How British American Tobacco sold cigarettes to North Korea despite sanctions

As a strengthened US and UN sanctions regime was bearing down on North Korea in the summertime of 2017, an worker at a Singaporean subsidiary of a British-based tobacco large was kicking round concepts about easy methods to conceal continued shipments of cigarettes to the North Korean embassy.

The worker of British American Tobacco’s Singaporean subsidiary emailed a counterpart at an area distributor with directions to take away any point out of North Korea from buy orders. The distributor recommended labelling the shopper because the “Korean Embassy”. As a substitute, they settled on merely calling the embassy “a . . . buyer”.

The main points of what US Division of Justice officers referred to as an “elaborate scheme” by BAT and its subsidiary to evade US sanctions on North Korea got here to mild as a part of courtroom filings and settlements related to a serious investigation by US authorities. The probe got here to a head on Tuesday with BAT, the maker of Dunhill and Fortunate Strike manufacturers, getting into a deferred prosecution settlement with the DoJ. The corporate paid a cumulative $635mn high-quality, the most important North Korean sanctions penalty within the division’s historical past.

BAT and its subsidiary — British-American Tobacco Advertising (Singapore) — accepted it had violated US sanctions by supplying almost $30mn price of cigarettes to North Korea’s Singaporean embassy. It additionally accepted processing simply over $250mn price of funds from sanctioned North Korean banks in return for not directly exporting cigarettes into the communist nation by means of US monetary establishments.

Virtually all Western multinationals reduce ties with the pariah state — now led by Kim Jong Un, himself a sequence smoker — by the late 2000s as sanctions intensified over North Korea’s growth of nuclear and ballistic missiles, in accordance with Hugh Griffiths, a former co-ordinator of the UN panel of consultants monitoring North Korea sanctions breaches.

However BAT’s administration in London, together with its then-chief govt Paul Adams, permitted a plan in 2007 to divest its stake in a three way partnership with a North Korean state-owned firm to a “pleasant third social gathering” — its native distributor — in Singapore.

British American Tobacco’s global headquarters in London
British American Tobacco’s world headquarters in London. The corporate first acknowledged the investigation in February 2020, setting apart $540mn in July 2022 to pay the high-quality © Robert Evans/Alamy

The state-owned firm was Ryugyong Company, in accordance with documentation from the UN panel investigation and seen by the FT. It’s the entity that handles the home manufacturing and abroad distribution of opium and tobacco merchandise on behalf of the Kim regime.

BAT declined to remark.

BAT’s Singaporean subsidiary agreed to proceed supplying the three way partnership with tobacco, filters and papers with which to fabricate cigarettes after the divestment, in accordance with the US Workplace of International Belongings Management, which carried out the investigation in collaboration with the DoJ.

US authorities mentioned in courtroom filings that BAT maintained “vital affect” over the three way partnership and used its distributor “as a shell firm at varied factors through the related time interval”.

The BAT settlement comes because the US administration of Joe Biden has taken a harder stance on company misconduct, after critics accused former president Donald Trump’s White Home of extreme leniency.

Deputy US attorney-general Lisa Monaco final 12 months laid out coverage reforms geared toward fulfilling her pledge to crack down on company wrongdoers. The brand new measures included rewarding companies that get well pay from staff who break the regulation, in addition to a stricter use of deferred prosecution agreements, with Monaco disfavouring a number of preparations of this sort with the identical firm.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
Western multinationals reduce ties with North Korea — led by Kim Jong Un, pictured, himself a sequence smoker — by the late 2000s © Rodong Sinmun/EPA

Emails and witness testimony from the interval, cited in courtroom filings, reveal the extent of BAT’s management over the North Korean three way partnership. In a single e mail, a BAT accountant advised a colleague on the British firm’s Singaporean subsidiary that the three way partnership “was nonetheless beneath BAT management” for the aim of accounting guidelines. An worker of the distributor advised investigators that BAT used the corporate as an “insurance coverage coverage” so it might keep working in North Korea.

Griffiths mentioned: “There aren’t any different examples of a Western-based multinational interacting with the North Koreans on this scale and in such a sustained means.” He mentioned it was typical of tobacco firms’ “urge for food for threat to drive earnings”.

Only a month earlier than the e-mail alternate in summer season 2017, BAT belatedly terminated its enterprise dealings with the three way partnership after almost a decade of not directly exporting cigarettes to North Korea by means of the entity. The final cargo of supplies occurred in July 2016. BAT first acknowledged the US investigation in firm filings in February 2020, setting apart $540mn in July 2022 to pay the high-quality.

Up till 2016, the North Korean three way partnership remitted earnings, together with funds owed to BAT’s Singaporean subsidiary, by means of a rabbit warren of accounts, together with some overseen by North Korea’s Korea Kwangson Banking Company and the International Commerce Financial institution, which have been sanctioned by the US since 2009 and 2013 respectively.

BAT by no means dealt immediately with KKBC or FTB, however the US Treasury Division mentioned the cigarette maker “uncovered itself to legal responsibility” when it fashioned the scheme to proceed exporting cigarettes after divesting its stake within the North Korean three way partnership in 2007.

“For years, BAT partnered with North Korea to ascertain and function a cigarette manufacturing enterprise and relied on monetary facilitators linked to North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction proliferation community within the strategy of enriching itself,” Brian Nelson, under-secretary of the Treasury, mentioned on Tuesday.

Proof introduced by Ofac on Tuesday additionally means that BAT deliberately hid its sanctions violations from monetary establishments. In response to a question from a financial institution in 2014, BAT acknowledged that its Singaporean subsidiary did not directly export package units — the elements used to fabricate cigarettes, resembling tobacco and filters — however it said it checked all banks utilized by its group firms and third-party suppliers when dealing with sanctioned international locations.

Jack Bowles, BAT’s chief govt who beforehand served as head of the tobacco firm’s Asia-Pacific division between 2013 and 2017, on Tuesday mentioned the cigarette maker “deeply [regretted] the misconduct arising from historic enterprise actions”. Bowles has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

Griffiths mentioned: “That is greater than only a failure of due diligence. BAT is now the poster youngster for US sanctions enforcement and the very actual prices they will carry. The case exhibits how such greed seems to be extraordinarily costly.”

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