Australian authorities arrested a man on Saturday on extraordinary charges of assisting North Korea with its drive to develop weapons of mass destruction. He was identified on Monday as 59-year-old Chan Han Choi, a naturalized Australian citizen born in South Korea.
Fox News reports Choi was “generating tens of millions of dollars for Pyongyang by arranging the sale of missiles, components, and expertise from North Korea to other international entities, and was trying to arrange the transfer of coal from the country to Indonesia and Vietnam.”
He has, therefore, become the first person charged under Australia’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Act, a remarkable achievement given that the law has been on the books for over 20 years. To say that Australian law enforcement does not level such charges lightly would be an understatement.
Australian Federal Police Commissioner Neil Gaughan described Choi, before his name was released to the public, as “a loyal agent for North Korea who believed he was acting to serve some higher patriotic purpose.”
“I think at the end of the day he would sell whatever he could to make money back for the North Korean government,” the commissioner mused. Among the goods he is accused of attempting to sell were North Korean missile guidance systems.
Gaughan said the case was “like nothing we have ever seen on Australian soil.”
“This is a very important arrest. The charges laid are of the greatest nature,” said Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. “North Korea is a dangerous, reckless, criminal regime threatening the peace of the region. It supports itself by breaching U.N. sanctions.”
Turnbull said it was vitally important for all nations to enforce sanctions because “the more economic pressure that can be brought on North Korea, the sooner the regime will be brought to its senses.”
CNN notes that Choi’s actions were allegedly violations of both United Nations and Australian sanctions, which have sought to isolate North Korea strategically and economically. Australian authorities saw no evidence that the governments of Vietnam or Indonesia were aware of the coal transfer scheme, but they have not identified the customers for the missile technology Choi was trying to move.
Police are still working to determine how many of the transactions Choi arranged actually went through. His ambitions were sky high: he was involved in a plot to set up a ballistic missile production facility outside the borders of North Korea, staffed with North Korean technicians. The Australian investigation involved activities stretching all the way back to 2008. Gaughan said the investigation began earlier this year based on a tip from a “foreign law enforcement partner.” The police took pains to assure the public that none of Choi’s schemes involved any “weapons or missile componentry” being brought to Australian soil.
“Intelligence experts can’t explain how the man may have fallen under the influence of the North Korean regime but said it suggests the rogue nation has sleeper agents and sympathizers operating across the world,” Australia’s News.com disturbingly reports.
The BBC quotes neighbors who described Choi as “nice,” “very polite,” “softly spoken,” and a “good man.” He was working as a hospital cleaner and living alone in a rented apartment, cutting a very low profile for an agent with such enormous ambitions. He reportedly had a background as an amateur engineer and has set up several companies in Australia over the past two decades.
However, the Australian quotes members of the local Korean Christian community who said Choi began alienating people by expressing support for North Korea and making frequent trips to the communist nation. There is some speculation that he began as a sincere humanitarian and was “turned” by North Korean agents during his visits to the region.
“The first time we interacted there was no problem. However, after two or three times, his thinking started to change slightly to support the North Korean regime and it worried me, so I broke off the friendship,” said one of Choi’s former friends.
Choi’s trial is scheduled to begin on December 20. He could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted on all counts, although the police have implied there could be more charges filed against him as details of his activities come to light.