China supported sanctions on North Korea’s nuclear program. It’s also behind their failure

Nov 2, 2023, 10:02 PM

FILE - In this photo distributed by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, c...

FILE - In this photo distributed by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, walks around what it says is a Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on the launcher at an undisclosed location in North Korea on March 24, 2022. Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in this image distributed by the North Korean government. The content of this image is as provided and cannot be independently verified. Korean language watermark on image as provided by source reads: "KCNA" which is the abbreviation for Korean Central News Agency. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File)

(Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Chinese middlemen launder the proceeds of North Korean hackers’ cyber heists while Chinese ships deliver sanctioned North Korean goods to Chinese ports.

Chinese companies help North Koreans workers — from cheap laborers to well-paid IT specialists — find work abroad. A Beijing art gallery even boasts of North Korean artists working 12-hour days in its heavily surveilled compound, churning out paintings of idyllic visions of life under communism that each sell for thousands of dollars.

That’s all part of what international authorities say is a growing mountain of evidence that shows Beijing is helping cash-strapped North Korea evade a broad range of international sanctions designed to hamper Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program, according to an Associated Press review of United Nations reports, court records and interviews with experts.

“It’s overwhelming,” Aaron Arnold, a former member of a U.N. panel on North Korea and a sanctions expert at the Royal United Services Institute, said of the links between China and sanctions evasion. “At this point, it’s very hard to say it’s not intentional.”

China has had a complicated relationship with Pyongyang since the 1950-53 Korean War. Though uneasy with a nuclear menace at its doorstep, China doesn’t want its neighbor’s government to collapse, experts say. China views North Korea as a buffer against the U.S., which maintains a significant troop presence in South Korea.

Beijing has long maintained it enforces the sanctions it has supported since North Korea started testing nuclear weapons and forcefully pushed back on any suggestions to the contrary. “China has been fully and strictly implementing the (U.N. Security Council) resolutions,” a Chinese ambassador said in a recent letter to the U.N, adding that his country had “sustained great losses” in doing so.

But in recent years, Beijing has sought to weaken those very sanctions and last year vetoed new restrictions on Pyongyang after it conducted a nuclear test.

This summer a top ruling Chinese party official provided a vivid example of China’s ambiguity on sanctions as he stood clapping next to North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un during a Pyongyang military parade. Rolling past the two men were trucks carrying nuclear-capable missiles and other weapons the regime isn’t supposed to have.

They were joined by Russia’s defense minister, apparently part of a new effort by the Kremlin, struggling in its invasion of Ukraine, to strength ties with North Korea. The U.S. has accused North Korea of supplying artillery shells and rockets to Russia, while new evidence shows Hamas fighters likely fired North Korean weapons during their Oct. 7 assault on Israel.

But while Russia and a handful of other countries have been accused of helping North Korea evade sanctions, none has been as prolific as China, according to court records and international reports.

“China violates North Korea sanctions it voted for and says won’t work because it’s afraid they’ll work. And, also, says it isn’t violating them” said Joshua Stanton, a human rights advocate and attorney who has helped write U.S. sanction laws against North Korea.

A review by the AP found a majority of the people placed on the U.S. government’s sanctions list related to North Korea in recent years have ties to China. Many are North Koreans working for alleged Chinese front companies while others are Chinese citizens who U.S. authorities say launder money or procure weapons material for North Korea.

Besides sanctions, U.S. criminal prosecutions against individuals or entities assisting North Korea’s regime often have links to China.

That’s especially true for cases related to North Korea’s sophisticated hackers, who experts believe have stolen upwards of $3 billion in digital currency in recent years. That windfall has coincided with the speedy growth of the country’s missile and weapons program.

An indictment filed was filed in 2020 that accused two Chinese brokers of laundering more than $100 million in digital currencies stolen by North Korea.

Such “over-the-counter” brokers allow North Korean hackers to bypass know-your-customer rules governing banks and other financial exchanges.

North Korea depends heavily on China’s financial system and Chinese companies to obtain prohibited technology and goods, as well as to acquire U.S. dollars and gain access to the global financial system, records show.

“The (Chinese) banks are less rigorous because the Chinese government is not pushing them,” said former top U.S. Treasury official Anthony Ruggiero.

North Korea imported more than $250,000 worth of aluminum oxide, which can be used in processing nuclear weapons fuel, from a Chinese company in 2015, according to customs records cited in a think tank report. U.S. prosecutors have alleged the same company accounted for a significant share of overall trade between North Korea and China; its customers included the Chinese government’s Ministry of Commerce, which was bidding on North Korean projects.

Images from North Korean military parades have shown the regime’s nuclear missiles being transported on launchers made with Chinese heavy-duty truck chassis. China told the U.N. panel of experts that North Korea had promised it would use the trucks to move timber.

