Home Governments & Regulations

U.S. Arrests Ethereum Developer Virgil Griffith, Alleging North Korean Collusion

Various reports have confirmed the arrest of cryptocurrency ‘researcher’ Virgil Griffith (who has been referred to as a ‘developer’ and ‘expert’ by different pundits) by United States authorities at the Los Angeles International Airport on November 28th, 2019.

The charges pertain to the incidental participation of Griffith at the ‘Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference 2019′ which took place back in April of this year, in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (AKA North Korea’).

Virgil Griffith is to have broken travel restrictions placed on citizens of the United States intended on preventing them from travelling to North Korea. He managed to bypass visa regulations by travelling to the country via China.

Even greater allegations have been made by the United States government against Griffith, suggesting that he imparted “highly technical” advice that could be strategically disadvantageous for the U.S.

Explicitly, he has been accused of informing North Korean government members of various methods they could use cryptocurrency as a work-around to U.S. sanctions.

Although not mentioned, it is likely that the United States’ government also frowned upon Griffith’s participation at the event, as an inadvertent and unofficial representative of the country.

Previously, North Korea has been accused of being behind a large number of high profile hacks and “heists’. According to a report by CNN on August 6, 2019 – the UN has published documents confirmed that ‘North Korean cryptocurrency heists [have] net[ted] estimated $2 billion‘.

Wired magazine published its own take on the North Korean government’s relationship with cryptocurrency in April this year, with an article entitled ‘North Korea’s elite hackers are funding nukes with crypto raids’.

“[A criminal complaint unsealed last week reads] Griffith knew it was illegal to travel to the DPRK and so sought permission from the US Department of State…

Although Griffith’s request was denied by the State Department, Griffith attended the DPRK Cryptocurrency Conference nonetheless,”

The Next Web, Hard Fork

Virgil Griffith is a Singapore-based researcher at the Ethereum Foundation, describing himself on his LinkedIn page as having been a ‘Research Scientist’ for Ethereum since October 2016. On the page, he claims the duty of “creating the world’s finest smart-contract-platform for your magic-internet-money”.

Concurrently, Griffith works as the CTO (Chief Technology Officer) at Backbone Telecommunication. The description of this role is “Founder and operator of onion.link, the most popular darkweb search engine in the world”.

Griffith additionally co-founded the OnionCity search engine with the late Aaron Swartz, a renowned ‘hacktivist’.

Swartz allegedly committed suicide back in 2013 folllowing his own run in with U.S. authorities, after they levied a maximum 50 year custodial sentence combined with $1 million worth of fines.

These overzealous charges came as the result of Swartz having illegally accessed and distributed academic materials published (and owned) by universities from JSTOR for free.

“The first Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference on April 2019 was a success where international experts in the Blockchain and Crypto industry gathered in Pyongyang to share their knowledge and vision, established long lasting connections, discussed business opportunities and signed contracts in the field of Information Technology.

Now we open the subscription for professionals and companies to join the next conference that will run from 22nd to 29th February 2020 and will be followed by winter sports and relaxing time in the 5* Masikryong Ski Resort.

The interest of participants to continue building bridges of friendship and collaboration with the DPR of Korea, as well as the exclusive environment of confidentiality and contacts with the highest government officials and engineers, demanded to organize a second conference with even more audience and wider scope.”

The Next Web, Hard Fork

Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference 2019 is the “first” edition of the event according to its official website, which suggests it is potentially intended to be a regular occurrence.

According to korea-dpr.info, an official government tourism website, “any interested person” could have attended the event, except for journalists and “passports from: South Korea, Japan and Israel. Journalists are not allowed to attend”.

korea-dpr.info also advertises an eight-day package tour which involves the conference, arranged by the infamous Alejandro Cao de Benos (who has previously been arrested in Spain, his dual nationality with North Korea, for arms trafficking).

It is unknown as of yet as to whether Virgil Griffith was invited to the event by the North Korean government itself, or whether he applied and travelled entirely of his own initiative.

The official website (https://nkcryptocon.com/) delivers a post-conclusion, self-celebratory message of which there is an excerpt below:

Virgil Griffith is scheduled for release on bail next week, meaning he will be temporarily released from jail until his trial.

Meanwhile, Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin pledged his support for Griffith on Twitter when he posted a message on December 1st.

In related news, China (which is also under intense sanctions from the U.S.) is establishing its own state-controlled cryptocurrency: a digital Renminbi. North Korea is also establishing a state-run token which is so-far unnamed.