Tuesday, December 17, 2019

A Janitor Allegedly Used a Botanical Code to Broker Weapons Deals for North Korea

In a case spotlighting role of regime allies in the West, Australian prosecution document alleges South Korean-born citizen tried to broker deals to sell missile parts and coal on the black market

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un overseeing a test of a rocket system in this undated state media photo released Nov. 28. PHOTO: KCNA/REUTERS

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SYDNEY—With little more than an internet connection, a laptop and a cellphone, Chan Han Choi, a soft-spoken janitor in his early 60s, allegedly played a central role in a plot to help North Korea sell missile parts and coal on the black market.
Working from a rented apartment in a Sydney suburb, the South Korean-born Australian citizen spoke in code while negotiating with groups suspected of working on Pyongyang’s behalf, police said, adding that he used botanical terms such as “little pine tree” to describe missiles and “nursery” to refer to weapons factories.

These and other details—contained in investigation documents prepared by Australian police—are being used by prosecutors to paint a picture of an eager foot soldier for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un who operated undetected and generated important income for Pyongyang for years before international sanctions were tightened.
The police and prosecutors allege he has been an economic agent of North Korea since at least July 2013 and brokered commodity sales for Pyongyang as early as 2008, before tighter international sanctions were in place.
Handcuffed and accompanied by three prison guards, Mr. Choi appeared in a Sydney court on Dec. 5. Dressed in a green prison sweatshirt, slacks and green sneakers, he spoke softly to a translator, self-consciously combing his hair with his hand.
A judge that day dismissed his application to have the case thrown out.
Mr. Choi has spent nearly two years in one of Australia’s most notorious prisons. He is classified as a National Security Interest prisoner, a designation authorities can impose if they think there is a risk that an inmate may engage in activities that seriously threaten the peace, or incite others to do so. His defense counsel argued at a recent bail hearing that he doesn’t pose a serious threat to the community and said Mr. Choi had an allegiance to Australian society.
His defense counsel had argued that his right to lawyer-client confidentiality is being violated because his phone conversations must be in English, which Mr. Choi doesn’t speak well, and prison guards regularly monitor these calls to check that he is speaking with an approved person. Mr. Choi also suspects authorities are listening in on his prison visits, his attorney said, although he didn’t provide any evidence.
Mr. Choi was arrested in late 2017 and has pleaded not guilty to eight charges, including providing services for a weapons-of-mass-destruction program. He is set to stand trial in February.
The Wall Street Journal has seen a 39-page police statement of allegations, a document that was referred to in court during an unsuccessful application for bail in October. Mr. Choi’s defense team has argued that none of the alleged transactions were completed.

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