American Cryptocurrency Researcher Charged after Speaking at Pyongyang Blockchain Conference Hosted by North Korean Support Group


A U.S. cryptocurrency researcher delivered a presentation on using blockchain technology to evade sanctions in April at a Pyongyang conference, leading to his arrest last week on allegations that he helped North Korea try to violate U.S. sanctions, prosecutors said.

Virgil Griffith, a U.S. citizen residing in Singapore, spoke at the April 2019 Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference, investigators said in a criminal complaint unsealed Friday in New York federal court. His presentation, entitled “Blockchain and Peace,” was approved ahead of time by North Korean officials and it focused on how blockchain technology could be used to benefit the North Korean government, U.S. prosecutors say.

“Griffith provided highly technical information to North Korea, knowing that this information could be used to help North Korea launder money and evade sanctions,” said U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman. “Griffith jeopardized the sanctions that both Congress and the president have enacted to place maximum pressure on North Korea’s dangerous regime.”

An organizer of the conference told Griffith that he should stress the potential money laundering and sanctions-evasion applications of cryptocurrency and blockchain technology, as those topics were most likely to resonate with the audience, according to the U.S. complaint. North Korean officials attending the conference asked him specific questions after the presentation, prompting technical discussions on the technologies, prosecutors said. After the conference, Griffith began formulating plans to facilitate the exchange of cryptocurrency between North Korea and South Korea despite knowing that assisting with such an exchange would violate sanctions, prosecutors said, citing an exchange with an unnamed individual. 

The conference, held at the Pyongyang Science and Technology Complex, was organized by Alejandro Cao de Benos, president of the Korean Friendship Association (KFA), and Christopher Emms, chief executive of TokenKey Ltd and founder and CEO of Emms, also an adviser to a token called SkyCoin, was listed as a speaker at the conference. About 100 people attended the conference along with Griffith, according to the U.S. complaint.

Cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin or ethereum, are digital currencies, many of which trade along a blockchain, a digital ledger identifying the origin and recipient of any transaction by an alphanumeric mechanism. The case involving Griffith comes amid reports earlier this year that North Korea is in the early stages of developing its own cryptocurrency in a bid to avoid U.S. and international sanctions. Some media outlets are skeptical about North Korea’s progress thus far, however.

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