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North Korea laundering money through US banks: report

A leak of documents from leading financial institutions revealed a massive North Korean scheme to evade sanctions by laundering money through U.S. banks, according to NBC News.

The documents were part of a massive leak of suspicious activity reports (SARs) filed with the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCen), originally obtained by BuzzFeed News. The reports revealed an extensive effort by North Korean officials to launder at least $174 million over a period of several years through major U.S. banks such as JPMorgan Chase using an array of shell companies and sometimes assisted by Chinese businesses.

"The documents you have in front of you, I think help explain why the North Koreans have been so successful at sanction evasion," Hugh Griffiths, former head of the United Nations Panel of Experts tracking sanctions on North Korea, told NBC News. "What you have is gold dust because so few journalists, or investigators generally, get access to banking internal compliance documentation."

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"Taken as a whole, you have what really, frankly, looks like a concerted attack by the North Koreans to access the U.S. financial system over an extended period of time through multiple different avenues in ways that were fairly sophisticated," Eric Lorber, a former Treasury Department official, added to NBC.

Treasury Department officials refused to comment on the information revealed in the SARs when contacted by the news network, adding that it had referred the matter to the Justice Department.

"As FinCEN has stated previously, the unauthorized disclosure of SARs is a crime that can impact the national security of the United States, compromise law enforcement investigations, and threaten the safety and security of the institutions and individuals who file such reports," said the agency.

One report filed by JPMorgan to the Treasury Department obtained by NBC News indicated that the bank had allowed nearly $90 million in financial transfers involving companies believed to be tied to North Korea between 2011 and 2013. The companies had all been previously flagged as suspicious by JPMorgan, according to the report.

JPMorgan responded to NBC in a statement claiming that it had expanded its efforts to stop money laundering using its company's services.

"We acknowledged in that 2014 report that our existing AML controls needed improvement, and have since devoted considerable resources to comply with the laws and regulations governing anti-money laundering, terrorist financing and economic sanctions. Today, thousands of employees and hundreds of millions of dollars are devoted to helping support law enforcement and national security efforts," said the company.