Australia detains alleged key player in North Korean tobacco smuggling scheme after US request

A Chinese national has been quietly arrested and detained in Australia for 11 months at the request of US authorities investigating an alleged tobacco smuggling conspiracy that generated an estimated A$1.1bn (US$700m) in revenue to North Korea.

Jin Guanghua, 52, was arrested by the Australian federal police in Melbourne last March. Described in US court documents as an Australian resident, Jin was kept in custody in Melbourne for several months before being transferred to immigration detention while awaiting extradition.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation alleges Jin and others conspired for about a decade to supply tobacco to North Korea, which allowed the country to manufacture counterfeit cigarettes that helped fund its nuclear and ballistic weapons program.

According to documents filed in a US federal court in Washington DC, it is alleged bank accounts linked to front companies run by Jin and a co-conspirator were involved in more than $128m (US$84m) in transfers as part of the scheme.

The tobacco they helped smuggle generated an estimated $1.1bn (US$700m) in revenue for two companies owned by the North Korean military and government, the FBI has alleged.

“The co-conspirators used false shipping records to smuggle tobacco and other goods into North Korea, and front companies to launder related US dollar payments for these shipments,” the FBI claims in a criminal complaint against Jin.

“In so doing, the co-conspirators deceived correspondent banks in the United States, who would not have otherwise processed these transactions had they known about the nexus to North Korea.”

Jin is set to be charged with 12 offences, including conspiracy to commit bank fraud, offences relating to the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, and the laundering or conspiracy to launder “of monetary instruments”.

The charges relate to allegations Jin’s companies knowingly used the US financial system to bypass international sanctions and provide tobacco and other goods, including a Russian helicopter, to North Korea.

Victorian magistrates court records show that Jin was arrested and taken into custody by the AFP under a US extradition warrant in March last year.

He faced the Melbourne magistrates court on several occasions, with his final appearance in August, the records show.

The Australian Attorney General’s Department confirmed Jin had been arrested in response to a provisional request made by the US and remained in detention “pursuant to the United States of America’s request for his extradition to face criminal charges in the United States”.

“The time taken to resolve an extradition request can vary from a few months to a number of years, depending on the complexity of the matter and whether the person chooses to contest extradition and exercise all rights of appeal,” a department spokesperson said.

“The individual is wanted to face prosecution in the United States for a number of sanctions, bank fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy offences.

“As the extradition matter is ongoing, it would not be appropriate to comment further.”

If found guilty and convicted in the US, Jin is facing decades in prison, fines worth millions of dollars, and the forfeiture of property.

The FBI alleged Jin and his co-conspirators were able to operate the scheme by using a series of front companies registered in the UK, New Zealand, the United Arab Emirates and China.

The alleged co-conspirators include Chinese nationals Han Linlin, 42, and Qin Guoming, 50, who are both wanted by the FBI and are believed by the bureau to have “ties to or may visit Australia”.

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There are $764,610 (US$500,000) rewards available for information leading to the arrest and conviction of either man.

A separate $7.65m (US$5m) reward is also offered for the arrest of a North Korean banker, Sim Hyon-Sop, whom the FBI alleges was involved in the scheme.

“These charges arise from an illicit scheme by … North Korea, through its state-owned companies, to generate revenue for North Korea and its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proliferation programs, through the purchase and sale of tobacco and other products,” the FBI alleges in its indictment.

“The entities were a group of companies run by Chinese nationals, defendants JIN … QIN … and HAN. These defendants founded at least eight companies in Dubai using variations of the same business name [Winney] to act as middlemen and facilitators for North Korean entities.”

It alleged the tobacco purchases were for the benefit of companies “owned by the North Korean military and government” to produce “counterfeit cigarettes” and other products.

The AFP referred questions about the case to the Attorney General’s Department. The FBI did not respond to a request for comment.

While the FBI documents outline sweeping details about the allegations against Jin, including conversations with undercover operatives and details about procuring a $648,360 (US$424,000) helicopter from Khabarovsk for North Korean customers using a Zimbabwean company, little is known about his time in Australia.

Company and property records show that he was the founding director of an Australian company, Solomon Australia Pty Ltd, that was registered in 2021, and that he listed his address on company documents as a $5m house in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.

Property records for that house show it was owned by another man, who did not respond to a request for comment. The man is an accountant whose website says he provides “compliance work” for Chinese investors in Australia, including in property.

US court documents do not name the companies from which Jin and others were alleged to have sourced tobacco and there is no suggestion Solomon Australia Pty Ltd is involved in any wrongdoing.

The indictment in the case was released in April 2023, on the same day as it was announced that British American Tobacco and a subsidiary had agreed to pay combined penalties of almost $963m (US$630m) to resolve bank fraud and sanctions violation charges relating to doing business in North Korea.

It is unclear if the two cases are related.


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