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Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
Update, August 5, 2019: After the publication of this article, Pokka Singapore contacted NK News to disagree with a statement by Mr. Pantelist Constantinou contained below. Their position reads: “The claim that “Pokka Singapore terminated its 27-year relationship with PC Splash Water shortly after [October 2018]” is entirely incorrect. (Pokka’s) Distribution Agreement with PC Splash Water was brought to an end as of 30 June 2018, by way of written notice on 12 April 2018, and the parties engaged in negotiations on possible new terms thereafter. However, no agreement was ever reached. In fact, any discussions on proposed sales volumes under the possible new Distributorship Agreement had been based on figures put forward in PC Splash Water’s bid in July 2018.”
The offices of a Singaporean company which produces drinks by the famous Japanese brand Pokka Sapporo are under investigation by Singaporean authorities due to concerns surrounding exports to North Korea, NK News has confirmed.
The investigation follows NK News reporting last year which, citing emails from Pokka Singapore seeking buyers for North Korea, showed how the company’s products were still widely available in Pyongyang as of September 2018 – despite Tokyo and Singapore’s ongoing total DPRK trade bans.
“Given that there are pending legal proceedings and ongoing investigations, Pokka Corporation Singapore Pte. Ltd. (“PCS”) is refraining from making any substantive comments so as to avoid interfering with any legal proceedings and/or obstructing any investigations,” Pokka Singapore told NK News on July 17.
“We are rendering full cooperation to the authorities in relation to matters/events that largely took place prior to 19 September 2018,” the spokesperson continued, “which was when Ms. (Rieko) Shofu took over as CEO of Pokka International Pte. Ltd. (“PIN”) from Mr Alain Ong.”
But while its Japanese parent company added that “Pokka Sapporo Group companies are fully understanding the sanctions against North Korea, and have taken all possible measures with the utmost effort to respect the sanctions,” evidence seen by NK News suggests otherwise.
CLAIMS OF ONGOING SALES
One of the brand’s longest-standing distributors in Europe, for example, said he came under pressure from senior Pokka Singapore staff during an August 2018 meeting in Dubai to help hide the firm’s sales to North Korea.
“All of a sudden I found myself there, in front of let’s say a hostile situation,” said CEO of PC Splash Water Pantelis Constantinou, whose firm distributed drinks made by Pokka Singapore for a span of 27 years.
“During a break during our meeting, I was talking to Bryan Low and he offered along with Ms. Shofu to increase our targets on paper for Cyprus so that they can do some trading with North Korea,” the CEO told NK News.
Rieko Shofu is the Japanese executive who became CEO of Singapore’s Pokka International Pte – the firms marketing entity – in September 2018, having been prior appointed as Group CEO of Pokka Corporation Singapore Pte in April 2018.
“This wasn’t something we could go ahead with … because it’s illegal and we don’t want to do illegal stuff,” Constantinou continued.
Nevertheless, he says that during a later October 2018 telephone conversation with Low, the senior sales staffer, “I was (again) asked if I wanted to include or project higher volumes for Cyprus, so that there will be an arrangement from Pokka to ship quantities to North Korea.”
“Although I did not quite understood how that was going to be done, I refused again, claiming that we do not want to get involved in any illegal dealings such as with North Korea”.
Shortly after declining the offers, the Cypriot distributor said that Pokka Singapore abruptly terminated its 27-year relationship with his company.
“It is a very difficult situation because since that time, personally, and as a company, we are going through a very difficult time financially.
“It was my life: 27 years of building up this brand,” he said. “And we were dealing only with this brand in the market, nothing else, and then all of a sudden we were found with nothing in our hands.”
Pokka’s Japanese office, however, said the claims were “erroneous, baseless and/or malicious and/or untrue, and should be withdrawn forthwith.”
“CEO Ms. Shofu never met with Pantelis Constantinou of PC Splash Water in Dubai in August 2018 as alleged,” the Tokyo office continued, suggesting “any meetings…were attended by the previous CEO of PIN, Mr Alain Ong, and his team.”
And “based on the minutes taken, there was no such demand made”.
Yet claims about Pokka Singapore’s recent connections with North Korea exist elsewhere.
An informed source, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said that during an October 2018 Singapore Customs raid of Pokka Singapore’s office, an invoice marked North Korea was found under the name ‘Eluva International’ – one of Pokka’s buyers for the Pacific Islands.
NK News could not corroborate the claim. Eluva hung up the phone as soon as NK News raised a journalistic inquiry and refused to take further calls or answer emails.
But Pokka’s Singapore office said “no such invoices were found as alleged” and noted it had “in fact, ceased all trade with Eluva,” requesting to “please withdraw what is clearly a malicious and untrue statement.”
And emails seen by NK News last April and July – sent from multiple staff using the firm’s Singapore email address domain – showed the firm to be clearly looking for North Korea partners in spite of several sanctions regimes which currently prohibit the firm from exporting there.
“Understand your interest to import to North Korea. Will like to check do you do direct importation?” said a July 2018 email sent from a Pokka Singapore staff member.
“As the political issues has gradually eased, we hope to recover our beverage business once again in NK market,” another email which copied in a senior sales manager said in April 2018.
Sent screenshots of the emails on July 22, Pokka Singapore refrained from commenting, responding to questions sent days earlier: “Pokka will not be responding to any further queries and will not hesitate to take action against the relevant parties for any erroneous and defamatory statements and/or wrongdoings against Pokka.”
Pokka based its position, among other reasons, on its view that questions sent by NK News “contain unfounded allegations and are suggestive of a bias.”
Main picture: NK News
Update, August 5, 2019: After the publication of this article, Pokka Singapore contacted NK News to disagree with a statement by Mr. Pantelist Constantinou contained below. Their position reads: "The claim that “Pokka Singapore terminated its 27-year relationship with PC Splash Water shortly after [October 2018]” is entirely incorrect. (Pokka's) Distribution Agreement with PC Splash Water was brought to an end as of 30 June 2018, by way of written notice on 12 April 2018, and the parties engaged in negotiations on possible new terms thereafter. However, no agreement was ever reached. In fact, any discussions on proposed sales volumes under the possible new Distributorship Agreement had been based on figures put forward in PC Splash Water’s bid in July 2018."