MELBOURNE • Australian police said 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 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.
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.
He was arrested in the Sydney suburb of Eastwood last Saturday, police said. He did not apply for bail and will next face the court on Wednesday.
He came to the attention of the authorities earlier this year, the Australian Federal Police said.
"This man was a loyal agent of North Korea, who believed he was acting to serve some higher patriotic purpose," Australian Federal Police Assistant Commissioner Neil Gaughan told reporters.
"This case is like nothing we have ever seen on Australian soil," he said.
The man faces accusations of trying 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.
Mr Gaughan said the trade could have been worth "tens of millions of dollars" if successful.
Cash-strapped North Korea has come under a new round of stricter UN sanctions this year after pressing ahead with its missile and nuclear programmes in defiance of international pressure.
While Australia observes UN sanctions, the country also enforces a unilateral sanctions regime.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said yesterday morning that the charges were "very, very serious matters", the Australian reported.
Describing the North Korean regime as "dangerous, reckless and criminal", Mr Turnbull told reporters in Sydney: "It is vitally important that all nations work to enforce sanctions against North Korea. The charges that are being laid are of the greatest nature."
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 last month had the range to reach all of the US.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged North Korea last 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.
Mr Gaughan said the man had been in touch with high-ranking North Korean officials but no missile components made it to Australia. He also said there was no indication that officials in Indonesia or Vietnam had been involved in the attempted coal sales.
"This is black market 101," said Mr Gaughan.
"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.
The man faces up to 18 years in jail if convicted.