By Will Bartlett
An Ethereum developer has been arrested for allegedly training North Koreans on how to use cryptocurrency to evade sanctions. Him presenting at the DPRK Cryptocurrency Conference is considered to be a violation of sanctions on the country, and as a U.S. citizen, he has put himself in a very precarious position.
United States prosecutors arrested Vigil Griffith on November 29th at the Los Angeles International Airport. He has now been charged with crimes that could earn him 20 years in prison. Geoffrey S. Berman, U.S. Attorney, said:
“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. 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.”
Evasion of Sanctions
Griffith is being charged for violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), or sanctions, as many of us would know them. these sanctions prevent U.S. citizens from exporting any goods, services, or technology to designated nations. In this case, the designated nation is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and Griffith’s highly specialized technical knowledge would allow them to circumvent these sanctions.
Griffith, a 36-year-old citizen of the United States who has worked for the Ethereum Foundation since October 2016, had been living in Singapore until this incident. He actually made a request to the U.S. Department of State to travel to the DPRK but was denied. Despite this, he decided to go and present at the DPRK Cryptocurrency Conference, which has been viewed as a violation of U.S. law.
Both Sides of the Debate
There are two sides to the debate here. First, there is the idea that North Korea is a dangerous nation and not one that should have free reign with their finances. As William J. Sweeney Jr. of the FBI said:
“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. Mr. Griffith allegedly traveled to North Korea without permission from the federal government, and with the knowledge of what he was doing was against the law.”
With the continued worry that the DPRK will obtain nuclear capabilities, this is a very reasonable stance. Any extra funding or technology they have could bring them closer to that point, and the whole world closer to nuclear disaster.
On the other hand, cryptocurrency is meant to be a democratic currency that is accessible to everyone. It is likely that Griffith thought he was bringing them a currency of freedom rather than bringing them the opportunity to nuke South Korea. Either way, you’ve got to feel bad for this poor idealist.