Cryptocurrency expert arrested for giving talk to North Korea about avoiding sanctions

Virgil Griffith, a member of the Ethereum project, faces up to 20 years in prison for breaking US sanctions.

North Korea

Pyongyang Science and Technology Complex

Image via korea-dpr.info

US authorities arrested a cryptocurrency expert and member of the Ethereum project for traveling to North Korea and giving a presentation at a tech conference about using cryptocurrency and blockchain to avoid international sanctions.

The man, Virgil Griffith, 36, a resident of Singapore and a US citizen, was arrested yesterday at the Los Angeles International Airport and arraigned in court today, where he was formally charged.

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In a press release today, the US Department of Justice said Griffith traveled to North Korea in April 2019, where he gave a technical talk at the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference.

According to the DOJ's criminal complaint [PDF], the State Department denied permission and warned Griffith against traveling to North Korea to attend the conference.

"Despite receiving warnings not to go, Griffith allegedly traveled to one of the United States' foremost adversaries, North Korea, where he taught his audience how to use blockchain technology to evade sanctions. By this complaint, we begin the process of seeking justice for such conduct," said US Assistant Attorney General John Demers.

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The criminal complaint also alleges that Griffith was working on "plans to facilitate the exchange of Cryptocurrency-1 [Ether] between the DPRK and South Korea," in violations of US sanctions.

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Authorities say Griffith broke sanctions the US government had imposed on North Korea, through laws such as the International Emergency Economic Powers Act ("IEEPA"), and Executive Order 13466, signed by President Bush in 2008, and Executive Order 13722, signed by President Obama in 2016.

The sanctions prohibit US citizens, organizations, and private businesses from lending any aid to the North Korean government.

"As alleged, Virgil Griffith provided highly technical information to North Korea, knowing that this information could be used to help North Korea launder money and evade sanctions. In allegedly doing so, Griffith jeopardized the sanctions that both Congress and the president have enacted to place maximum pressure on North Korea's dangerous regime," said US Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman.

If found guilty, Griffith risks up to 20 years in prison.

Griffith is also part of the Ethereum Foundation's Special Projects group, according to his Medium profile. He also operated a Tor-to-Web (Tor2Web) service called Onion.city.

North Korea has hosted at least two cryptocurrency conferences so far, one in late 2018, and another in the spring of 2019 -- the one which Griffith attended.

In mid-September this year, the US Treasury imposed sanctions on entities associated with three North Korean hacking groups, specifically claiming that the groups have helped the Pyongyang regime raise funds for its weapons and missile programs through hacks of banks and cryptocurrency exchanges.