N Korea: UN draft report claims Singapore firms illegally sent luxury goods

A leaked draft of a United Nations report claims two Singapore companies have violated UN sanctions by supplying luxury goods to North Korea.

The final report has been submitted to the UN Security Council, and is likely to be published later this week.

Singapore’s government said it was aware of the cases and had begun investigating where there was “credible information” of possible offences.

Both the UN and Singapore ban the sale of luxury goods to North Korea.

Global sanctions against North Korea have tightened considerably over the last two years as Pyongyang has continued to conduct nuclear tests and launch missiles.

Despite the recent development that unprecedented talks between North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump may take place later this year, UN sanctions against North Korea will remain in place.

Analysts say the alleged violations by Singapore companies, if proven, raise questions about how widespread such breaches might be across Asia.

Who’s been named in the UN report?

The leaked UN report highlights two Singapore-based firms, among others in Asia.

It alleges the two firms supplied a range of luxury goods to North Korea, including wines and spirits, until as recently as July 2017.

Under UN Sanctions, it has been illegal to sell luxury items to North Korea since 2006. And Singapore’s laws have banned the sale of these items to North Korea for several years.

The two Singapore-based firms under investigation are OCN and T Specialist. They are sister companies and share the same director.

Both the companies have denied any wrongdoing.

The UN report also claims between 2011 and 2014 “transactions valued at more than $2m (£1.4m)” – allegedly proceeds from the sale of goods in North Korea – flowed from an account that OCN and T Specialist set up in a North Korean bank, Daedong Credit Bank, to T Specialist’s bank accounts in Singapore.

Singapore has banned its financial institutions from providing financial assistance or services for facilitating any trade with North Korea, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

T Specialist has testified to the UN that the funds did not come from North Korea but a company registered in Hong Kong, and related to sales before 2012.

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    The two companies are also accused by the UN of having “long-standing, close ties” – including ownership ties – with Ryugyong Commercial Bank, a bank the US put on its sanctions list in 2017.

    The Singaporean companies said they have no interests in the bank.

    Their lawyer, Edmond Pereira, has confirmed they are under investigation by Singapore authorities, but insisted they did not have any current financial links, interests, or any sort of relationship with entities in North Korea.

    Mr Pereira acknowledged that his clients “have done business with North Korean entities… before the UN sanctions came into force”.

    He added the companies had “reduced their involvement” in North Korea but that “these things take a bit of time”.

    Lawyers have said part of the problem is these sanctions are expected to be enforced by companies who are often unaware of the changes in the law.

    Singapore-North Korea trade

    It was only in November last year that Singapore banned trade with North Korea entirely. Before that, some trade was allowed.

    The UN report claims some of the transactions in the OCN and T Specialist cases appear to have used the Singapore financial system.

    It also said it was the responsibility of member countries to make sure their banks had a more “robust scrutiny” of individuals and companies opening accounts with them.

    The BBC contacted the two Singapore banks mentioned in the report. Both banks declined to comment, citing Singapore’s banking secrecy laws.

    The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) told the BBC it was working closely with the UN on these cases.

    “MAS will take stern action against any financial institutions in breach of regulations relating to proliferation financing,” MAS said in a statement sent to the BBC.

    The authority also said it expected banks to be aware of “the use of multi-jurisdictional front companies, shell companies, joint ventures, and complex or opaque ownership structures”.

    Difficult for banks to catch

    William Newcomb, a former member on the UN Panel of Experts, said it was precisely these financial loopholes North Korea seeks to exploit.

    “What they will do is set up a shell company, then establish a company in another location, a bank in a third location, and do business in another location,” he explained.

    “And now you have multiple jurisdictions involved. So it becomes quite complicated, and it’s one of the techniques they use to defeat the sanctions.”

    Financial crime researchers say it is difficult for banks to catch this sort of behaviour.

    “You would probably never know that the funds were coming from North Korea,” said Tim Phillipps, Asia Pacific Leader for Deloitte’s Financial Crime Network.

    He added the problem could be much bigger across South East Asia.

    “If you’re named in a report in this environment in Singapore, the MAS are highly likely to demand extensive transaction history examination.

    “But if you start to look across the other countries in South East Asia, they generally haven’t got the maturity of systems to prevent this.”

    The UN report highlights how easily entities allegedly doing business with North Korea might potentially find loopholes to use – even in sophisticated financial systems like Singapore’s.

Why is spitting so bad?

