we found that most of the key individuals are linked to the same village in China’s Fujian Province. And they all have connections to both Winson Shipping and the Winson Group. Let’s first look at how the oil gets to North Korea. We analyzed photos and past videos of the Diamond 8, matched them with satellite imagery and took measurements to create a visual fingerprint. This allowed us to follow the Diamond 8’s movements last year. We confirmed our findings with experts who track oil tankers in North Korean ports. We’re going to show you two of its trips to North Korea. The first one, in February 2020, starts here, idling empty in the waters off of Fujian province, a region where oil smuggling has historically been rampant. It heads 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 uncovered in May 2020, not so much. But here’s what we know. The Diamond 8 sets off down Taiwan’s coast. It passes a port on April 30, where a second, much larger red tanker is loading up oil. That tanker, called Superstar at the time, follows the Diamond 8 to international waters, according to the ship’s transmissions. Cloudy skies that day appear to shield the operation from satellites, but as we saw, a hole in the clouds reveals the oil transfer. For three weeks, the Diamond 8 doesn’t enter any ports. It’s mostly just lingering in open waters. Then it sails north. Its required transmission signal disappears for eight days, but we found it during that window in this port in North Korea. The dimensions and features match the Diamond 8, a finding confirmed by experts. When we spot it again, its signal is back on and it’s back near Taiwan, meeting up with the Superstar to get more oil. We wanted to know who was behind the Ever Grandeur and Superstar, the two ships that supplied 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 and filmed it while it sat idle in the port of Kaohsiung in Taiwan. Only five miles away is the company that controls the ship. It’s called Glory Sparkling. Chien Yuan Ju, a Winson Shipping executive, told us they didn’t set up Glory Sparkling. But we found clues the companies are interconnected. Glory Sparkling’s address was on floors owned by Winson Shipping. Its address changed only after we started asking questions. And Glory Sparkling’s website, it was registered with the name of a Winson Shipping employee. We also have evidence showing that a high-ranking Winson Shipping manager named Zuo Fasheng, seen here with the Winson Group’s founder, Tony Tung, has also worked for Glory Sparkling. We found his signature on documents for both companies, including on paperwork for the Ever Grandeur. Officials from Panama, where the Ever Grandeur is registered, told us their records show Zuo Fasheng is currently listed as the operator of the ship. Now let’s take a closer look at the Superstar, the second ship supplying oil to the Diamond 8. It’s actually much more straightforward. Winson Shipping owns it, and they confirmed the May 2020 transfer to us, but told us the ship was leased to someone else when the operation took place. But they haven’t said who. Together, these details indicate how Winson Shipping is connected to both ships that provided oil to the Diamond 8, even after the ship had been publicly outed by the UN for illicitly delivering 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 linked to it listed their addresses and office space as owned by Winson Shipping. When we talked to their shipping manager, he said that Winson Shipping sold the ship years ago, but he also made a bold statement: It’s “ten thousand percent impossible” that it ever went to North Korea. That’s not true. Our investigation and U.N. reports show the Diamond 8 has been to North Korea at least four times since late 2019. So finding out exactly who is behind the Diamond 8 is not straightforward or easy. To learn more, we had to look to Indonesia. The registered owner of the ship is Tan Jeok Nam, a 62-year-old retiree who lives here in a modest neighborhood. He told us that he was simply a sailor who couldn’t afford to buy the $1.4 million vessel. Something clearly doesn’t add up. So we set out to find who sold him the ship — at least on paper. When we reviewed the bill of sale, we noticed the seller appears to be the daughter of Hong Kong-based businessman Tsoi Ming Chi. Tsoi is also linked to the company that manages the Diamond 8. When we visited that company in Indonesia, there was no sign of a shipping business. It’s another dead end. So back to the retired Indonesian sailor, Tan. There’s one more thing you need to know about him. He actually used to work on oil tankers. One of the tankers belonged to a Hong Kong company owned by the late Wong Tin Chuk. Wong, Tsoi — these two businessmen have something else in common. They both have links to Winson companies, including through a leased office space, mortgages, and have exchanged ships with each other, according to a report by research groups RUSI and C4ADS. And there’s a personal nexus, too. Wong and Tsoi are tied to the Winson Group’s founder, Tony Tung, through the same village in China’s Fujian region, population 2,600. In fact, all three belonged to the village’s hometown club and the alumni association of the same middle school. Two of them have been accused of smuggling in the past. Take Tony Tung, for example. He’s faced multiple smuggling and bribery investigations. His only conviction was later overturned. Soon after he founded the Winson Group in the 1990s, Tung and his brothers were accused of smuggling cigarettes and oil into China, according to court documents and state media. 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. Over the last 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 did not take any actions in violation of applicable sanctions against North Korea or any sanctioned countries.” 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 official representative of the company. The mysterious retired sailor, the oil trader, the maze of companies — taken together, they expose an elaborate system that conceals one way oil is getting to North Korea despite some of the strongest sanctions in history, and how Kim Jong-un continues to defy the international community. As for the Diamond 8, it’s back in Fujian, China, awaiting its 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 on this story. We spent months investigating who is providing oil to a sanctions-busting tanker that is delivering oil to North Korea. We looked at a lot of satellite images, reviewed corporate records and interviewed key players. It was a massive team effort involving reporters in four countries. What you’ve just watched is only a small part of our reporting, and you can find more details at nytimes.com/ visualinvestigations. If you have any other info on this story, we’d love to hear from you. And, of course, if you like what you’re seeing, subscribe to The New York Times. Thanks.”

