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Exclusive: US Deports North Korean Sentenced for Money Laundering to China

FILE - The badge of a field office director for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Enforcement and Removal Operations in Hawthorne, California, on March 1, 2020.

The U.S. has deported a North Korean businessman to China after sentencing him for multiple money laundering offenses using the American financial system to buy luxury goods for the regime in Pyongyang, according to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson.

Mun Chol Myong, a 55-year-old North Korean national, was sentenced in U.S. federal district court in Washington in January to time served of 45 months in prison for a money laundering scheme to evade U.S. and U.N. sanctions aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

“Consistent with Mun’s preferences, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilitated his removal from the United States to the People’s Republic of China earlier this month,” said the ICE spokesperson in a statement sent to the VOA Korean Service on Tuesday.

During his sentencing hearing on January 20, Mun expressed his desire to go to China. His wife is battling cancer there, said Mun’s attorney at the hearing. There are anywhere from 10,000 to 300,000 North Koreans living in hiding in China, according to Human Rights Watch.

The VOA Korean Service learned that after his sentencing, Mun was held at an ICE detention facility in Bowling Green, Virginia, before being deported to China earlier this month.

The U.S. officially banned North Korea from accessing the U.S. financial system in November 2016, following North Korea’s fifth nuclear test two months earlier.

Importing luxury goods is prohibited by U.N. sanctions issued in October 2006 after North Korea conducted its first nuclear test.

Despite the sanctions, North Korea has been using evasion schemes to tap as many as 90 countries to procure luxury goods between 2015 and 2017, according to a study by the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), a Washington-based think tank.

Mun was sentenced for making illicit transactions of more than $1.2 million between April 2013 and November 2018 using shell companies and fake documents, according to a statement released by the U.S. Justice Department in January.

“Mun and his co-conspirators used a network of front companies and falsified transaction records to conceal that the payments benefited sanctioned North Korean entities and thereby deceived U.S. correspondent banks into executing correspondent banking transactions that they would otherwise have rejected,” said the statement.

“His actions were part of a scheme to launder money through the U.S. financial system to provide luxury items to the DPRK,” said the ICE spokesperson.

The DPRK stands for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The VOA Korean Service contacted the North Korean Mission to the U.N. requesting comments on Mun’s deportation but did not receive a reply.

The North Korean man conducted money laundering schemes while working as a businessman in Malaysia. He was arrested by the Malaysian authorities in May 2019 at the request of the U.S. and was extradited to the United States in March 2021.

“Mun was the first-ever DPRK national to be extradited to the United States,” said the ICE spokesperson.

North Korea severed diplomatic relations with Malaysia after the extradition. In response, Malaysia closed its embassy in Pyongyang.

After being extradited to the U.S., Mun pleaded guilty but avoided a trial under what is known as an Alford plea over the objection of the U.S., according to the Justice Department’s statement.

Under an Alford plea, the defendant proclaims innocence while acknowledging there is sufficient evidence to secure a conviction. An Alford plea avoids a criminal trial because the defendant agrees to accept the punishment that would attach to a guilty plea.

Mun was affiliated with North Korea’s intelligence organization, the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB), which is sanctioned by the U.S. and U.N., according to the U.S. Justice department. The RGB operates outside the North Korean military structure and “is involved in terrorist, clandestine and illicit activities,” according to a report by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

The U.S. Treasury Department has sanctioned the RGB twice. In 2010, the RGB was sanctioned for conducting illicit activities including arms trading and money laundering for North Korea. The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned it again in 2015 following North Korea’s cyberattack targeting Sony Pictures Entertainment.

The U.N. sanctioned the RGB after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in 2016.