Crypto expert jailed for five years in US for helping North Korea evade sanctions

13 Apr 2022

Virgil Griffith at the UC Berkeley School of Information in 2007. Image: Joe Hall/ Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Former Ethereum developer Virgil Griffith travelled to Pyongyang in 2019 to give a presentation on using crypto to evade US sanctions.

Virgil Griffith, a US citizen and cryptocurrency expert who worked at the Ethereum Foundation, was sentenced yesterday (12 April) to more than five years in jail and fined $100,000 for illegally helping North Korea use blockchain and crypto technology to avoid US sanctions.

According to US law, citizens are prohibited from providing any goods, services or technology to North Korea without a licence from the Department of the Treasury through the Office of Foreign Assets Control. This is because the US considers North Korea a national security threat.

Griffith ‘knew’ what he was doing

Griffith, who worked as a research scientist at the Ethereum Foundation until his arrest in November 2019, travelled to North Korea in April of that year to give a presentation on how cryptocurrency and blockchain can be used to evade US sanctions.

The court found that Griffith began planning as early as 2018 to help individuals in North Korea develop and fund cryptocurrency infrastructure, including crypto mining.

“Griffith knew that [North Korea] could use these services to evade and avoid US sanctions, and to fund its nuclear weapons programme and other illicit activities,” the Department of Justice wrote in a statement.

When travelling to Pyongyang to give the presentation, Griffith was aware he was breaking US law, the court said. According to court documents, he asked to receive his travel visa on a separate paper instead of his US passport – likely to avoid having evidence of his visit.

‘A crypto hero’

On his LinkedIn page, Griffith describes himself as a “technologist mixing novel technology and social insight to solve hard problems”.

The district judge at a New York federal court hearing said that Griffith knew what he was doing and still did it because he wanted to become “a crypto hero to be admired and praised for his standing up to government sanctions”, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Griffith pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the US International Emergency Economic Powers Act. But his lawyers argued for a lower sentence of two years in jail, citing ‘personality disorders’ as well as the time he already spent in a detention centre before the sentencing. “He is a talented person who has a lot to contribute,” said one of his lawyers.

Before his arrest, Griffith was based in Singapore.

Virgil Griffith at the UC Berkeley School of Information in 2007. Image: Joe Hall/ Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic