US sanctions target three in China linked to North Korean hackers

The Treasury Department is seen in Washington, Jan. 18, 2023. [VOA]

The United States on Monday announced sanctions on three people it said were involved in laundering virtual currency stolen by North Korean hackers to help finance Pyongyang's weapons programs.

A U.S. Treasury statement said the three were a China-based virtual currency trader, another currency trader based in Hong Kong, and a representative of North Korea's Korea Kwangson Banking Corp, who recently relocated to Dandong, China.

China-based trader Wu Huihui facilitated the conversion of virtual currency stolen by North Korea's cybercriminal syndicate, the Lazarus Group, the statement said. The Hong Kong-based trader, Cheng Hung Man, worked with Wu to remit payments in exchange for virtual currency, it said.

Also targeted was Sim Hyon Sop for acting on behalf of the Kwangson Banking Corp., an entity previously designated for sanctions by the United States.

Wu processed multiple transactions that converted millions of dollars’ worth of virtual currency, the statement said.

The U.S. sanctions freeze any U.S. assets of the individuals and make those who do business with them also liable to sanctions.

U.S. Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson said North Korea "continues to exploit virtual currency and extensive illicit facilitation networks to access the international financial system and generate revenue."

Nelson said Washington was committed to holding accountable those who enable North Korea's "destabilizing activities, especially in light of the three intercontinental ballistic missiles Pyongyang has launched this year alone."

Years of U.S.-led sanctions have failed to halt North Korea's nuclear bomb and missile programs. The latest Treasury Department action was announced before a visit to the United States this week by South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol.

A February report by U.S.-based blockchain analytics firm Chainalysis said North Korea-linked hackers such as those in the Lazarus Group stole an estimated $1.7 billion in cryptocurrency attacks last year.