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NK laundered money through US banks in 2008-2017: report

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Rodong Sinmun-Yonhap)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Rodong Sinmun-Yonhap)

North Korea has used American banks to launder massive amounts of money for years to dodge international sanctions, leaked documents have revealed, according to NBC News on Sunday (US time).

The bank documents revealed Pyongyang has illegally transferred at least $174 million across the border using shell companies and help from Chinese companies, through major US banks such as JPMorgan Chase and Bank of New York Mellon from 2008 to 2017, during which time the US tightened sanctions against the regime as the North continued to advance its nuclear and missile programs.

The leaked documents are known as the “FinCEN Files,” and contain thousands of “Suspicious Activity Reports” filed by banks to the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network and other US government documents. BuzzFeed News originally obtained the files in 2019 and shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and other news outlets.

One report filed with the Treasury Department by JPMorgan Chase indicated that the bank had allowed $89.2 million in transfers involving companies and individuals believed to be linked to North Korea between 2011 to 2013. The bank said it had previously flagged those companies as suspicious for sending funds to North Korea.

In another case, a Chinese woman named Ma Xiaohong and her company Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development Co. engaged in money laundering by routing money to North Korea through China, Singapore, Cambodia and the US, using shell companies to move tens of millions of dollars through US banks in New York, according to the SAR filed by the Bank of New York Mellon.

The bank reported that it facilitated suspicious transfers amounting to $85.6 million in 2015, and the document details $20.1 million of those transactions.

In the document, the bank cited red flags in those transactions, as the transfers were directed to firms that appear to be shell companies with opaque ownership, while some were registered in high-risk jurisdictions such as Cambodia. Also, the amounts that were transferred were in round amounts with no clear commercial reasons stated for the transactions.

The report pointed out that the Bank of New York Mellon had approved transactions at a time when media reports clearly showed Ma was conducting business with North Korea.

“Taken as a whole, you have what really, frankly, looks like a concerted attack by the North Koreans to access the US financial system over an extended period of time through multiple different avenues in ways that were fairly sophisticated,” Eric Lorber, a former Treasury Department official who worked on North Korean sanctions during the Trump administration, told NBC News.

By Ahn Sung-mi (