Tobacco companies pay $600 million for allegedly selling to No. Korea

Apr 26, 2023, 6:00 AM | Updated: 10:22 am

People walk past the British American Tobacco offices in London, Britain October 21, 2016. REUTERS/...

People walk past the British American Tobacco offices in London, Britain October 21, 2016. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

(CNN) — Two tobacco companies have agreed to pay over $600 million to US authorities over allegations that the companies were selling tobacco products to North Korea in violation of US sanctions.

The agreement was simultaneously announced with criminal charges against the two companies for North Korean sanctions violation, conspiracy to commit bank fraud and conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

Separately, the Justice Department charged a North Korean banker and two Chinese nationals with helping to facilitate tobacco sales in North Korea, according to court documents.

Prosecutors allege that proceeds from those tobacco sales were used to benefit the North Korean government, including helping to fund their weapons of mass destruction programs.

British-American Tobacco Marketing Singapore (BATMS), and its parent company, British American Tobacco (BAT) — which owns Lucky Strike, Dunhill and other cigarette brands — moved hundreds of millions of dollars of business revenue from North Korea through a front company, according to the Justice Department.

The agreements allow the two companies, BAT and BAMTS, to avoid criminal prosecution if they fulfill certain agreements, including revamping their sanctions-compliance program and continued cooperation with the Justice department.

“(BAT) has entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with DOJ and a civil settlement agreement with (the Treasury Department),” the company said in a statement. “An indirect BAT subsidiary in Singapore has entered into a plea agreement with DOJ. The total amount payable to the U.S. authorities is $635,241,338 plus interest.”

“On behalf of BAT, we deeply regret the misconduct arising from historical business activities that led to these settlements, and acknowledge that we fell short of the highest standards rightly expected of us,” Jack Bowles, BAT’s chief executive, said in a statement.

The Justice Department has not yet commented publicly on the charges.

The conspiracy, prosecutors say, lasted from 2007 to 2017, during which time North Korea made approximately 280 wire transfers through the front company, totaling over $341 million.

BATMS and the North Korean Tobacco Company — owned by the North Korean Government — created a joint enterprise in 2001 to manufacture BAT cigarettes within North Korea for domestic sale, according to the Justice Department. In 2007, prosecutors say, BAT publicly announced that they would sell all their shares in the joint enterprise, but quietly continued to maintain influence over the company and kept taking profits from sales to North Korea.

That arrangement continued past 2009, when the US Treasury Department placed additional sanctions on North Korean banks.

According to court documents, North Korea would use Chinese companies to process payments between the country and a front company of BATMS to obfuscate the payments.

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Tobacco companies pay $600 million for allegedly selling to No. Korea