A U.S. cryptocurrency researcher admitted violating U.S. laws by attending a blockchain conference in North Korea in 2019 where he gave advice on how to avoid U.S. sanctions.
Virgil Griffith, 38, pleaded guilty to association for violating the International Law on Extraordinary Economic Powers, which prohibits the export of goods, technology or services to North Korea by a U.S. citizen. He pleaded guilty in federal court in New York on Monday, just before the trial, and a jury selection was pending, reports the Wall Street Journal.
Griffith is perhaps best known for his work as a researcher and programmer Ethereum Foundation, a non-profit organization associated with the popular cryptocurrency Ether. He has also previously been involved in a number of different technology ventures in business and academia, including creating a “dark web search engine,” according to his LinkedIn.
In April 2019, Griffith traveled to North Korea for the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference, where he gave a presentation on how blockchain technology and cryptocurrency can be used to circumvent US sanctions and launder illicit funds, according to Criminal charges from that period. Griffith had previously “asked permission” from the U.S. State Department to attend the conference, but his request was denied. He attended anyway, traveling to the DPRK through China, and apparently took steps to conceal “proof of his trip”. He was arrested by the FBI in Los Angeles later that year.
Griffith’s plan reportedly included allowing cryptocurrency transactions between North and South Korea to avoid a U.S. restrictions, Ministry of Justice he said.
The U.S. has often sought to use economic pressure against North Korea as punishment for its failure to denuclearize. Critics often have characterized sanctions as ineffective, while others note their potential role in incitement humanitarian crises of the nation. However, Offici say to Griffith’s actions could thwart the U.S. strategy of pressure against Earth.
“Virgil Griffith provided North Korea with highly technical information, knowing that that information could be used to help North Korea launder money and evade sanctions,” said U.S. prosecutor Geoffrey S. Berman at the time of arrest. “Apparently he did, Griffith jeopardized the sanctions passed by both Congress and the president to put maximum pressure on the dangerous North Korean regime.”
Griffith, who was sentenced in January, could face 20 years in prison for his crime. His lawyer, Brian Klein, he said that on Monday the programmer “sincerely repents.”
“Leaving aside what happened, he made a significant contribution to the society that we will raise with the court,” Klein said. “He also has many wonderful qualities and no one should define him by this mistake.”
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