NEW YORK • A US digital currency specialist living in Singapore has been arrested and criminally charged with helping North Korea to use cryptocurrency and blockchain technology to evade American sanctions, the Department of Justice said.
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan last Friday said that Virgil Griffith, 36, travelled to North Korea via China in April to attend the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference, despite being denied permission to do so by the State Department.
Griffith, who has a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology, gave a presentation on topics pre-approved by North Korean officials, provided valuable technical information, and engaged in talks about using cryptocurrency technology to circumvent sanctions and launder money, prosecutors said.
A lawyer for Griffith did not respond to requests for comment.
Griffith was arrested last Thursday at Los Angeles International Airport, and charged with conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The charge carries a maximum 20-year prison term.
Prosecutors said Griffith was expected to appear last Friday in a Los Angeles federal court.
His case was announced one day after North Korea launched two short-range rockets off its eastern cost, ahead of a year-end deadline that Pyongyang has given the White House to show flexibility in stalled denuclearisation talks.
“The consequences of North Korea obtaining funding, technology, and information to further its desire to build nuclear weapons put the world at risk,” Federal Bureau of Investigation assistant director in charge William Sweeney said in a statement.
“It’s even more egregious that a US citizen allegedly chose to aid our adversary,” he added.
According to a criminal complaint, Griffith’s presentation, titled “Blockchain and Peace”, described how blockchain technology including a “smart contract” could help North Korea.
Prosecutors also said Griffith later started work on making it easier to move cryptocurrency between North Korea and South Korea.
He also encouraged other US citizens to travel to North Korea, including for the same cryptocurrency conference next year.
The complaint said a search of Griffith’s cellphone, with his consent, uncovered an Aug 6 message to an unnamed individual – known as Individual-2 – indicating a need to send some cryptocurrency between North Korea and South Korea.
“Individual-2 asked, in sum and substance, ‘Isn’t that violating sanctions?’ Griffith replied, ‘it is,'” the complaint said.