Programmer Virgil Griffith has pleaded guilty in New York’s federal court to conspiring to help North Korea evade sanctions through advising it on the use of cryptocurrency.
Griffith was initially arrested in Nov. 2019, several months after speaking at the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference in North Korea. Though the U.S. Department of State had denied his request for permission to travel to North Korea, and in fact warned him not to attend the event, Griffith made his way there and gave a presentation about blockchain technology regardless.
“At the DPRK Cryptocurrency Conference, Griffith and his co-conspirators provided instruction on how the DPRK could use blockchain and cryptocurrency technology to launder money and evade sanctions,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a Monday press release. Several countries including the U.S. have imposed sanctions against North Korea since 2006, restricting trade in order to pressure it into denuclearising.
“Griffith’s presentations at the DPRK Cryptocurrency Conference had been approved by DPRK officials and focused on, among other things, how blockchain technology such as ‘smart contracts’ could be used to benefit the DPRK, including in nuclear weapons negotiations with the United States.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office further stated that Griffith answered specific questions from an audience he knew included North Korean government workers, planned to facilitate cryptocurrency transactions between North and South Korea, attempted to recruit other U.S. citizens to assist North Korea, and attempted to introduce North Korea to cryptocurrency and blockchain service providers.
Programmer arrested by U.S. authorities after North Korea cryptocurrency talk
A U.S. national living in Singapore, Griffith previously worked as a researcher at the Ethereum Foundation. He is also known as the creator of WikiScanner, a tool which lets people determine who has edited Wikipedia pages.
Now he faces prison for violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA). Though the charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, it’s likely Griffith’s sentence will be shortened by a plea deal.
“As he admitted in court today, Virgil Griffith agreed to help one of our nation’s most dangerous foreign adversaries, North Korea,” said U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss in the press release. “Griffith worked with others to provide cryptocurrency services to North Korea and assist North Korea in evading sanctions… In the process, Griffith jeopardized the national security of the United States by undermining the sanctions that both Congress and the President have enacted to place maximum pressure on the threat posed by North Korea’s treacherous regime.”
Though Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin has not commented on Griffith’s guilty plea, he previously expressed support for his friend in a Twitter thread days after his arrest, promoting an ultimately unsuccessful petition for his release. However, Buterin also noted that the Ethereum Foundation “paid nothing and offered no assistance; it was Virgil’s personal trip that many counseled against.”
Griffith is scheduled to be sentenced on January 18.