The forfeiture action was announced today by U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips and Michael DeLeon, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Phoenix Field Office.
The action represents one of the largest seizures of North Korean funds by the Department of Justice.
“This complaint alleges that parties in China established and used a front company to surreptitiously move North Korean money through the United States and violated the sanctions imposed by our government on North Korea,” said U.S. Attorney Phillips. “Sanctions laws are critical to our national security and foreign policy interests, and this case demonstrates that we will seek significant remedies for those companies that violate them.”
“The FBI has dedicated substantial resources to investigate complex illegal monetary transactions involving foreign adversaries. This specific case has significant national security implications,” said Special Agent in Charge DeLeon. “The men and women of the FBI’s Phoenix Field Division worked diligently to identify the illegal transactions. We hope this sends a strong message to those who utilize US banking systems for illegal activities.”
The complaint was filed on June 14, 2017, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. According to the complaint, Mingzheng is owned by a Chinese national and is based in Shenyang, China. Mingzheng allegedly operated as a front company for a foreign-based branch of the North Korea-based Foreign Trade Bank (FTB). In March 2013, the U.S. Treasury Department designated the Foreign Trade Bank as a sanctioned entity pursuant to the Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferators Sanctions Regulations. The designation noted that the Foreign Trade Bank is a state-owned bank, and “acts as North Korea’s primary foreign exchange bank.” The designation further noted that North Korea uses the Foreign Trade Bank to facilitate millions of dollars in transactions on behalf of actors linked to its proliferation network.
The United Nations Panel of Experts reported in 2017 as to how North Korean banks have been able to evade sanctions and continue to access the international banking system. Specifically, despite strengthened financial sanctions, North Korean networks are adapting by using greater ingenuity in accessing formal banking channels. This includes maintaining correspondent bank accounts and representative offices abroad, which are staffed by foreign nationals making use of front companies. These broad interwoven networks allow the North Korean banks to conduct illicit procurement and banking activity.
An FBI investigation revealed that Mingzheng’s alleged activities mirror this money laundering paradigm. Specifically, Mingzheng acts a front company for a covert Chinese branch of the Foreign Trade Bank. This branch is operated by a Chinese national who has historically been tied to the Foreign Trade Bank.
The government is seeking to forfeit $1,902,976 that was transacted in October and November of 2015 by Mingzheng, via wire transfers, using their Chinese bank accounts. These U.S. dollar payments, which cleared through the United States, are alleged to violate U.S. law, because Mingzheng was surreptitiously making them on behalf of the Foreign Trade Bank, whose designation precluded such U.S. dollar transactions.
The claims made in the complaint are only allegations and do not constitute a determination of liability.
The FBI’s Phoenix Field Office is investigating the case. Assistant U.S Attorneys Arvind K. Lal, Zia M. Faruqui, Christopher B. Brown, Deborah Curtis and Brian P. Hudak are prosecuting the case, with assistance from Paralegal Specialist Toni Anne Donato.