(ATTN: UPDATES with details in paras 4, 8-12)
WASHINGTON, May 28 (Yonhap) -- The U.S. Justice Department has indicted more than 30 North Korean and Chinese individuals on charges of laundering at least US$2.5 billion to help fund Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program, according to an indictment unsealed Thursday.
The defendants -- 28 North Koreans and five Chinese nationals -- are accused of using a web of more than 200 shell companies to launder the funds through the international banking system, The New York Times reported.
The money went to North Korea's state-owned Foreign Trade Bank and was used to support the country's weapons of mass destruction program, it said.
The Washington Post called it the largest North Korean sanctions violations case charged by the U.S.
"The charges alleged in this indictment arise from a multiyear scheme to covertly access the U.S. financial system in spite of sanctions which are intended to deal with unusual and extraordinary threats to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States," said the 50-page indictment by the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.
North Korea is under multiple layers of U.S. and United Nations sanctions for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
U.S.-North Korea negotiations to dismantle the nuclear program have made little progress despite three meetings between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
The defendants include two former presidents of the North Korean bank -- Ko Chol-man and Kim Song-ui -- as well as two former vice presidents -- Han Ung and Ri Jong-nam.
The U.S. Treasury Department in 2017 blacklisted Ko for being an official of the North Korean government.
Also among the defendants are North Koreans who operated the bank's covert branches in Beijing and Shenyang, China, as well as in Austria, Libya, Thailand, Russia and Kuwait.
The Chinese citizens were involved in the operation of a covert branch in Shenyang.
"Through this indictment, the United States has signified its commitment to hampering North Korea's ability to illegally access the U.S. financial system, and to limiting its ability to use proceeds from these illicit actions to enhance its illegal weapons of mass destruction program," the Post quoted acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin of Washington, D.C., as saying.
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