Secret Documents Show North Korea Laundered Money Through U.S. Banks With China’s Help

( For years, North Korea has been carrying out elaborate money laundering schemes to move money through banks in New York.

Confidential bank documents that NBC News reviewed show the dictatorship received help from Chinese companies and used other shell companies to get the job done. The documents show there were no commercial reasons for all the financial transactions, which came in round figures and sometimes happened in bursts — either hours or days apart.

Transactions like this are often red flags that someone is trying to hide illicit cash, according to an anti-money laundering expert based in London, Graham Barrow.

The total amount of money laundered in the U.S., according to the documents, is $174.8 million. It cleared through banks in such as the Bank of New York Mellon as well as JPMorgan Chase.

A former official with the Treasury Department, Eric Lorber, said:

“Taken as a whole, you have what really, frankly, looks like a concerted attack by the North Koreans to access the U.S. financial system over an extended period of time through multiple different avenues in ways that were fairly sophisticated.”

The documents were part of a collaborative project known as FinCEN Files. Along with more than 400 journalists stationed across the globe, the project was initiated by BuzzFeed News, NBC News and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

The project examined suspicious activity reports that were filed by banks with the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) of the Treasury Department. BuzzFeed first obtained the leaked documents.

Financial institutions and banks file suspicious activity reports (or SARs) to alert law enforcement agencies of transactions that are potentially illegal. They are only potential reports of wrongdoing, not necessarily evidence. Federal authorities and banks hold these reports as highly confidential.

Because of this, FinCEN was not happy that the documents were leaked. They wouldn’t comment specifically on what the SARs included, saying the matters have been handed over to the inspector general of the Treasury Department as well as the Department of Justice.

In a statement, FinCEN said:

“As FinCEN has stated previously, the unauthorized disclosure of SARs is a crime that can impact the national security of the United States, compromise law enforcement investigations, and threaten the safety and security of the institutions and individuals who file such reports.”

Last Wednesday, FinCEN announced it had plans to do a major overhaul of anti-money laundering laws in America.

The documents in question cover the years of 2008 to 2017. That marked a time period when the administrations of both Barack Obama and Donald Trump sought to tighten restrictions on North Korea to limit its potential to build nuclear weapons. The sanctions are meant to limit the country’s ability to bring in money to support their efforts.

But apparently, with China’s help, North Korea was able to circumvent those restrictions. The head of a U.N. Panel of Experts that tracked Pyongyang’s efforts to bust these sanctions, Hugh Griffiths, said:

“The documents … I think, help explain why the North Koreans have been so successful at sanction evasion. What you have is gold dust, because so few journalists, or investigators generally, get access to banking internal compliance documentation.”