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US citizen charged with assisting North Korea on blockchain

A U.S. man living in Singapore illegally presented technical information at the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference in April on how North Korea can use blockchain technology to evade sanctions.

The Justice Department said a 36-year-old U.S. citizen was charged in a Manhattan federal court Dec. 2 with illegally providing technical information to North Korea on how to use cryptocurrency and blockchain technology to evade sanctions.

Authorities took Virgil Griffith into custody at Los Angeles International Airport on Nov. 28, according to the Justice Department.

“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,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers in a statement. “By this complaint, we begin the process of seeking justice for such conduct.”

“We cannot allow anyone to evade sanctions, because the consequences of North Korea obtaining funding, technology, and information to further its desire to build nuclear weapons put the world at risk,” added FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William F. Sweeney Jr. “It’s even more egregious that a U.S. citizen allegedly chose to aid our adversary.”

In April 2019, Griffith, who lived in Singapore, traveled to North Korea to present at the first Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference, despite the fact the State Department had denied him permission to travel to the country.

He also failed to obtain permission from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to provide goods, services or technology to North Korea.

After the conference, Griffith began making plans to exchange cryptocurrency between North and South Korea, despite knowing that facilitating this type of exchange violates U.S. sanctions against North Korea, the Justice Department said.

In addition, Griffith intended to renounce his U.S. citizenship and started researching how to purchase citizenship from other countries.

If Griffith is found guilty of violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, he faces a maximum of 20 years in jail, according to the Justice Department.

The U.S. government and the U.N. Security Council have expressed concern that North Korea could use blockchain technology and cryptocurrency to hide funding for its nuclear weapons program.

Chris Gillis

Located in the Washington, D.C. area, Chris Gillis primarily reports on regulatory and legislative topics that impact cross-border trade. He joined American Shipper in 1994, shortly after graduating from Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Md., with a degree in international business and economics.