Cryptocurrency Developer Indicted After Speaking in North Korea

On January 7th, Ethereum developer and cryptocurrency expert Virgil Griffith was indicted for allegedly violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA). Griffith now faces up to 20 years in prison and $1 million in fines. He was released on bond January 9th, conditioned on the fact that he remains under GPS monitoring at his parents’ home in Alabama until trial.

After attending and presenting at the North Korean state-sanctioned Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference in April 2019, the Department of Justice arrested Griffith on Thanksgiving Day. Following his indictment, Griffith is facing trial in the Southern District of New York.

According to the DOJ’s complaint, Griffith traveled to the conference after the State Department denied his initial request to present there. The DoJ alleges Griffith then spoke on topics that were pre-approved by the North Korean government, including information on how to use cryptocurrency technologies to evade sanctions and launder money, before approximately 100 attendees.

The IEEPA grants the President of the United States the authority to deal with unusual and extraordinary threats to national security by imposing economic actions and penalties. The IEEPA also includes criminal penalties for those that “violate, conspire to violate, or cause a violation of any license, order, regulation, or prohibition issued under [Title 50 of the U.S. Code]”. When Griffith allegedly traveled to North Korea to share his knowledge of cryptocurrency, the DoJ claims he conspired to violate federal regulations related to the United States’ ongoing sanctions against North Korea.

According to the complaint, Griffith told the FBI in May that he planned to “facilitate the exchange of ‘Cryptocurrency-1’ between the DPRK and South Korea” and that he would attend the Pyongyang conference again in 2020.

Cryptocurrency-1, as named in the complaint, is a type of cryptocurrency technology developed by the Ethereum Foundation. The Foundation’s founder, Vitalik Buterin, has expressed support for Griffith via Twitter, but insisted “EF paid nothing and offered no assistance; it was Virgil’s personal trip that many counseled against.”