Ethereum Developer Pleads Guilty to Violating North Korean Sanctions
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Ethereum Developer Pleads Guilty to Violating North Korean Sanctions

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He gave a presentation on blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies in the rogue state.

Ethereum Developer Pleads Guilty to Violating North Korean Sanctions

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Just hours after a jury was empanelled to hear his case, Ethereum developer Virgil Griffith backed down and plead guilty to violating U.S. sanctions on North Korea by giving a presentation on blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies at an April 2019 crypto conference in the rogue state.

Griffith’s September 27 guilty plea to one count of violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act carries a potential penalty of up to 20 years, according to a statement by Audrey Strauss, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Griffith is scheduled to be sentenced on January 18, 2022.

The Ethereum Foundation’s former head of special projects was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport on Thanksgiving Day 2019 after his presentation at the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference was reported on by an FBI agent. 

His presentation had been vetted by North Korean officials. The U.S. Attorney's statement said:

“Griffith and his co-conspirators provided instruction on how the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea could use blockchain and cryptocurrency technology to launder money and evade sanctions. [It] focused on how blockchain technology such as ‘smart contracts’ could be used to benefit the DPRK, including in nuclear weapons negotiations with the United States.”

After the conference ended, Griffith — a U.S. citizen who lived in Singapore — “pursued plans to facilitate the exchange of cryptocurrency between the DPRK and South Korea, despite knowing that assisting with such an exchange would violate sanctions,” the release added.

Officials also say he tried to recruit other Americans to travel to North Korea to provide similar services, and tried to broker introductions for the DPRK to other crypto and blockchain service providers.

U.S. Persons — a category that includes citizens, legal residents, persons inside the U.S. at the time, and companies incorporated in the U.S. and their foriegn branches — are prohibited from exporting goods, services, or technology to the DPRK without a license from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. The State Department had refused Griffith permission to travel to the conference.

Don’t Tweet Your Illegal North Korean Visa

Griffith had not taken the State Department’s refusal very seriously, going so far as to tweet out a picture of his North Korean visa before the trip. 

Aside from smart contracts, Griffith’s presentation covered things like proof-of-stake versus proof-of-work, Cavanaugh said. 

But, the special agent said, Griffith also discussed ways that blockchain and cryptocurrency technology “could be used by the DPRK to launder money and evade sanctions.”

Originally released on $1 million bail, Griffith was jailed in July 2021 for violating his parole by attempting to use one of his cryptocurrency accounts to pay his lawyers.  
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