36-year-old Virgil Griffith is set to appear in court today on the suspected crime of trying to help North Korea circumvent US sanctions. Griffith is known for working on a foundation that supports the Ethereum cryptocurrency. But according to the Justice Department, he also taught attendees at an April conference in North Korea how to use cryptocurrency and blockchain technology to launder money and bypass US sanctions.
“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,” said FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William Sweeney Jr.
Griffith appears to be well aware his trip to the country risked violating US sanctions. Both the US government, and members of the Ethereum Foundation, warned him against attending. Nevertheless, a co-founder of Ethereum claims Griffith did nothing wrong.
“Geopolitical open-mindedness is a *virtue*,” Vitalik Buterin tweeted on Sunday. “It’s *admirable* to go to a group of people that one has been trained since childhood to believe is a Maximum Evil Enemy, and hear out what they have to say.”
According to Buterin, the Ethereum Foundation played no role in helping Griffith go to North Korea. Buterin also says Griffith’s talk at the conference focused only on “publicly available info about open-source software.” However, the FBI says Griffith still broke the law.
According to the criminal complaint, Griffith originally sought permission from the US State Department to travel to North Korea, but was denied. He only secured a visa to the country by working through an unnamed individual.
The conference itself was attended by about 100 people, some of whom worked for the North Korean government. According to the complaint, a conference organizer told Griffith he should “stress the potential money laundering and sanction evasion applications” of cryptocurrency and blockchain technology during his talk, which he went on to allegedly do. After the conference, Griffith also began creating plans to facilitate cryptocurrency transactions between North Korea and South Korea, knowing that it would violate US sanctions.
Whether North Korea actually gained anything from Griffith’s talk is unclear. But the country’s interest in cryptocurrency is no surprise. The technology runs outside of the world’s financial system, which North Korea has lost access to, thanks to US sanctions. As a result, the country’s government has likely been using hackers to steal funds from cryptocurrency exchanges and banks across the world.
If convicted, Griffith faces up to 20 years in prison.