Australia arrests man accused of being 'economic agent' for North Korea

The Australian Federal Police arrested a Sydney man for allegedly acting as an economic agent for North Korea in Australia, in breach of both United Nations and Australian sanctions.
The Australian Federal Police arrested a Sydney man for allegedly acting as an economic agent for North Korea in Australia, in breach of both United Nations and Australian sanctions. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MELBOURNE (REUTERS, AFP) - Australian police said on Sunday (Dec 17) they had arrested a man accused of working on the black market to sell missile components and coal on behalf of North Korea, the first charges ever brought in Australia over the sale of weapons of mass destruction.

The man had been charged with two counts under an act preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, police said, and with another four under legislation enforcing United Nations and Australian sanctions against North Korea.

He  faces up to 18 years in jail if convicted. He did not apply for bail and will next face court on Wednesday.

The Sydney man was identified by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and other media as 59-year-old Chan Han Choi, who they said had been living in Australia for more than 30 years and was of Korean descent.

It is the first time anyone has been charged under the country's 1995 Weapons of Mass Destruction (Prevention of Proliferation) Act. 

"This is a very important arrest, the charges laid are the greatest nature,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told reporters in Sydney.  “It is vitally important that all nations ... enforce those sanctions.”

While Australia observes United Nations Security Council sanctions, the country also enforces a unilateral sanctions regime.

He was arrested in the Sydney suburb of Eastwood on Saturday, police said. He came to the attention of authorities earlier this year, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) said.

"This man was a loyal agent of North Korea, who believed he was acting to serve some higher patriotic purpose," AFP Assistant Commissioner Neil Gaughan told reporters.

"This case is like nothing we have ever seen on Australian soil," he said.

He said the Australian police started investigating the man after tip-off from another international agency on another matter.

Police will allege the man tried to broker the sale of missile components, including software for the guidance systems of ballistic missiles, as well as trying to sell coal to third parties in Indonesia and Vietnam. In February, China banned all coal imports from North Korea.

Gaughan said the trade could have been worth "tens of millions of dollars" if successful.

Gaughan said the man had been in touch with high-ranking North Korean officials but no missile components ever made it to Australia.

He also said there was no indication officials in Indonesia or Vietnam had been involved in the attempted coal sales.

"This is black market 101. It's the same with the coal and oil and gemstones - it's all about making money for North Korea," Gaughan said.

"We are alleging that all the activity occurred offshore, and was purely another attempt for this man to trade goods and services as a way to raise revenue for the government of North Korea," he said.

Cash-strapped North Korea has come under a new round of stricter United Nations sanctions this year after pressing ahead with its missile and nuclear programmes in defiance of international pressure.

Tensions have risen dramatically on the Korean peninsula because of the North's ballistic missile launches and its sixth and most powerful nuclear test, as well as joint military drills between South Korea and the United States that the North describes as preparation for war.

Pyongyang claimed that its latest intercontinental ballistic missile launch on Nov 29 had the range to reach all of the United States.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged North Korea on Friday to carry out a "sustained cessation" of its weapons testing to allow talks about its missile and nuclear programmes.

However, the North has shown little interest in talks until it has the ability to hit the US mainland with a nuclear-tipped missile, which many experts say it has yet to prove.