Federal authorities in the U.S. have unveiled a criminal complaint against Virgil Griffith, a prominent Ethereum developer and American citizen, for breaching the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA).
The charges stem from Griffith’s alleged efforts to assist North Korea in leveraging blockchain and cryptocurrency technologies to circumvent sanctions.
Griffith’s arrest occurred at Los Angeles International Airport on November 28, 2019, after he allegedly ignored warnings against traveling to North Korea.
John C. Demers, Assistant Attorney General for National Security, voiced his concern over Griffith’s actions, stating that Griffith had provided his audience in North Korea with knowledge on how to employ blockchain technology to dodge sanctions.
Such actions, he noted, constituted a violation of U.S. law and posed a severe threat to national security.
U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman, for the Southern District of New York, echoed these sentiments, highlighting Griffith’s purported knowledge of the possible misuse of the information he provided.
Berman underscored the importance of the sanctions imposed on North Korea by Congress and the president and the risks Griffith’s actions posed to their enforcement.
Sanctions and U.S. national security
FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William F. Sweeney Jr. pointed out the risk North Korea poses to the U.S. and its allies, and emphasized the illegality of Griffith’s unapproved travel to the rogue state.
According to Sweeney, Griffith’s actions in aiding North Korea in avoiding sanctions could potentially enable the country to fund its nuclear weapons program, thus posing a significant threat to global security.
The complaint, unsealed in Manhattan federal court, refers to the IEEPA and Executive Order 13466, which prohibit U.S. citizens from exporting any goods, services, or technology to North Korea without a license from the Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Griffith, however, allegedly defied these regulations.
In April 2019, Griffith reportedly attended and spoke at the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference, despite being denied permission to travel to North Korea by the U.S. State Department.
His presentation, approved by North Korean officials, addressed the possible applications of blockchain technology, including “smart contracts,” for the benefit of North Korea.
Post-conference, Griffith allegedly began working on plans to facilitate cryptocurrency exchanges between North and South Korea, fully aware of the sanctions in place.
He even went as far as encouraging other U.S. citizens to attend the same conference in the following year, and expressed his intent to renounce his U.S. citizenship.
Griffith, currently a resident of Singapore, now faces charges of conspiring to violate the IEEPA, a crime that carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. While these potential sentences are set by Congress, the final sentencing will be decided by a judge.
As we follow this case, the presumption of innocence remains until proven guilty. However, the actions alleged against Griffith serve as a stark reminder of the potential misuse of blockchain and cryptocurrency technologies in the hands of adversarial nations.
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