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What We Learned From Our Investigation into Covert Oil Deliveries to North Korea

On an overcast day in May 2020, a satellite captures this image over the sea near Taiwan. At first it appears to just show clouds, until you look closer and enhance the image. What you see here is a transfer of oil to a ship that will end up in North Korea in a possible violation of international sanctions. Covert oil deliveries are crucial to North Korea’s economy and its ballistic and nuclear weapons program. Our investigation focuses on one way oil is getting to North Korea. We followed the movements of a single tanker and the opaque corporate structures that surround it. We spent months unraveling the story of the ship. It’s called the Diamond 8, and it’s been identified by the United Nations multiple times for its illicit trips to North Korea. We visited businesses, ports, and tracked tankers at sea, all to find out who was behind these voyages. What we discovered were elaborate networks, many that connect to the Singapore-headquartered oil trader the Winson Group, primarily through its Taiwan operation Winson Shipping. “Catering to your needs. Winson Group.” Our investigation, which includes findings from a new report by the research groups RUSI and C4ADS, reveals for the first time how the Winson Group plays a role in North Korea’s bid to get oil. The path from a single tanker to Kim Jong-un’s regime is convoluted. When we laid it all out in a flow chart, it looks like this — so we’re going to simplify it by focusing on the Diamond 8. And we’ll also look at two tankers that transport oil to it — the Ever Grandeur and the Superstar. These ships are connected by more than just their meet-ups at sea. They have ties to a handful of people who on the surface seem unconnected, but when we looked deeper, we found that most of the key individuals are linked to the same village in China’s Fujian Province. And they all have connections to both Winson Shipping and the Winson Group. Let’s first look at how the oil gets to North Korea. We analyzed photos and past videos of the Diamond 8, matched them with satellite imagery and took measurements to create a visual fingerprint. This allowed us to follow the Diamond 8’s movements last year. We confirmed our findings with experts who track oil tankers in North Korean ports. We’re going to show you two of its trips to North Korea. The first one, in February 2020, starts here, idling empty in the waters off of Fujian province, a region where oil smuggling has historically been rampant. It heads 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 uncovered in May 2020, not so much. But here’s what we know. The Diamond 8 sets off down Taiwan’s coast. It passes a port on April 30, where a second, much larger red tanker is loading up oil. That tanker, called Superstar at the time, follows the Diamond 8 to international waters, according to the ship’s transmissions. Cloudy skies that day appear to shield the operation from satellites, but as we saw, a hole in the clouds reveals the oil transfer. For three weeks, the Diamond 8 doesn’t enter any ports. It’s mostly just lingering in open waters. Then it sails north. Its required transmission signal disappears for eight days, but we found it during that window in this port in North Korea. The dimensions and features match the Diamond 8, a finding confirmed by experts. When we spot it again, its signal is back on and it’s back near Taiwan, meeting up with the Superstar to get more oil. We wanted to know who was behind the Ever Grandeur and Superstar, the two ships that supplied 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 and filmed it while it sat idle in the port of Kaohsiung in Taiwan. Only five miles away is the company that controls the ship. It’s called Glory Sparkling. Chien Yuan Ju, a Winson Shipping executive, told us they didn’t set up Glory Sparkling. But we found clues the companies are interconnected. Glory Sparkling’s address was on floors owned by Winson Shipping. Its address changed only after we started asking questions. And Glory Sparkling’s website, it was registered with the name of a Winson Shipping employee. We also have evidence showing that a high-ranking Winson Shipping manager named Zuo Fasheng, seen here with the Winson Group’s founder, Tony Tung, has also worked for Glory Sparkling. We