International News

    British firm ‘masks’ Kim Jong-un’s chemical weapons supply to Syria

    A company registered at an industrial estate in Northamptonshire has become embroiled in the suspected shipment of chemical weapons supplies from North Korea to Syria.
    The address on the outskirts of Daventry is feared to be one of several front operations in Britain used by the regime of Kim Jong-un to evade international sanctions.
    Anti-corruption campaigners claimed last night that the UK was being exploited as “a flag of convenience” because companies set up here provided a veneer of respectability while undergoing minimal checks. The revelations have emerged despite Kim’s historic “peace” meeting on Friday with his South Korean counterpart and expected talks with President Donald Trump in the next few weeks.
    The potential use of Britain to mask consignments of weapons parts from North Korea to Syria is particularly disturbing after the RAF’s role in recent airstrikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical facilities.
    Last month a United Nations security council report disclosed the existence of five suspected shipments between Kim’s regime and Assad from November 2016 to January 2017. Two of the consignments were intercepted en route to the Syrian port of Latakia.
    The cargo included valves, pipes and a vast quantity of acid-resistant tiles. The UN report, compiled by an international panel of experts, said such materials “can be used to build bricks for the interior walls of a chemical factory”.
    The supplier named in sales contracts is Chengtong Trading Co Ltd, which claims to operate from the Heping district of Shenyang, a Chinese city close to the North Korean border. The Sunday Times has discovered that a firm with the same name was formed in Britain in September 2016 — a month after a group of North Korean scientists arrived in Syria.
    Records at Companies House show its registered address as a unit on the Royal Oak industrial estate in Daventry. Its sole director is named as Lu Shiyang, 40, who is listed at an address in Heping, Shenyang. The Chinese city is known for its North Korean links and is reportedly home to an outpost of Bureau 121, Kim’s elite cyber-warfare unit.
    Inquiries by this newspaper found a sign-making company operating from the Daventry address last week. There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing on its part.
    However, the unit is also being used as a mailbox for foreign companies. David Knight, a retired marketing consultant who collects the post, said “hundreds” of Chinese companies had been registered there with Companies House.
    Knight said he was shocked by any possible link to North Korea. He said instructions to set up Chengtong Trading in Britain had come via two separate registration agents in China. One of those agents, based in the port city of Dalian, said Lu had later requested the company to be “withdrawn”.
    The agent said: “I don’t know about the company . . . he [Lu] has not contacted us for a long time and he has no contact information.”
    Lu could not be reached for comment. His firm was wound up in the UK in September 2017 without filing any accounts, according to official records. The move raises suspicions that it may have been created to legitimise or divert attention away from other underhand activities. When the Chinese authorities were asked by the UN expert panel about Chengtong Trading, they said there was no evidence to link it to breaches of North Korean sanctions.
    Last month’s UN report separately reveals that Kim’s regime has been illegally exporting coal through an elaborate operation allegedly involving UK front companies. The banned trade is suspected of financing the dictator’s nuclear weapons programme.
    Investigators observed North Korean-flagged vessels sailing to the obscure Russian port of Kholmsk and unloading their mineral cargo. Within days, another ship would arrive at the same berth to collect the coal — making it seem as if the cargo had come from Russia. One ship under investigation is called Sky Angel. Documentation found on board the vessel — and published by the UN in its report — identifies a company registered at an address next to St Paul’s Cathedral in central London.
    Hugh Griffiths, the report’s British co-ordinator, said: “In separate cases where there is definitive proof of North Korean coal being shipped in a prohibited manner, we have found other companies based or registered in the UK and EU named in the [shipping] documentation. This seems to be a trend.”
    Robert Palmer, a leading anti-corruption campaigner and executive director of Tax Justice UK, said: “While the government has made important progress in terms of transparency, UK companies are still a great flag of convenience for tax evaders, money launderers and sanctions-busters. First, a UK company can give someone up to no good an air of legitimacy. Second, there are barely any checks carried out on what goes on with them.”

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