China regularly ignores reams of satellite photos and vessel tracking data compiled by a U.N. panel of experts showing Chinese-flagged vessels docking with North Korean ships and transferring goods. North Korean ships are banned by U.N. sanctions from participating in ship-to-ship transfers, which are often done to obscure the flow of sanctioned goods like coal exports and oil imports.

The U.S. and other leading democracies sent China a letter this summer saying they were “disappointed” that satellite photos continue to show cargo ships that have allegedly been documented breaking sanctions operating in Chinese ports and territorial waters.

“The international community is closely watching China’s commitment to upholding its UN obligations,” the letter warns.

China dismisses such findings, frequently saying that its own investigations uncovered no evidence of wrongdoing, without providing any alternative information or explanation.

Beijing said last year it couldn’t provide Chinese port of call records for several North Korean ships because the U.N. panel hadn’t provided the ships’ IMO number, a unique identifier painted on large vessels. Those numbers can easily be looked up using a ship’s name.

Eric Penton-Voak, the former coordinator of the U.N. panel of experts, said such excuses were ludicrous in light of China’s vast surveillance powers and showed the ruling communist party’s contempt for enforcing the sanctions it agreed to.

“It’s just grasping at any straw“ to avoid providing an answer, he said.

When the U.N. panel urged Beijing to investigate Chinese garment companies that were likely employing North Korean workers, China said there was nothing it could do because the tip was too vague. The U.N. panel, Beijing said, had only provided the company names in Korean and English. China told the U.N. panel in a letter that its “business registration system uses only the Chinese language.”


Associated Press writer Dake Kang in Beijing contributed.


The Associated Press receives support for nuclear security coverage from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and Outrider Foundation. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org

United States News

Associated Press

Trump and DeSantis will hold dueling campaign events in Iowa with the caucuses just six weeks away

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Ron DeSantis plans on Saturday to complete his campaign promise to visit each of Iowa’s 99 counties, a timeworn tactic for presidential candidates hoping to make their mark in the leadoff state over months mingling with voters at the state’s diners, cookouts and Pizza Ranches. But the Florida governor’s moment, […]

1 hour ago

FILE - Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is shown before administering the oath of office t...

Associated Press

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor paved a path for women on the Supreme Court

WASHINGTON (AP) — One fall day in 2010, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor slipped into the courtroom where she worked for nearly 25 years to take in an “amazing” sight. The first — and for 12 years, the only — woman on the high court saw three women in black robes among the […]

1 hour ago

Associated Press

US Navy plans to raise jet plane off Hawaii coral reef using inflatable cylinders

HONOLULU (AP) — The U.S. Navy plans to use inflatable cylinders to lift and roll a jet plane off a coral reef in Hawaii before removal from the ocean waters where the aircraft crashed on Nov. 20. Rear Adm. Kevin Lenox, the commander of Carrier Strike Group 3 who is leading the salvage effort, said […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

Las Vegas police search for suspect after 5 homeless people are shot, killing 2

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Five homeless people were shot in Las Vegas on Friday, two of them fatally, and police were searching for a lone suspect, authorities said. The shooting occurred around 5:30 p.m. near a freeway overpass in the northeastern part of the city, according to Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Lt. Mark Lourenco. […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

Judge rejects calls to halt winter construction work on Willow oil project in Alaska during appeal

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — A federal judge in Alaska on Friday rejected requests from environmental groups to halt winter construction work for the massive Willow oil project on Alaska’s North Slope while the groups’ legal fight over the drilling project wages on. U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason just last month upheld the Biden administration’s […]

4 hours ago

FILE - Rioters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. Frank Rocco Giustino, who skippe...

Associated Press

Lawsuits against Trump over Jan. 6 riot can move forward, appeals court rules

Lawsuits against Donald Trump over the U.S. Capitol riot can move forward, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday.

5 hours ago

Sponsored Articles


Dierdre Woodruff

Interest rates may have peaked. Should you buy a CD, high-yield savings account, or a fixed annuity?

Interest rates are the highest they’ve been in decades, and it looks like the Fed has paused hikes. This may be the best time to lock in rates for long-term, low-risk financial products like fixed annuities.

Follow @KTAR923...

The 2023 Diamondbacks are a good example to count on the underdog

The Arizona Diamondbacks made the World Series as a surprise. That they made the playoffs at all, got past the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Wild Card round, swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS and won two road games in Philadelphia to close out a full seven-game NLCS went against every expectation. Now, […]



Key dates for Arizona sports fans to look forward to this fall

Fall brings new beginnings in different ways for Arizona’s professional sports teams like the Cardinals and Coyotes.

China supported sanctions on North Korea’s nuclear program. It’s also behind their failure