found his signature on documents for both companies, including on paperwork for the Ever Grandeur. Officials from Panama, where the Ever Grandeur is registered, told us their records show Zuo Fasheng is currently listed as the operator of the ship. Now let’s take a closer look at the Superstar, the second ship supplying oil to the Diamond 8. It’s actually much more straightforward. Winson Shipping owns it, and they confirmed the May 2020 transfer to us, but told us the ship was leased to someone else when the operation took place. But they haven’t said who. Together, these details indicate how Winson Shipping is connected to both ships that provided oil to the Diamond 8, even after the ship had been publicly outed by the UN for illicitly delivering 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 linked to it listed their addresses and office space as owned by Winson Shipping. When we talked to their shipping manager, he said that Winson Shipping sold the ship years ago, but he also made a bold statement: It’s “ten thousand percent impossible” that it ever went to North Korea. That’s not true. Our investigation and U.N. reports show the Diamond 8 has been to North Korea at least four times since late 2019. So finding out exactly who is behind the Diamond 8 is not straightforward or easy. To learn more, we had to look to Indonesia. The registered owner of the ship is Tan Jeok Nam, a 62-year-old retiree who lives here in a modest neighborhood. He told us that he was simply a sailor who couldn’t afford to buy the $1.4 million vessel. Something clearly doesn’t add up. So we set out to find who sold him the ship — at least on paper. When we reviewed the bill of sale, we noticed the seller appears to be the daughter of Hong Kong-based businessman Tsoi Ming Chi. Tsoi is also linked to the company that manages the Diamond 8. When we visited that company in Indonesia, there was no sign of a shipping business. It’s another dead end. So back to the retired Indonesian sailor, Tan. There’s one more thing you need to know about him. He actually used to work on oil tankers. One of the tankers belonged to a Hong Kong company owned by the late Wong Tin Chuk. Wong, Tsoi — these two businessmen have something else in common. They both have links to Winson companies, including through a leased office space, mortgages, and have exchanged ships with each other, according to a report by research groups RUSI and C4ADS. And there’s a personal nexus, too. Wong and Tsoi are tied to the Winson Group’s founder, Tony Tung, through the same village in China’s Fujian region, population 2,600. In fact, all three belonged to the village’s hometown club and the alumni association of the same middle school. Two of them have been accused of smuggling in the past. Take Tony Tung, for example. He’s faced multiple smuggling and bribery investigations. His only conviction was later overturned. Soon after he founded the Winson Group in the 1990s, Tung and his brothers were accused of smuggling cigarettes and oil into China, according to court documents and state media. 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. Over the last 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 did not take any actions in violation of applicable sanctions against North Korea or any sanctioned countries.” 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 official representative of the company. The mysterious retired sailor, the oil trader, the maze of companies — taken together, they expose an elaborate system that conceals one way oil is getting to North Korea despite some of the strongest sanctions in history, and how Kim Jong-un continues to defy the international community. As for the Diamond 8, it’s back in Fujian, China, awaiting its 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 on this story. We spent months investigating who is providing oil to a sanctions-busting tanker that is delivering oil to North Korea. We looked at a lot of satellite images, reviewed corporate records and interviewed key players. It was a massive team effort involving reporters in four countries. What you’ve just watched is only a small part of our reporting, and you can find more details at nytimes.com/ visualinvestigations. If you have any other info on this story, we’d love to hear from you. And, of course, if you like what you’re seeing, subscribe to The New York Times. Thanks.”

