North Korean appears in U.S. court on sanctions-evasion money-laundering charges

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FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: A North Korea flag flutters next to concertina wire at the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A North Korean businessman accused by the United States of laundering money to circumvent U.S. and U.N. sanctions intended to curb his country's nuclear weapons program appeared in a U.S. court on Monday after extradition from Malaysia.

The U.S. Justice Department said Mun Chol Myong, who it said was affiliated with North Korea's primary intelligence organization, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, was the first North Korean ever extradited to the United States.

It said Mun appeared in federal court in Washington, where he was indicted in May 2019 on six counts of money laundering, including conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Mun was arrested in Malaysia in 2019 after the United States accused him of laundering funds through front companies and issuing fraudulent documents to support illicit shipments to North Korea. He denied the allegations, saying they were politically motivated.

His lawyer, public defender Michelle Peterson, declined to comment on the indictment, which was unsealed on Monday.

North Korea said on Friday it would sever diplomatic relations with Malaysia after the extradition.

It called it a "nefarious act and unpardonably heavy crime" by Malaysian authorities, who had "offered our citizen as a sacrifice of the U.S. hostile move in defiance of the acknowledged international laws."

North Korea warned that Washington, "the backstage manipulator and main culprit of this incident," would be "made to pay a due price."

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week the Biden administration would complete a review of U.S. policy toward North Korea in the next few weeks.

The court papers indicated U.S. authorities had indicted others in the case, including "Chinese co-conspirator" companies and individuals whose names were redacted.

The indictment said Mun had relocated to Malaysia from Singapore, where he had been employed by a firm called Sinsar Trading, which procured sanctioned luxury goods like liquor and tobacco.

It valued his alleged money-laundering transactions at over $1.5 million.

John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security, said Mun's actions were aimed at evading both U.S. and U.N. sanctions.

"We will continue to use the long reach of our laws to protect the American people from sanctions evasion and other national security threats," he said in a statement.

Alan Kohler, assistant director of the FBI's counterintelligence division, said bringing overseas defendants to justice was one of its biggest challenges, especially in the case of North Korea.

"We hope he will be the first of many," he said.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Peter Cooney)