Australia holds Chinese man over suspected North Korea tobacco smuggling

Hannah Ritchie, BBC News, Sydney

A Chinese man is being held in Australia over his alleged role in a tobacco smuggling scheme that generated $700m (£570m) for North Korea.

Jin Guanghua now awaits extradition to the US, where he faces prosecution.

He is accused of supplying tobacco to Pyongyang for roughly a decade. It is unclear whether he contests the claim.

US authorities allege the tobacco trade allowed Kim Jong Un’s regime to make and sell counterfeit cigarettes to help fund its weapons programme.

Australia’s Attorney-General’s Department confirmed that Mr Jin had been detained in Melbourne in March last year, and that his “extradition matter” was ongoing.

“The individual is wanted to face prosecution in the US for a number of sanctions, bank fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy offences,” it said in a statement on Tuesday.

According to US court documents, the scheme Mr Jin was allegedly involved in was run through a series of North Korean “state owned companies” and financed by its banks.

“Chinese front companies” were then used to conduct transactions through the US financial system, bypassing sanctions and bringing millions of dollars into Pyongyang, the documents say.

Mr Jin is accused of setting up a number of entities in the UK, New Zealand, the United Arab Emirates and China that “facilitated purchases of [the] tobacco” used.

The revenue from the scheme is believed to have supported North Korea’s ballistic and nuclear proliferation programmes, the US says.

Counterfeit cigarettes have been a “major source of income” for North Korea since the 1990s, according to US authorities. Made in Pyongyang, they are then sold using the fake packaging of well-known tobacco brands, and have turned up in countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Belize.

The illegal trade is thought to be one of Pyongyang’s largest sources of hard currency, according to the US government.

If found guilty, Mr Jin faces millions of dollars in fines and decades in prison.

His alleged co-conspirators have been named in court documents as Chinese nationals Qin Guoming, 60, and Han Linlin, 42.

Both are wanted by the FBI and are suspected to have ties to “China, the United Arab Emirates, and Australia”.

A bounty of $498,000 is on offer for any information that could assist with the arrest and conviction of either man.

For years, the US has imposed strict sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic missile activities.

In 2023, British American Tobacco was ordered to pay $635m in fines to the US government after one of its subsidiaries admitted to selling cigarettes to Pyongyang. The case was described by authorities as an “elaborate scheme to circumvent US sanctions”.

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