The United States has imposed sanctions on three bankers based in Hong Kong and China for their involvement in helping North Korea launder money. The US Treasury Department has accused them of using the US and other international financial systems to clean up the virtual currency stolen by the North Korean hacker organization, “Lazarus Group,” to fund Pyongyang’s weapons program. The three sanctioned individuals include Wu Huihui, a virtual currency trader based in China; Cheng Hung Man, a currency trader based in Hong Kong, and Sim Hyon Sop, a North Korean Kwang Sun Bank representative who was recently transferred to Dandong, China. All assets belonging to these three individuals in the United States have been frozen, and those who have business dealings with them have also been sanctioned.
According to the US Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, Brian Nelson, North Korea “continues to use virtual currencies and a variety of illicit cyber tools to infiltrate the international financial system to generate revenue.” The US government is committed to holding accountable those who help North Korea “undermine peace and stability.” The Treasury cited a report published in February by Chainalysis, a blockchain analysis company, stating that the Lazarus Group has plundered about $1.7 billion in funds through cryptocurrencies in 2022 alone, including from the online game Axie Infinity.
The Associated Press quoted the US Treasury Department as saying that the Lazarus Group is a cybercriminal group managed by Pyongyang’s main intelligence agency, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, targeting governments and private organizations in various countries, engaging in espionage, data and currency theft. The group’s most notorious “achievement” was allegedly hacking into producer Sony Pictures Entertainment in 2014, leaking its internal confidential documents, and has since then, planned and participated in many cyber theft cases, robbing hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
The US government’s move to impose sanctions on the three bankers came as South Korean President Yoon Suk-yue visited the United States. The announcement was made on April 24, and North Korea has yet to respond to it.