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A Tanker and a Maze of Companies: One Way Illicit Oil Reaches North Korea

On an overcast day in May 2020, a satellite captures this image over the sea near Taiwan. At first it appears to just show clouds, until you look closer and enhance the image. What you see here is a transfer of oil to a ship that will end up in North Korea in a possible violation of international sanctions. Covert oil deliveries are crucial to North Korea’s economy and its ballistic and nuclear weapons program. Our investigation focuses on one way oil is getting to North Korea. We followed the movements of a single tanker and the opaque corporate structures that surround it. We spent months unraveling the story of the ship. It’s called the Diamond 8, and it’s been identified by the United Nations multiple times for its illicit trips to North Korea. We visited businesses, ports, and tracked tankers at sea, all to find out who was behind these voyages. What we discovered were elaborate networks, many that connect to the Singapore-headquartered oil trader the Winson Group, primarily through its Taiwan operation Winson Shipping. “Catering to your needs. Winson Group.” Our investigation, which includes findings from a new report by the research groups RUSI and C4ADS, reveals for the first time how the Winson Group plays a role in North Korea’s bid to get oil. The path from a single tanker to Kim Jong-un’s regime is convoluted. When we laid it all out in a flow chart, it looks like this — so we’re going to simplify it by focusing on the Diamond 8. And we’ll also look at two tankers that transport oil to it — the Ever Grandeur and the Superstar. These ships are connected by more than just their meet-ups at sea. They have ties to a handful of people who on the surface seem unconnected, but when we looked deeper, we found that most of the key individuals are linked to the same village in China’s Fujian Province. And they all have connections to both Winson Shipping and the Winson Group. Let’s first look at how the oil gets to North Korea. We analyzed photos and past videos of the Diamond 8, matched them with satellite imagery and took measurements to create a visual fingerprint. This allowed us to follow the Diamond 8’s movements last year. We confirmed our findings with experts who track oil tankers in North Korean ports. We’re going to show you two of its trips to North Korea. The first one, in February 2020, starts here, idling empty in the waters off of Fujian province, a region where oil smuggling has historically been rampant. It heads 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 uncovered in May 2020, not so much. But here’s what we know. The Diamond 8 sets off down Taiwan’s coast. It passes a port on April 30, where a second, much larger red tanker is loading up oil. That tanker, called Superstar at the time, follows the Diamond 8 to international waters, according to the ship’s transmissions. Cloudy skies that day appear to shield the operation from satellites, but as we saw, a hole in the clouds reveals the oil transfer. For three weeks, the Diamond 8 doesn’t enter any ports. It’s mostly just lingering in open waters. Then it sails north. Its required transmission signal disappears for eight days, but we found it during that window in this port in North Korea. The dimensions and features match the Diamond 8, a finding confirmed by experts. When we spot it again, its signal is back on and it’s back near Taiwan, meeting up with the Superstar to get more oil. We wanted to know who was behind the Ever Grandeur and Superstar, the two ships that supplied 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 and filmed it while it sat idle in the port of Kaohsiung in Taiwan. Only five miles away is the company that controls the ship. It’s called Glory Sparkling. Chien Yuan Ju, a Winson Shipping executive, told us they didn’t set up Glory Sparkling. But we found clues the companies are interconnected. Glory Sparkling’s address was on floors owned by Winson Shipping. Its address changed only after we started asking questions. And Glory Sparkling’s website, it was registered with the name of a Winson Shipping employee. We also have evidence showing that a high-ranking Winson Shipping manager named Zuo Fasheng, seen here with the Winson Group’s founder, Tony Tung, has also worked for Glory Sparkling. We found