There’s been outrage over a video of footballer turned TV pundit Jamie Carragher spitting towards a family in a car in an angry outburst in response to being “goaded”.

Carragher has been suspended from his job as an analyst at Sky Sports.

But why is spitting seen as so offensive?

Yuck factor

“Disgusting”, “vile” and “doesn’t get any lower than spitting” are among the comments posted about the video.

To some people, spitting is in a class above everything – even violence.

It’s often seen as an action of anger and disrespect, but it hasn’t always been the case.

In the past spitting was a socially acceptable habit in Europe, but by the 19th Century manners changed.

This coincided with greater awareness of the transmission of contagious diseases that could be spread by spitting, so public health campaigns were launched against it.

During the 1940s, when tuberculosis (TB) was widespread, it was common to see “spitting prohibited” signs on buses.

Health risks

Today the risk of catching a contagious disease if you’re spat at is very low.

You do stand a small chance of catching a cold or possibly the flu.

Other diseases that are spread through saliva include TB, hepatitis, viral meningitis, cytomegalovirus – a common virus similar to the herpes virus – and the Epstein-Barr virus, which is a common herpes virus that causes many diseases such as glandular fever.

If you are in the unfortunate situation that you are spat at, the NHS recommends you should:

  • Immediately wash the saliva off with soap and lots of water
  • If the saliva goes into your eyes, nose or mouth wash it out with lots of cold water
  • If you think you’re at risk of infection, get immediate medical advice

    Is spitting assault?

    On the football pitch, spitting on the ground is a common sight but spitting at your opponents is categorised as “violent behaviour” by world governing body Fifa.

    Spitting at an opponent or any other person is a sending-off offence by the Football Association.

    The police say “in most cases, spitting if done deliberately will be an assault” and they have started to introduce spit hoods to protect officers.

    The transparent mesh fabric hoods are used by 17 of the UK’s 49 police forces.

    The West Midlands Police force is one of the latest to introduce them.

    The force said in 2016, 231 officers were spat on.

    But the garments have been condemned as cruel and degrading by the campaign group Liberty.

    Fining offence

    Until 1990, spitting was an offence carrying a £5 fine in the UK. In recent years the idea of fines for spitting has re-emerged.

    In 2013, Enfield council in London introduced a by-law to make spitting in public illegal.

    Councillor Chris Bond, who led the campaign to introduce it, described spitting as “utterly foul” and the “sort of disgusting behaviour” that “shouldn’t be tolerated in a civilised society”.

    “It is my belief that most people find spitting a wholly obnoxious, filthy habit which can spread germs and causes health issues,” he said.

    “Banning spitting in Enfield will help combat tuberculosis which has been on the increase in London.”

    In the same year, Waltham Forest Council in north-east London introduced fixed penalty notices of £80 for those caught spitting. It classified spitting as “waste”, which meant that creating a by-law was not necessary and it successfully took two men to court.

    ‘Spit bags’

    In some parts of the world spitting is commonplace.

    China has attempted to tackle the issue a number of times.

    One campaign ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics saw volunteers handed out special “spit bags” and banners across the city urged people not to spit as a way of “improving manners”.

    “Take part, contribute and enjoy yourself by welcoming the Olympics, being civilised and behaving better,” said one slogan.

How exercise in old age prevents the immune system from declining

Doing lots of exercise in older age can prevent the immune system from declining and protect people against infections, scientists say.

They followed 125 long-distance cyclists, some now in their 80s, and found they had the immune systems of 20-year-olds.

Prof Norman Lazarus, 82, of King’s College London, who took part in and co-authored the research, said: “If exercise was a pill, everyone would be taking it.

“It has wide-ranging benefits for the body, the mind, for our muscles and our immune system.”

The research was published in the journal Aging Cell.

Prof Janet Lord, director of the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing, at the University of Birmingham, and co-author of the research, said: “The immune system declines by about 2-3% a year from our 20s, which is why older people are more susceptible to infections, conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and, potentially, cancer.

“Because the cyclists have the immune system of a 20-year-old rather than a 70- or 80-year-old, it means they have added protection against all these issues.”

The researchers looked at markers in the blood for T-cells, which help the immune system respond to new infections.

These are produced in the thymus, a gland in the chest, which normally shrinks in size in adulthood.

‘Out of puff’

They found that the endurance cyclists were producing the same level of T-cells as adults in their 20s, whereas a group of inactive older adults were producing very few.

