Singapore disposed thousands of red wine cases to be smuggled to North Korea last year: report

Staff Writer, Singapore
·Editorial Team
·3 min read
Red wine bottles in cases.
Red wine bottles in cases. (PHOTO: Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — Singapore has been dumping thousands of cases containing red wine meant to be smuggled into North Korea, in a sign that demand for luxury goods remains high in the isolated communist country.

NK News, an American website providing news and analysis on North Korea, reported on 19 February that a new and unpublished report from the United Nations Panel of Experts stated Singaporean authorities had intercepted a shipment of 1,158 cases of wine on 31 January last year.

A Singapore court subsequently ordered its customs to dispose of the haul, or a total of 4,632 three-litre boxes of wine and 174 cases of assorted South African juices, NK News added.

When Yahoo News Singapore contacted Singapore Customs, a spokesperson confirmed in an email on Thursday (25 February) that the agency received information in January 2020 about a shipment of alcohol that was transhipping through Singapore and allegedly bound for North Korea.

"The shipment was held for checks while in Singapore, and was seized by Singapore authorities on 31 January 2020," the spokesperson said.

"On 25 August 2020, our authorities obtained a court order for the shipment to be forfeited for disposal."

The Singapore Customs spokesperson said that the action was in line with Singapore’s efforts to implement the relevant United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions on North Korea. Singapore has prohibited all commercially traded goods from or to the North Asian country since 8 November 2017, regardless whether they are imported, exported, transhipped or brought in transit through the city-state, the spokesperson added.

"Individuals and entities in Singapore are not allowed to conduct activities that violate UNSC Resolutions which are given full effect by Singapore’s laws," the spokesperson said.

"We will investigate any wrongdoing to the fullest extent possible, and will not hesitate to take the necessary actions."

The spokesperson did not specify the size of the seized shipment.

Cracking down on luxury-good smuggling to North Korea

According to NK News, the unpublished UN report had stated that North Korea illegally imported less luxury alcohol in 2020 because of COVID-19-related restrictions. Beyond the thousands of boxes of red wine, the UN Panel of Experts was also investigating previous cases involving luxury cars.

The report said that Singapore has shown "an affinity for cracking down on luxury-good smuggling to North Korea" in 2020.

It cited the case of North Korean Li Hyon, who was sentenced to four weeks in jail in June 2020 for attempting to supply luxury goods to North Korea.

Months later, Singaporean Richard Chong Hock Yen was sentenced to three weeks in jail for smuggling nearly US$580,000 (S$764,000) in luxury goods, while another, William Lim Cheng Hwee, was sentenced to two months in jail for selling alcohol to North Korea.

Bong Young-shik, a research fellow at Yonsei University Institute for North Korean Studies, told NK News that the incident shows how “desperate” the hermit kingdom is to obtain luxury goods. He said that one of the parties named in the Singapore shipment’s paperwork was a known North Korean company whose subsidiary was found to have illegally sent three Mercedes Benz cars to North Korea.

“These are not really very sophisticated and effective ways to subvert international sanctions,” he told NK News.

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