About the Author
View more articles by Colin Zwirko
Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
The 2nd Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference will be held in February 2020 as part of a week-long tour, event organizers the Korean Friendship Association (KFA) have said.
KFA Spain and its leader Alejandro Cao de Benos announced on Monday that the conference would return to the North Korean capital next year, following the first event held this past spring.
Conference events are set to take place on February 24-25 at the Pyongyang Science and Technology Complex, a new webpage set up by the KFA for the 2020 event states.
Following the two full days of the conference from 9:00 to 18:30, a “DPRK general business presentation and private business meetings with interested counterparts” will be held on February 26, it claims.
“The first Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference on April 2019 was a success where international experts in the Blockchain and Crypto industry gathered in Pyongyang to share their knowledge and vision,” according to the website.
Participants at the previous event, it adds, “established long lasting connections, discussed business opportunities and signed contracts in the field of Information Technology,” though it does not specify if contracts were signed with North Korean parties or between international attendees.
The next event was organized due in part to demand, the KFA claims, for an “exclusive environment of confidentiality and contacts with the highest [North Korean] government officials and engineers.”
KFA leader Cao de Benos is listed as the organizer for the North Korean side in his role as “Special Delegate” of the DPRK Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries.
No other foreign organizers, speakers, or sponsors are listed on the website for the event, though it says there are “advisors working for the top ten market cap cryptocurrencies” assisting on the technical side.
As was the case in promotion material for the previous event, the website states Japanese, South Korean, and Israeli nationals are barred from taking part in the February 2020 conference.
Journalists are also not allowed to attend in order “to preserve the confidentiality of the participants, foreign and local companies involved.”
U.S. nationals, on the other hand, are explicitly welcomed, in spite of the Trump administration’s criminalization of American citizens using their passports to travel to North Korea — a ban initiated in late 2017 and renewed for another year last month.
The top question on the FAQ page of the site states that Americans and others will be treated to immigration procedures intended to hide their presence in the DPRK.
“For your convenience we will provide a paper visa separated from your passport, so there will be no evidence of your entry to the country. Your participation will never be disclosed from our side unless you publicize it on your own.”
The cost of the week-long tour has also increased by 100 euros compared to this year’s event, this time costing each participant 3400 euros for conference participation, flights between Beijing and Pyongyang, and a two-day visit to the Masikryong Ski Resort.
Cao de Benos has in the past been revealed to be charging exorbitant prices for tours and other event participation in the DPRK, in addition to sometimes promising access and opportunities in the country without the knowledge of North Korean counterparts.
Following the first conference held on April 22-23, 2019, the KFA leader claimed to Radio Free Asia (RFA) that it had attracted around 100 participants from abroad and resulted in the forming of relationships with North Koreans in the information technology (IT) sector.
According to statements from Cao de Benos to RFA in May, a briefing session on blockchain was delivered by the other foreign organizer — a Bitcoin entrepreneur called Christopher Emms — and North Korean experts from IT, finance, trade, and insurance sectors reportedly participated in the conference.
RFA reported that he described the event as “focusing on the practical use of the blockchain and the future of the use of these technologies in countries in East Asia, including tokenization — the change to using token technology to protect personal information in instances such as credit card use in mobile payment systems.”
Cao de Benos told the news outlet he was seeking to add artificial intelligence (AI) as a key topic at the next event.
CONFERENCE OR COLLUSION?
While the reported interest among North Korean parties may contribute to the country’s overall capabilities in the sector, the foreign-organized conference is likely not treated as a primary source of knowledge for government cyberactivities.
Indeed, the country is already reportedly engaging in activities utilizing advanced skills in cryptocurrency and blockchain technologies.
The Panel of Experts (PoE) for the UN Security Council 1718 Sanctions Committee, which oversees sanctions enforcement on North Korea, stated in a midterm report released last week that the DPRK appears to have used such technology to illegally acquire billions of dollars in recent years.
Information gathered from UN member states, the PoE said, led to the conclusion that one method of acquiring money includes “the mining of cryptocurrency as a source of funds for a professional branch of the military.”
“[DPRK] cyber actors steal cryptocurrency, use it to launder proceeds in evasion of financial sanctions and mine it through cryptojacking attacks for the purposes of revenue generation,” the report said, adding that “given the increased anonymity of cryptocurrencies, newly mined cryptocurrency can be used to facilitate sanctions-evasion activity.”
A spokesperson for a branch of the DPRK for Anti-Money Laundering and Countering the Financing of Terrorism in response denounced the PoE’s accusations as “a nasty game aimed at tarnishing the image of our Republic.”
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Pyongyang Science and Technology Complex | Sogwang.com