The researchers believe that being physically active in old age will help people respond better to vaccines, and so be better protected against infections such as flu.

Steve Harridge, co-author and professor of physiology at King’s College London, said: “Being sedentary goes against evolution because humans are designed to be physically active.

“You don’t need to be a competitive athlete to reap the benefits – or be an endurance cyclist – anything which gets you moving and a little bit out of puff will help.”

Prof Harridge and Prof Lazarus believe that highly physically active older people represent the perfect group in which to analyse the true effects of biological ageing.

A separate paper in Aging Cell found that the cyclists did not lose muscle mass or strength, and did not see an increase in body fat – which are usually associated with ageing.

I met a dozen of the cyclists, on a morning ride in Surrey. Despite the bitter cold, they were universally cheerful, and clearly used to riding in all weathers.

They are members of Audax, a long-distance cycling organisation that organises events ranging from 100km to 300km.

The older members – in their 80s – say they do only the “short” 100km (62-mile) rides, but this is still highly impressive.

So why do they do it?

Pam Jones, 79, told me: “I do it for my health, because it’s sociable, and because I enjoy the freedom it gives you.”

Brian Matkins, 82, said: “One of the first results I got from the medical study was I was told my body fat was comparable to that of a 19-year-old.”

Aged just 64, Jim Woods, is a comparative youngster in the group. He averages 100 miles a week on his bike, with more during the summer.

He said: “I cycle for a sense of wellbeing and to enjoy our wonderful countryside.”

Cycling 60 miles or more may not be your idea of fun, but these riders have found something that gives them pleasure, which is a key reason why they continue.

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Elon Musk fans targeted in crypto-cash scam

Fans of entrepreneur Elon Musk have been targeted in an emerging crypto-currency scam.

The scammers pose as celebrities on Twitter and claim to be giving away crypto-cash such as Bitcoin or Ether to their fans.

They ask people to send them a small amount of crypto-currency to qualify for the giveaway, but victims do not get any bitcoins back.

Twitter has not yet removed the imposter Elon Musk account.

How does the scam work?

The scammers impersonate well-known personalities on Twitter by copying their profile pictures and choosing usernames very similar to the genuine accounts.

They then post replies to popular tweets made by the genuine celebrity. This gives their nefarious messages prominence on Twitter.

Typically, the scammers ask people to send them small amounts of crypto-currency, offering to send a larger amount back as part of a giveaway.

The scam can be convincing, because at first glance it looks like the celebrity has replied to their own tweet.

However, the fake profiles can be detected as they do not have Twitter’s “verified” badge and often have no followers and have never posted before.

Amplified by bots

On Tuesday, an account posing as Elon Musk using the username @elonmuskik tweeted that the entrepreneur was going to “give away” 3,000 Ether, worth about £1.7m.

The scam was amplified by several automated accounts known as bots.

The bots had been dormant since September 2017 and had never posted before, but came to life to chat among themselves about the supposed crypto-cash giveaway.

“Sо nice! Just sent and immediately received back. You’re super fast,” one said.

The founder of the Ethereum (ETH) crypto-currency Vitalik Buterin has been targeted by the scam so many times that he has changed his username to “No I’m not giving away ETH”.

“No, I’m not giving away ETH… y’all are getting nothing,” he tweeted.

Twitter has been criticised for taking a long time to tackle the problem of bots on its platform.

It told the BBC: “We’re aware of this form of manipulation and are proactively implementing a number of signals to prevent these types of accounts from engaging with others in a deceptive manner.”

At the time of publication, the fake Elon Musk post had been up on the platform for 11 hours and remained visible.

Reddit admits hosting Russian propaganda

Reddit has become the latest social-media platform to admit that Russian propaganda was used on its site during the 2016 US presidential election.

It follows leaks from news site The Daily Beast showing a Russian troll farm active on the website.

Co-founder Steve Huffman said that it had removed “a few hundred accounts” suspected of being of Russian origin.

In a blogpost, he said “indirect propaganda”, which was more complex to spot and stop, was the biggest issue.

“For example, the Twitter account @TEN_GOP is now known to be run by a Russian agent. Its tweets were amplified by thousands of Reddit users, and sadly, from everything we can tell, these users are mostly American and appear to be unwittingly promoting Russian propaganda.”

Conspiracy theories

Mr Huffman added: “I believe the biggest risk we face as Americans is our own ability to discern reality from nonsense, and this is a burden we all bear.

