An American citizen and researcher has been arrested on charges of illegally travelling to North Korea and assisting the country in evading sanctions, the United States Justice Department (DOJ) said in a statement on Friday.
The Singapore-based Virgil Griffith, 36, who works as a researcher with the Ethereum Foundation non-profit and is based in Singapore, stands accused of travelling to the DPRK for a conference on cryptocurrency and blockchain technology and providing information on how that technology could be accused to skirt international sanctions.
“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,” U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman was quoted as having said in a statement.
“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,” he added.
In its complaint, the U.S. government says Griffith was invited to participate in the “Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference,” which took place in the North Korean capital in April and was hosted by the pro-DPRK Korean Friendship Association (KFA).
The price for that nine-day tour was listed at 3200 euros, and also included a two-day conference and day dedicated to “business meetings with Korean companies.”
It is scheduled to take place again next year.
But while a representative of the KFA’s U.S. branch during promotions for that event last year said that U.S. citizens “will be approved” should they want to participate, the U.S. government on Friday said Griffith had ignored warnings not to travel to North Korea.
“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,” Assistant Attorney General John Demers said. “By this complaint, we begin the process of seeking justice for such conduct.”
Griffith appears to have been unaware of the risks involved in skirting tough U.S. laws on North Korea, even going so far as to share a photo of his DPRK visa — illegal under the U.S. travel ban on its citizen visiting the country — on Twitter.
During the April conference, the U.S. government said this week, he and other attendees had “discussed how the DPRK could use blockchain and cryptocurrency technology to launder money and evade sanctions.”
The conference had been approved by North Korean officials, it continued, and had explored how the country could use crypto-currency and transactions to its advantage.
“Griffith identified several DPRK Cryptocurrency Conference attendees who appeared to work for the North Korean government, and who, during his presentation, asked Griffith specific questions about blockchain and cryptocurrency and prompted discussions on technical aspects of those technologies,” it added.
He also appears to have been asked by North Korean authorities to help find other experts willing to travel to the country and offer assistance, posting on his personal Facebook following the April conference that he was looking for “academic/science/tech friends” who would be interesting in speaking at a conference.
“They have reached out to me to for recommendations of new people to invite to their country,” he added.
Griffith, the complaint adds, was in the process of giving up his U.S. citizenship, and had reportedly “began researching how to purchase citizenship from other countries.”
He describes his goals on his personal website as being to “expose corruption, curb abuses of power, and with ‘gloves off’ ensure the digital age never becomes a digital dystopia,” and lists himself as having previously worked at Caltech and as a hacker.
A New York Times profile of him back in 2008 described him as a “Man of Mystery” and detailed his work on a data mining tool called Wikiscanner.
Arrested in Los Angeles on Thursday and set to appear in court today, he is now accused of conspiracy to violate International Emergency Economic Powers Act (“IEEPA”) — a charge which can carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in jail.
Neither Griffith nor the KFA responded to requests for comment from NK News.
Featured image: Virgil Griffith’s twitter, modified by NK News