The effort demonstrated the creativity and resolve of an isolated country intent on defying demands that it abandon its nuclear weapons program.
The Justice Department said on Monday that it had indicted four men on charges of laundering virtual currency stolen by an infamous North Korean online criminal syndicate as part of a far-reaching scheme to buy goods with U.S. dollars and evade international sanctions.
The charges, filed in three cases in federal court in Washington, outline a complex multiyear effort to launder cryptocurrency obtained by the Lazarus Group, an organization linked to espionage, online theft and cyberattacks, including the 2014 breach of Sony Pictures.
The scheme involved a relatively modest amount of currency. But it represents only a fraction of the illegal activity being undertaken by North Korea, officials said — and it vividly demonstrated the creativity and resolve of an isolated country intent on defying demands that it abandon its nuclear weapons and long-range missile programs.
In the first indictment, the government charged a banker based in China, Sim Hyon Sop, 39, along with three cryptocurrency traders with conspiring to convert virtual currency that had been stolen from accounts into dollars. North Korea’s government, short on cash, later used the money to buy goods, including tobacco and communications equipment, in 2018.
The second indictment outlined a related conspiracy by Mr. Sim, and various North Korean information technology workers who used fake identities to get jobs with blockchain companies in the United States. Several workers, and others not named in court papers, used that access to launder about $12 million that passed through Mr. Sim’s cryptocurrency wallet, prosecutors said.
A third indictment describes an unlicensed money-transmitting business that conducted over 1,500 trades for U.S. customers without the necessary licenses.
Three of those charged, including Mr. Sim, were based in China and Hong Kong when, according to prosecutors, they committed their crimes, while a fourth was identified only by an online alias. None of them are currently in U.S. custody, and a Justice Department spokesman declined to say if the Biden administration will request their extradition.
The charges stemmed from “innovative attempts” by North Korean operatives to evade sanctions by “targeting virtual currency companies for theft,” Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr., the head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, said in a statement.
Learn more: The New York Times