“I wish there was a solution as simple as banning all propaganda, but it’s not that easy. Between truth and fiction are a thousand shades of grey.

“It’s up to all of us—Redditors, citizens, journalists—to work through these issues.”

The @TEN_GOP account appeared to be run by Republicans in Tennessee. It tweeted a mix of pro-Trump content and conspiracy theories, as well as more obvious fake news stories.

The Daily Beast investigation suggested no outright support of any particular candidate or viewpoint and concluded that Russia’s aim was to provoke and divide Americans on the internet and, as a result, in the physical world too.

Social media ‘weapon’

Social media platforms are under increased scrutiny from the US Congress over the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Facebook has given the Senate Intelligence Committee thousands of ads believed to have been purchased by Russian agents.

The Washington Post reported that Reddit was now likely to be questioned over its involvement in the “weaponisation of social media” during the election.

Special counsel Robert Mueller has charged 13 Russians with interfering in the US election, all of whom are linked to troll farm the Internet Research Agency.

Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on Reddit to clean up the content on its platform.

In February, it banned a group that was generating fake porn – imagery and videos that superimpose a person’s face over an explicit photo or video without permission.

This week, it emerged that another subreddit was sharing images of dead babies and animals being harmed.

Mr Huffman said the company was aware of the group, which currently has nearly 19,000 subscribers, and that the community was “under review”.

Five reasons why trade wars aren’t easy to win

What happens now that President Donald Trump has said he will move forward with tariffs on steel and aluminium products?

Analysts are warning of a trade war, as officials from Europe, Asia and Latin America threaten retaliation.

Mr Trump predicted it would be “easy” for the US to win.

But most economists and trade experts reject that view, saying every country, including the US, stands to lose in the event of a serious trade fight.

“If what we’re talking about is who gets hurt the least, that would probably be the United States, but all countries get hurt in a trade war,” says Edward Alden, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Here’s why “winning” might not be so easy for the US.

1. Tariffs may not actually boost steel and aluminium jobs much

Mr Trump promoted his decision as a win for the steel and aluminium industries and said he expects investment and hiring to follow.

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    But technological changes have made the industry less labour intensive. Historians say previous efforts to protect steel jobs have been largely ineffective.

    The companies present at Mr Trump’s announcement did not respond to BBC inquiries about potential expansions.

    A 2002 analysis by the Peterson Institute for International Economics of proposed tariffs predicted the measures would “save” just 3,500 jobs.

    2. Tariffs are likely to raise costs in the US

    Today, the steel industry estimates that it employs about 140,000 people – far fewer than in the sectors that rely on it.

    Criticism of the tariffs from those firms was immediate. For example, the National Retail Federation blasted it as a “tax on American families”.

    US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said companies were over-reacting, but Mr Alden says the economic costs will be serious.

    The Charlotte Observer reports that Electrolux, manufacturer of washing machines and cookers, has already put on hold an expansion planned for Tennessee.

    3. Tariffs could hurt allies and prompt retaliation

    Individual industries and countries – especially places that are already negotiating wider trade deals such as Canada – will be lobbying furiously in the coming days for exemptions from the final tariffs.

    Absent that, analysts say they expect retaliation – and a broader weakening of the global free trade system.

    Countries could complain to the World Trade Organisation, but such cases take years and Mr Trump has been dismissive of that body.

    Moreover, WTO judges may be hesitant to second-guess the rarely used “national security” rationale the US has used to justify the tariffs, says Columbia Law professor Petros Mavroidis.

    Those factors make unilateral retaliatory tariffs more likely, he says. Such actions, which are expected to target industries in politically sensitive US states, could be in place within a year, he says.

    4. China has options

    The US blames China for flooding the market with cheap steel and aluminium and has already stepped up protective measures against Chinese steel products.

    Mr Trump says wider tariffs are necessary to stop Chinese steel appearing in the US via other countries.

    But US businesses, including those in the car, tech and agriculture industries, are eager to get into the Chinese market, giving leaders there some leverage.

    5. The domestic political consequences are unclear

    Mr Trump isn’t unique among US presidents in using trade policy to protect politically strategic industries.

    But how beneficial such actions are is difficult to decipher, given the time lag between the decisions and elections, says Kenneth Lowande, a research fellow at Princeton University’s Center for the Study of Democratic Politics.

    At the moment, Democrats are the most vocal defenders of the president.