North Korean Foreign Trade Bank Rep Charged for Role in Two Crypto Laundering Conspiracies

North Korean Foreign Trade Bank Rep Charged for  Role in Two Crypto Laundering Conspiracies

            WASHINGTON – Two federal indictments, unsealed today in the District of Columbia, charge a North Korean Foreign Trade Bank (“FTB”) representative for his role in money laundering conspiracies designed to generate revenue for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, through the use of cryptocurrency. A third indictment charges one of the co-conspirators in a separate scheme.

            The indictments were announced by U.S. Attorney Matthew M. Graves, Assistant Attorney General of the Criminal Division Kenneth A. Polite, Jr., and Special Agent in Charge Robert W. “Wes” Wheeler, Jr. of the FBI’s Chicago Field Office.

            Sim Hyon Sop (“Sim”), 39, a North Korean national, is charged with conspiring with three over-the-counter (“OTC”) traders, Wu HuiHui (“Wu”), 34, a Chinese national living in Jinan, Shandong, China; Cheng Hung Man (“Cheng”), 59, a Hong Kong British National (Overseas) living in Hong Kong, and an unknown user of the online moniker “live:jammychen0150” (“Chen”), to launder stolen cryptocurrency and use the funds to purchase goods through Hong Kong-based front companies for the benefit of North Korea. Sim directed these payments, which were made in U.S. dollars, through Chen. Chen then recruited Wu and Cheng, both of whom were OTC traders, to find sham front companies and facilitate the payments to avoid U.S. sanctions against North Korea.

            The second indictment alleges a conspiracy between Sim and various North Korean IT workers to launder proceeds of illegal IT development work. The IT workers gained employment at U.S. crypto companies using fake identities and then laundered their ill-gotten gains through Sim for the benefit of the North Korean regime, and in contravention of sanctions imposed against North Korea by the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”) and the United Nations. Those sanctions were imposed to impede the development of North Korea’s ballistic missiles, weapons production, and research and development programs.

            “Today’s indictments reveal North Korea’s continued use of various means to circumvent U.S. sanctions,” said U.S. Attorney Graves. “We can and will ‘follow the money,’ be it through cryptocurrency or the traditional banking system, to bring appropriate charges against those who would help to fund this corrupt regime.” 

            “The charges announced today highlight the ways in which North Korean operatives have innovated their approach to evading sanctions by exploiting the technological features of virtual assets to facilitate payments and profits, and targeting virtual currency companies for theft,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “We will continue to work to disrupt and deter North Korean actors and those who aid them by following the money on the blockchain and shining a light on their conduct.”

            “The growing popularity of virtual currencies has provided new and unique opportunities for criminals to engage in illicit transactions, but what has not changed is our commitment to investigating these crimes,” said Special Agent in Charge Wheeler. “I am proud of the work that the FBI and partners have accomplished in support of today’s indictment.”

            Since 2017, as part of its cyber campaign, North Korean hackers have executed virtual currency-related thefts to generate revenue for the regime, including through the hacking of virtual asset services providers, such as virtual currency exchanges.  A portion of the proceeds from those virtual currency theft and fraud schemes was sent to virtual currency address 1G3Qj4Y4trA8S64zHFsaD5GtiSwX19qwFv, which Sim and his OTC trader coconspirators used to fund payments for goods for North Korea.

            To generate revenue for the regime, North Korea also deploys IT workers to obtain illegal employment in the cryptocurrency industry. According to court documents, North Koreans apply for jobs in remote IT development work without disclosing that they are North Korean in order to circumvent sanctions. These IT workers bypass security and due diligence checks by using fake, or fraudulently obtained, identity documents and other obfuscation strategies to hide their true location from online payment facilitators and hiring platforms. The IT workers request payment for their services in virtual currency and then send their earnings back to North Korea via, among other methods, FTB representatives like Sim.

            ]A third indictment unsealed today in the District of Columbia separately charges Wu with operating an unlicensed money transmitting business. According to that indictment, Wu operated as an OTC trader on a U.S.-based virtual currency exchange without a license and conducted over 1,500 trades for U.S. customers, totaling over $800,000.

            A concurrent action was taken today by the Department of the Treasury, sanctioning Sim, Wu, and Cheng.  

            The charge of conspiring to launder monetary instruments is punishable by a maximum of 20 years in prison. The charge of operating an unlicensed money transmitting business is punishable by a maximum of 5 years in prison.

            The investigation was conducted by the FBI’s Chicago Field Office. The case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorney Jessica Peck of the Justice Department’s National Cryptocurrency Enforcement Team (NCET), Assistant U.S. Attorneys Steven Wasserman and Christopher Tortorice of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, and Trial Attorney Emma Ellenrieder of the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section. Paralegal Specialists Brian Rickers and Angela De Falco and Legal Assistant Jessica McCormick provided valuable assistance. Significant assistance was also provided by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California, FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office, former IRS-Criminal Investigation Special Agent Chris Janczewski, and former FBI analyst Nick Carlsen.

            An indictment is merely an allegation. All defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

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