his signature on documents for both companies, including on paperwork for the Ever Grandeur. Officials from Panama, where the Ever Grandeur is registered, told us their records show Zuo Fasheng is currently listed as the operator of the ship. Now let’s take a closer look at the Superstar, the second ship supplying oil to the Diamond 8. It’s actually much more straightforward. Winson Shipping owns it, and they confirmed the May 2020 transfer to us, but told us the ship was leased to someone else when the operation took place. But they haven’t said who. Together, these details indicate how Winson Shipping is connected to both ships that provided oil to the Diamond 8, even after the ship had been publicly outed by the UN for illicitly delivering 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 linked to it listed their addresses and office space as owned by Winson Shipping. When we talked to their shipping manager, he said that Winson Shipping sold the ship years ago, but he also made a bold statement: It’s “ten thousand percent impossible” that it ever went to North Korea. That’s not true. Our investigation and U.N. reports show the Diamond 8 has been to North Korea at least four times since late 2019. So finding out exactly who is behind the Diamond 8 is not straightforward or easy. To learn more, we had to look to Indonesia. The registered owner of the ship is Tan Jeok Nam, a 62-year-old retiree who lives here in a modest neighborhood. He told us that he was simply a sailor who couldn’t afford to buy the $1.4 million vessel. Something clearly doesn’t add up. So we set out to find who sold him the ship — at least on paper. When we reviewed the bill of sale, we noticed the seller appears to be the daughter of Hong Kong-based businessman Tsoi Ming Chi. Tsoi is also linked to the company that manages the Diamond 8. When we visited that company in Indonesia, there was no sign of a shipping business. It’s another dead end. So back to the retired Indonesian sailor, Tan. There’s one more thing you need to know about him. He actually used to work on oil tankers. One of the tankers belonged to a Hong Kong company owned by the late Wong Tin Chuk. Wong, Tsoi — these two businessmen have something else in common. They both have links to Winson companies, including through a leased office space, mortgages, and have exchanged ships with each other, according to a report by research groups RUSI and C4ADS. And there’s a personal nexus, too. Wong and Tsoi are tied to the Winson Group’s founder, Tony Tung, through the same village in China’s Fujian region, population 2,600. In fact, all three belonged to the village’s hometown club and the alumni association of the same middle school. Two of them have been accused of smuggling in the past. Take Tony Tung, for example. He’s faced multiple smuggling and bribery investigations. His only conviction was later overturned. Soon after he founded the Winson Group in the 1990s, Tung and his brothers were accused of smuggling cigarettes and oil into China, according to court documents and state media. 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. Over the last 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 did not take any actions in violation of applicable sanctions against North Korea or any sanctioned countries.” 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 official representative of the company. The mysterious retired sailor, the oil trader, the maze of companies — taken together, they expose an elaborate system that conceals one way oil is getting to North Korea despite some of the strongest sanctions in history, and how Kim Jong-un continues to defy the international community. As for the Diamond 8, it’s back in Fujian, China, awaiting its 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 on this story. We spent months investigating who is providing oil to a sanctions-busting tanker that is delivering oil to North Korea. We looked at a lot of satellite images, reviewed corporate records and interviewed key players. It was a massive team effort involving reporters in four countries. What you’ve just watched is only a small part of our reporting, and you can find more details at nytimes.com/ visualinvestigations. If you have any other info on this story, we’d love to hear from you. And, of course, if you like what you’re seeing, subscribe to The New York Times. Thanks.”

