Feds Accuse North Koreans of Diverting $2.5B to Nuclear Program

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during a government meeting in an undated photo provided last weekend. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Justice Department unsealed an indictment Thursday charging 28 North Koreans with conspiring to funnel at least $2.5 billion to the country’s nuclear weapons and missile program.

Filed in Washington federal court, the 50-page indictment charges the North Korean individuals along with five Chinese citizens — all linked to the Foreign Trade Bank of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — with 14 counts including conspiracy, money laundering and bank fraud. The case is believed to be the largest criminal enforcement action for sanctions violations ever taken against North Korea.

FTB, North Korea’s primary foreign currency bank, is cut off from the U.S. financial system after landing on the Treasury Department sanctions list for facilitating nuclear proliferation in 2013.

The defendants include agents of the bank that range from former executives to branch managers, including two former FTB presidents and two former co-vice presidents, one who served as a member of North Korea’s primary intelligence agency.

The Justice Department alleges that the individuals established over 250 front companies and covert branches to process the payments in U.S. dollars across a network operating globally including in Austria, China, Libya, Russia and Thailand.

“Through this indictment, the United States has signified its commitment to hampering North Korea’s ability to illegally access the U.S. financial system and limit its ability to use proceeds from illicit actions to enhance its illegal WMD and ballistic missile programs,” acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Michael Sherwin said in a statement.

China stands out in the indictment as having helped facilitate the illicit network, with FTB branches still operating in Beijing and Shenyang, China, despite the United Nations requiring members to expel branches of North Korean banks since early 2016. The five Chinese citizens charged in the case allegedly oversaw several covert branches, both in Shenyang and in Libya.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly called out both China and Russia for weakening sanctions, while also lending a hand in illegal smuggling operations.

None of the defendants are currently in custody, but the indictment could restrict their movements overseas. The U.S. government seeks forfeiture demands in the case, having already seized over $63 million from the scheme since 2015.

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