U.S. Citizen Charged with Giving North Korea Sanctions Evasion Advice at Cryptocurrency Conference

The Department of Justice announced the unsealing of a criminal complaint charging Virgil Griffith, a United States citizen, with violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) by traveling to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (“DPRK” or “North Korea”) in order deliver a presentation and technical advice on using cryptocurrency and blockchain technology to evade sanctions. Griffith was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport Thursday, Nov. 28, 2019 and was presented in federal court Monday.

“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.  “By this complaint, we begin the process of seeking justice for such conduct.”

“As alleged, Virgil 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 S. Berman for the Southern District of New York.  “In allegedly doing so, Griffith jeopardized the sanctions that both Congress and the president have enacted to place maximum pressure on North Korea’s dangerous regime.”

“There are deliberate reasons sanctions have been levied on North Korea.  The country and its leader pose a literal threat to our national security and that of our allies,” said FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William F. Sweeney Jr.  “Mr. Griffith allegedly traveled to North Korea without permission from the federal government, and with knowledge what he was doing was against the law.  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.  It’s even more egregious that a U.S. citizen allegedly chose to aid our adversary.”

According to the complaint unsealed in Manhattan federal court:

Pursuant to the IEEPA and Executive Order 13466, United States Persons are prohibited from exporting any goods, services, or technology to the DPRK without a license from Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

In or about April 2019, Griffith traveled to the DPRK to attend and present at the “Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference” (the “DPRK Cryptocurrency Conference”).  Despite that the U.S. Department of State had denied Griffith permission to travel to the DPRK, Griffith presented at the DPRK Cryptocurrency Conference, knowing that doing so violated sanctions against the DPRK.  At no time did Griffith obtain permission from OFAC to provide goods, services, or technology to the DPRK.

At the DPRK Cryptocurrency Conference, Griffith and other attendees discussed how the DPRK could use blockchain and cryptocurrency technology to launder money and evade sanctions.  Griffith’s presentation at the DPRK Cryptocurrency Conference had been approved by DPRK officials and focused on, among other things, how blockchain technology, including a “smart contract,” could be used to benefit the DPRK.  Griffith identified several DPRK Cryptocurrency Conference attendees who appeared to work for the North Korean government, and who, during his presentation, asked Griffith specific questions about blockchain and cryptocurrency and prompted discussions on technical aspects of those technologies.

After the DPRK Cryptocurrency Conference, Griffith began formulating plans to facilitate the exchange of cryptocurrency between the DPRK and South Korea, despite knowing that assisting with such an exchange would violate sanctions against the DPRK.  Griffith also encouraged other U.S. citizens to travel to North Korea, including to attend the same DPRK Cryptocurrency Conference the following year.  Finally, Griffith announced his intention to renounce his U.S. citizenship and began researching how to purchase citizenship from other countries.

Virgil Griffith, 36, is a resident of Singapore and citizen of the United States.  Griffith is charged with conspiring to violate the IEEPA, which carries a maximum term of 20 years in prison.  The maximum potential sentences are prescribed by Congress and are provided here for informational purposes only, as any sentencing of the defendant will be determined by the judge.

Read more at the Justice Department

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