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Defense Secretary Austin Makes Unannounced Visit to Afghanistan

WASHINGTON—Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan Sunday ahead of a coming deadline for President Biden to draw down U.S. troops in America’s longest war.

The Pentagon said Mr. Austin met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani along with U.S. military and diplomatic leaders in the country as part of the visit, the first by a top Biden administration official and amid the latest efforts by the U.S. and international powers to end the two-decade war.

U.S. officials haven’t said whether they will meet a May 1 deadline for departing Afghanistan, set under the Trump administration as part of talks with leaders of the insurgent Taliban movement. But Biden administration officials have indicated repeatedly that removing troops by then will be difficult, given the levels of continued violence.

The U.S. is part of a multi-prong international effort seeking to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for extremist groups, drug smuggling or other forms of instability to the region.

The future of the Afghan conflict also will be a key subject for U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken later this week at a meeting in Brussels of foreign ministers from North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries.

“We went in together. We will adjust together as we have over the years. And when the time is right, we will leave together,” Philip Reeker, acting assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told reporters last week.

America’s Longest War

The talks about the long-running Afghanistan war are the latest foreign policy challenge for the Biden administration. Mr. Blinken and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan clashed with Chinese counterparts over a range of issues during meetings last week in Alaska.

Earlier last week, Russia recalled its U.S. ambassador in a signal of unhappiness over critical remarks by Mr. Biden and the release of a U.S. intelligence assessment blaming Russian President Vladimir Putin for seeking to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election.

During a previously scheduled Afghan peace conference hosted by Moscow last week, four nations—including the U.S., China, Russia and Pakistan—called on the Taliban to reduce violence and begin talks for a power-sharing deal with the U.S.-backed Afghan government, led by Mr. Ghani.

In addition, the Ghani government has agreed to attend a U.S.-proposed international peace conference in Istanbul next month that will include Taliban representatives. Those talks are aimed at carving out a power-sharing government between the Taliban and Kabul.

“There’s always going to be concerns about things one way or the other, but I think there is a lot of energy focused on doing what is necessary to bring about a responsible end and a negotiated settlement to the war,” Mr. Austin told reporters traveling with him before arriving Sunday in Kabul.

There are at least 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and 6,500 NATO troops, and those allies have said they would depend on U.S. logistical support to withdraw troops.

The Trump administration last year agreed to draw down the remaining American troops in Afghanistan by May 1 as part of a deal with the Taliban. But amid fears that the withdrawal could lead to rising violence and the restoration of an Islamic emirate under the Taliban, the Biden administration has said it hasn’t made any final decision on withdrawing troops.

In an interview last week with ABC News, Mr. Biden hinted that the U.S. and allied troops could stay. Asked whether the withdrawal would take place, Mr. Biden said, “It could happen, but it is tough.” He added that if the withdrawal deadline is extended, it won’t be by “a lot longer.”

The unannounced stop in Afghanistan marked the end of Mr. Austin’s first international trip as defense chief, which included stops in Japan, South Korea and India.

While in New Delhi, Mr. Austin met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indian national security adviser Ajit Doval and his Indian counterpart, Rajnath Singh, in a bid to deepen defense ties between the two countries, in a bid to counter a more aggressive China.

The two countries signed agreements to allow sharing of encrypted military intelligence and geospatial data, and using each other’s bases for security forces to replenish materiel and fuel.

In Doha, Qatar, U.S. and Taliban leaders signed a deal that aims to end years of fighting. Photo: Hussein Sayed/Associated Press

Write to Nancy A. Youssef at nancy.youssef@wsj.com and Ken Thomas at ken.thomas@wsj.com

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China Buys More Iranian and Venezuelan Oil, in a Test for Biden

China has sharply increased its imports of oil from Iran and Venezuela in a challenge to two Biden administration foreign-policy priorities, according to U.S. officials, undermining key diplomatic leverage Washington needs to restart long-stalled negotiations.

China is expected to import 918,000 barrels a day from Iran in March, which would be the highest volume since a full U.S. oil embargo was imposed against Tehran two years ago, according to commodities-data company Kpler.

That trend is confirmed by other shipping trackers, some of which see those sales at 1 million barrels a day.

“If it sells 1 million barrels a day at current prices, Iran has no incentive to negotiate,” said Sara Vakhshouri, president of Washington-based SVB Energy International and an expert on Iran’s oil industry.

President Biden’s administration has sought to engage with Iran to return to a 2015 nuclear deal that was exited by his predecessor, former President Donald Trump. But Tehran has rebuffed overtures so far.

Abadan oil refinery in southwest Iran in 2019. Iran has helped Venezuela by supplying petroleum products, selling diesel and other critical energy needs in exchange for Venezuelan oil and gold

Photo: essam al-sudani/Reuters

China’s oil purchases from Venezuela, where the U.S. has been trying to use sanctions to pressure the Maduro regime into holding credible democratic elections, also are growing, according to London financial data provider Refinitiv.

Rising oil shipments to China, Iranian and Venezuelan officials said, followed Mr. Biden’s offer of relief to Iran in return for the country’s compliance with an international nuclear agreement and to Venezuela if it organized free elections. Mr. Trump pursued a policy of escalating sanctions pressure against both countries.

China is also increasingly flouting international sanctions on North Korea and is no longer trying to hide some of its smuggling activity as it seeks to help Pyongyang, U.S. officials said recently.

Combined with rising oil prices, the developments have diminished pressure for Tehran and Caracas to negotiate with Washington, these people said.

“The informal Chinese purchases have reduced the need to negotiate on oil sanctions” for Tehran, one Iran-focused U.S. official said.

The State Department, asked about the effects of Chinese imports of Iranian crude on efforts to re-engage Tehran, didn’t respond to a request for comment. Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, has dismissed the idea that the Biden administration would ease sanctions without action by Tehran to curb violations of the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.

“If the Iranians are under the impression that absent any movement on their part to resume full compliance with the JCPOA that we will offer favors or unilateral gestures, that’s a misimpression,” Mr. Price told reporters earlier this week.

Since November, Iranian oil traders say they have been approached for new sales by Asian buyers seeking to take advantage of discounted prices because purchasers feel sanctions pressure will ease under the Biden administration.

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Iranian officials and traders have become increasingly adept at evading sanctions, carrying out covert transfers in the Persian Gulf and in South Asia to conceal the origin of their cargo and finding new ways to get paid by using nonbanking platforms such as cryptocurrencies.

On Monday, Iranian First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri said Iran’s oil exports had increased in recent months, though he didn’t give any details.

“There were certain problems with money transfers. So we had to come up with certain plans, methods for bringing in the oil export revenues, and we recently had a breakthrough,” Mr. Jahangiri was quoted as saying by state-run news agency IRNA.

Kpler analyst Homayoun Falakshahi said ship tracking showed the fastest-growing buyer was state-run China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. , or Sinopec, the country’s largest refiner. After cutting staffing and spending in the past two years, Sinopec is posting new job offers online and talking with the government on doubling its production in the country, according to former Iranian oil officials and an adviser to the company.

Officials from Sinopec and the Chinese embassy in Washington didn’t return requests for comment. Chinese officials have long criticized U.S. policy in Iran and Venezuela, as well as its financial diplomacy, as unilateral and coercive.

A Sinopec gas station in Shanghai in January.

Photo: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg News

Washington still hopes to entice the Islamic Republic with the more substantial relief that would come with the release of billions of dollars in frozen oil money and a return to official crude sales. In exchange, the U.S. wants Iran to comply with the nuclear deal despite repeated breaches and wants to tighten controls on Tehran’s ballistic program and other efforts that weren’t covered under the original nuclear agreement.

Meanwhile, Iran has helped Venezuela by supplying petroleum products, selling diesel and other critical energy needs in exchange for Venezuelan oil and gold. That oil is then sold off in global markets, yielding revenue for Iran and reinforcing Mr. Maduro politically.

For the U.S.-China relationship, already strained by a range of security and economic disputes, Beijing’s crude trade with two of Washington’s top foes adds another major irritant.

“This is a complex relationship and maybe the most consequential relationship for both of our countries, and it has adversarial aspects, it has competitive aspects, and it has cooperative aspects,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said earlier this week.

U.S. officials have reminded China that firms helping import oil from Iran risk sanctions and say Beijing could face punishment over its Venezuelan trade. The State Department declined to comment on its communications with China.

“The Maduro regime has adapted to oil sanctions, finding a way around them to deliver oil to China and Russia, and Iran has been helping them,” one senior administration official said. “So we’re going to use our sanction tools to make sure that we’re eliminating those options” for the Maduro government, the official said.

Others, however, say the administration will also be careful to balance such policies with American economic interests. “In some cases, we have not sanctioned [China] because of the impact on our economy. If we hit hard, they could retaliate,” said another U.S. official.

