U.S. citizen charged with aiding North Korea to evade sanctions with blockchain

By Darryl Coote

Dec. 3 (UPI) -- A U.S. computer expert has been charged with conspiring to aid North Korea in evading sanctions through the use of blockchain and cryptocurrencies, the Justice Department said.

Virgil Griffith, 36, appeared before a federal court in Los Angeles Monday, accused of violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act by traveling to the hermetic country to give a presentation on cryptocurrency and blockchain technology, for which he faces up to 20 years in prison.


"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 for National Security John C. Demers said in a statement.

Griffith, a U.S. citizen and a resident of Singapore, was arrested Nov. 28 at Los Angeles International Airport.

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According to the criminal complaint, unsealed Friday, Griffith is accused of traveling to North Korea in April to participate in a blockchain conference in the capital city of Pyongyang despite being denied permission to do so by the U.S. State Department due to sanctions imposed against the embattled Asian nation.


At the conference, Griffith allegedly gave a presentation that "provided the DPRK with valuable information on blockchain and cryptocurrency technologies and participated in discussions regarding using cryptocurrency technologies to evade sanctions and launder money," the complaint said, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Following the conference, Griffith, who holds a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology in computational and neural systems, allegedly began formulating plans to establish the exchange of cryptocurrency between North and South Korea and encouraged other U.S. citizens to travel to North Korea for next year's conference, according to the complaint. He also had planned to renounce his U.S. citizenship and was researching purchasing citizenship from other countries.

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"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 said. "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."

Blockchain is a publicly distributed ledger that records the transfer of cryptocurrency, a decentralized form of currency.

The charges stem from the IEEPA, which prohibits U.S. citizens from exporting goods, services or technology to North Korea without a Treasury Department-issued license.


Giffith's lawyer, Brian Klein of Baker Marquart LLP, said in a statement that his client has been released from jail pending trial.

"We dispute the untested allegations in the criminal complaint, and Virgil looks forward to his day in court, when the full story can come out," Klein said.

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