US cryptocurrency expert arrested after appearance at North Korea conference

Virgil Griffith accused of helping country evade sanctions

Anthony Cuthbertson
Monday 02 December 2019 14:29
Comments
The Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference took place at the PyongYang Science and Technology Complex
The Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference took place at the PyongYang Science and Technology Complex

A leading cryptocurrency researcher has been arrested after travelling to North Korea for a secretive conference about blockchain technology.

US law enforcement charged Virgil Griffith under the International Emergency Powers Act for allegedly providing technical advice on how to evade international sanctions using cryptocurrency and blockchain technology.

The Department of Justice claimed Mr Griffith travelled to the reclusive state in April 2019 to speak at the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference.

"Mr Griffith allegedly travelled to North Korea without permission from the federal government, and with knowledge what he was doing was against the law," said FBI assistant director-in-charge William Sweeney.

"We cannot allow anyone to evade sanctions, because the consequences of North Korea obtaining funding, technology, and information to further its desire to build nuclear weapons put the world at risk. It's even more egregious that a US citizen allegedly chose to aid our adversary."

North Korea has shown considerable interest in cryptocurrency in recent years, which offer a way to evade crippling economic sanctions.

Earlier this year, researchers at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) revealed how digital currencies offer a "financial lifeline" to the country as it seeks to develop weapons of mass destruction.

RUSI research analyst Kayla Izenman told The Independent at the time that the borderless and decentralised nature of cryptocurrencies made them an attractive target for actors attempting to circumvent the traditional financial system.

"At the very least, cryptocurrency exploitation is allowing North Korea to transact with the rest of the world in ways that aim to circumvent sanctions designed to curb its proliferation financing," she said.

A separate report by the UN Security Council from March estimated that North Korea has amassed more than £500m worth of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to support its regime.

April's conference was the first time the country had hosted such an event, though foreign media was banned from attending. Citizens of Israel, Japan and South Korea were also not welcome.

US Assistant Attorney General John Demers claimed that Mr Griffith provided "highly technical" information to North Korea, knowing that it could be used to launder money and evade sanctions.

"Despite receiving warnings not to go, Griffith allegedly travelled to one of the United States’ foremost adversaries, North Korea, where he taught his audience how to use blockchain technology to evade sanctions," Mr Demers said in a statement. "By this complaint, we begin the process of seeking justice for such conduct.”

Several high-profile figures within the cryptocurrency industry have expressed their support for Mr Griffith, including ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin, and cybersecurity pioneer John McAfee.

Virgil Griffith arrested for teaching North Korea how to avoid US sanctions by using cryptocurrency and the blockchain," Mr McAfee tweeted.

"See what our government has become - a government corrupt at the core, declaring publicly available information a national secret."

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in