Biden administration officials are meeting Chinese counterparts for the first time this week in Alaska.

Write to Benoit Faucon at benoit.faucon@wsj.com and Ian Talley at ian.talley@wsj.com

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U.S. Joins Russia in Calling on Kabul, Taliban to Speed Up Power-Sharing Talks

Four countries including the U.S. called on the Afghan government and the Taliban to reduce violence and begin discussions on sharing power, in a fresh effort to end the two-decade war as a deadline for the full withdrawal of American troops draws closer.

At a peace conference hosted by Moscow on Thursday, the U.S., Russia, China and Pakistan added that they would not support the restoration of an Islamic Emirate under the Taliban, and that any peace settlement must protect the rights of all Afghans, including women and minorities.

Kabul’s chief peace envoy, Abdullah Abdullah, called for “an end to targeted killings and a comprehensive cease-fire to begin the next rounds of the talks in a peaceful environment.”

The summit took place amid intensifying international efforts to end fighting ahead of a May 1 deadline for the full withdrawal of U.S. troops. U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad represented the Biden administration at the conference, which underlined foreign countries’ desire to have a hand in shaping Afghanistan’s future, from curbing the threat of Islamist militants to securing nearby borders against drug smuggling and human trafficking.

The conference is aimed at jump-starting a peace process that has stalled since launching in Qatar in September. It comes ahead of a major peace summit in Istanbul, slated for April and initiated by the Biden administration.

In Doha, Qatar, U.S. and Taliban leaders signed a deal that aims to end years of fighting. (Originally published Feb. 29, 2020)

Alongside the peace talks, violence in Afghanistan has escalated. Over the past year, the Taliban have attacked government forces across the country and seized larger parts of the countryside and vital highways. The government has accused insurgents of orchestrating an assassination campaign against government workers, civil society activists and journalists.

In February last year, the Trump administration agreed to draw down the remaining American troops in Afghanistan as part of a deal with the Taliban. President Biden has said he also intends to withdraw the remaining 2,500 troops from America’s longest war. In a television interview aired Wednesday, Mr. Biden said that even if the May deadline proved challenging to meet, it wouldn’t be extended by very much.

The U.S. and the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani concur that the Taliban hasn’t done enough to reduce violence. But the Biden administration is also butting heads with Mr. Ghani, who has refused to be replaced by an interim government hashed out a negotiation table, insisting that any new administration must be democratically elected.

“If the Taliban are ready to participate in elections tomorrow, we are ready. But without elections, I am not ready to transfer the power to my successor,” Mr. Ghani said Tuesday.

A senior Afghan government official said that if Taliban leader Maulavi Haibatullah was to attend the Istanbul conference in April, and a positive outcome was expected, Mr. Ghani would also attend.

Thursday’s summit highlighted international concerns that a collapsed peace process may escalate violence beyond Afghanistan’s borders.

Photo: russian foreign affairs ministry/Shutterstock

The Kabul delegation traveling to Moscow differed from the one in Qatar, featuring only one woman—Afghanistan’s first female governor, Habiba Sarabi—compared with four in Doha. The delegation also comprised strongmen who were excluded from Doha, including Abdul Rashid Dostum and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, both of whom were accused by rights groups of war crimes in past decades.

Russia holds little sway over either the Taliban or the Afghan government, analysts say, but the meeting shows the heightened international concerns that a collapsed peace process may escalate violence beyond Afghanistan’s borders.

Other militant groups in the country pose a threat to regional powers, including Russia. Some of the most active Islamist fighters belong to Central Asia-rooted groups such as the Islamic Movements of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Uyghur militants from the Turkistan Islamic Movement potentially threaten China. Al-Qaeda also still maintains hundreds of fighters in Afghanistan, according to U.S. officials and the United Nations.

“Americans are leaving Afghanistan sooner or later,” said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank. “In this situation, Russia can ignore Afghanistan only at its peril.”

Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at sune.rasmussen@wsj.com and Ann M. Simmons at ann.simmons@wsj.com

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