Man charged over alleged North Korea missile deal ordered to stand trial in Australia

Ben Doherty
Photograph: Peter Rae/AAP

An Australian man charged with trying to broker missile deals for the North Korean regime has told a court he cannot get a fair trial in Australia, saying his phone calls with his lawyer are being listened to, and even prime ministers have publicly condemned the allegations against him.

But Justice Ian Harrison, in the New South Wales supreme court, dismissed the Chan Han Choi’s application for a permanent stay of proceedings, saying he will stand trial next February.

Choi, 61, is the first person ever charged with offences under Australia’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (Prevention of Proliferation) Act, alleged to have been a sanctions-busting “economic agent” of Pyongyang and of working to broker missile technology and resources deals on behalf of the North Korean regime.

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He has told the court he is a political prisoner incarcerated because of his socialist political beliefs.

Choi, brought to court in handcuffs wearing a green prison tracksuit, was arrested in December 2017 and charged over alleged attempts to broker coal deals to raise money for the North Korean regime as well as selling weapons technology, including equipment for missiles.

An affidavit presented to the court argued his ability to prepare a defence is hampered because he cannot speak freely to his lawyer.

The affidavit included written confirmation from NSW corrective services commissioner Peter Severin that authorities “drop in” to listen to Choi’s calls from prison, but only “to ensure they are in English and with approved contacts”. Severin said the drop-ins were brief and not recorded, and were required for “national security interest” cases such as Choi’s.

The affidavit also argues that when Choi was arrested, then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull commented on the case, drawing significant negative public attention.

Turnbull said Choi had been “arrested and will be charged with offences relating to breaking sanctions and endeavouring – by breaking sanctions – to provide economic support for the North Korean regime. These are very, very serious matters. North Korea is a dangerous, reckless, criminal regime, threatening the peace of the region”.

A separate affidavit said the translator he was provided with was unable to properly translate for him, and another Korean speaker could not be found who had sufficient security clearance.

Justice Harrison, in the NSW supreme court, dismissed Choi’s application for a permanent stay of his trial. Choi has been refused bail, with prosecutors arguing he has international connections and poses a flight risk. Choi will seek to apply for bail again ahead of his trial, set to commence in February.

At a demonstration supporting Choi held outside the NSW supreme court, Praba Balasubramaniam, from the Trotskyist Platform, said Choi was a “political prisoner”, charged for resisting “cruel” economic sanctions imposed on North Korea that were designed to starve the people of that country.

“Choi is being persecuted because of his political views.

“It’s clear he cannot get a fair trial in this country.”

In a message recorded in prison and broadcast outside the court, Choi said: “[I] would like to express my appreciation and sincere gratitude for all the support I have received.

“I honestly believe that every human being deserve basic human rights and I have been deprived of those rights through my incarceration.

“I strongly believe that the United Nations economic sanctions imposed on North Korea are both unjust and unfair,” he said.

A demonstration in support of Chan Han Choi outside the NSW supreme court on 29 November. Photograph: Peter Rae/AAP

The Guardian has seen a police statement of alleged facts tendered to the court ahead of his trial. These have not been tested in court and have not been agreed to by Choi’s defence.

Born in the South Korean capital Seoul, Choi emigrated to Australia in 1987 and became a citizen in 2001.

The statement alleges Choi used a web of black market contacts in Syria, Taiwan, Cambodia and Russia to broker deals mostly in coal and iron, but also in weapons technology, including short-range missiles.

The statement cites Choi’s regular overseas travel, including to North Korea, and alleged email correspondence that reveals a declared loyalty to the North Korean regime. An email allegedly from the regime praised Choi’s devotion and willingness to “work hard for our country”.

“Even when you are far away from our country, in your heart there is the country, so I am certain that your project will run successfully,” the email, sent in July 2013, allegedly said of Choi.

The police statement alleges Choi, who used the pseudonym Solomon in his negotiations, developed a code to discuss weapons sales on the phone, referring to missiles as “pine trees” and missile factories as “nurseries”.

According to the police allegations, Choi described himself as North Korea’s “international commerce” liaison, working on behalf of the highest echelons of the DPRK government.

“I am a recognised strategist that has favour with Kim Jong Eun [sic],” he wrote.

When Choi was arrested, Australian federal police assistant commissioner Neil Gaughan stressed Choi was not alleged to have engaged in spying, but simply to have tried to raise money for the North Korean regime.

Gaughan said evidence suggested Choi had been in contact “with high-ranking North Korean officials” but did not provide details.

“We believe this man participated in discussions about the sale of missile componentry from North Korea to other entities abroad.”

Gaughan would not identify the alleged international entities or their location, but said there were no governments or government officials involved.