Second Minister for Home Affairs S. Iswaran told Parliament on Tuesday that there were no security lapses in the case of a North Korean diplomat who had apparently carried some 27kg of gold bars through Changi Airport and onto a flight to Dhaka, Bangladesh.
The incident took place in March this year.
Mr Iswaran was replying to a question posed by non-constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP), Gerald Giam, of the Workers’ Party (WP).
Mr Giam had asked what was the weight limit on the transport of gold and other precious metals in and out of Singapore by individual travellers, and if diplomats are exempt from this limit.
And referring to the case of the diplomat, Mr Giam asked what measures are in place to ensure that diplomats do not abuse their diplomatic immunity to carry precious metals, drugs or weapons in and out of Singapore in their luggage.
Son Young-Nam, the first secretary at the North Korean embassy in Dhaka, had departed on a flight from Changi, where he was screened before boarding.
“No security threat items were found on him,” local news in Singapore reported.
Mr Son was stopped when he arrived at Dhaka’s Hazrat Shahjalam International Airport.
Rashidul Islam Khan, commanding officer of the airport’s armed police battalion, said the diplomat was passing through the “nothing to declare” channel in customs when an official asked to scan his carry-on luggage.
But Mr Son refused to allow customs officers and police to examine his bags.
“He insisted that his bags cannot be scanned because he’s carrying a red passport and he enjoys diplomatic immunity,” Moinul Khan, head of Bangladesh’s customs intelligence department told AFP.
“After more than four hours of drama, he gave in and we found gold bars and gold ornaments weighing 26.795kg (59lb), which is worth 130 million taka ($1.67m, £1.1m),” he added.
Mr Khan said the diplomat admitted under questioning that he was carrying the gold illegally.
The gold is reported to be worth some US$1.4 million.
Bangladesh has a limit of 2kg which can be allowed into the country by individuals.
Mr Khan added: “It’s a clear case of smuggling. We believe he would have sold the gold to a local criminal racket. He is being used as a carrier.”
The Bangladesh government summoned North Korean Ambassador Ri Song Hyon on Monday and gave him a 72-hour deadline to send the diplomat home, the Associated Press news agency reported.
“We told the ambassador to prosecute him in North Korea and update us about the action to be taken against him,” Mohammad Shahidul Haque, the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry secretary, told Reuters.
“We conveyed to him that the government would take serious action if any embassy official is found to be involved in any crimes in future.”
Mr Iswaran said diplomats, just like other travellers, are screened before they board the planes at Singapore’s Changi Airport.
“This involves the use of metal detectors for checks on persons and X-ray screening for their belongings,” the Straits Times reported Mr Iswaran as having said.
In the event of a suspicion of a security threat, the authorities “are not constrained from making the appropriate checks on the items a diplomat carries.”
As for Mr Giam’s question about limits to the amount of gold and precious metals allowed to be transport in and out of Singapore, Mr Iswaran said there are no weight limits on these.
“The member should also be aware that it is not uncommon, especially for travellers to certain parts of the world, to carry what you and I might consider not insignificant amounts of gold on their person or in their personal baggage,” the minister said.
“If they are able to give a clear explanation that these are their personal effects or for personal consumption purposes, generally they would be allowed to carry on with their travel with those items.”
In the meantime, sources have said Mr Son was released by the Bangladesh authorities under the Vienna Convention which grants immunity to diplomats.
He is also reported to have left Bangladesh for North Korea.