Cryptocurrency Developer Gets 5 Years in Prison for Aiding North Korea

A US court has sentenced a computer programmer to 63 months in prison for supplying North Korea with advice on how to use cryptocurrencies to evade US sanctions. 

On Tuesday, the US Justice Department announced(Opens in a new window) the sentencing for 39-year-old Virgil Griffith after he pleaded guilty to the charges. Back in 2019, federal agents arrested Griffith for giving a talk at a cryptocurrency conference in North Korea on blockchain technology.

Under federal law, any US citizen is prohibited from exporting services or technology to North Korea unless they receive a license from the US Treasury Department. However, Griffith never did. Instead, the Justice Department says he began formulating plans in 2018 to supply North Korea with plans to develop its own cryptocurrency infrastructure. 

“Griffith knew that the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) could use these services to evade and avoid US sanctions, and to fund its nuclear weapons program and other illicit activities,” the Justice Department added. 


Griffith worked for a foundation devoted to the Ethereum cryptocurrency. However, both the foundation and members of the US government warned(Opens in a new window) him against traveling to North Korea to attend the cryptocurrency conference.

At the conference, which occurred in April 2019, Griffith and his unnamed “co-conspirators” supplied information on how North Korea could use blockchain technology to launder funds and bypass US sanctions, according to the DOJ. This included specifics on how Ethereum’s smart contracts could be used to benefit North Korea during nuclear weapons negotiations. 

“After the DPRK Cryptocurrency Conference, Griffith 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 against the DPRK,” the Justice Department added. “Griffith also attempted to recruit other USS citizens to travel to North Korea and provide similar services to DPRK persons.”

Despite the sentencing, Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin claimed back in 2019 that Griffith’s talk at the North Korean conference contained no real sensitive information. “I don’t think what Virgil did gave DRPK any kind of real help in doing anything bad,” Buterin said in a tweet(Opens in a new window). “He delivered a presentation based on publicly available info about open-source software. There was no weird hackery ‘advanced tutoring.’”

Nevertheless, the United Nations has said(Opens in a new window) cryptocurrencies have helped the North Korean regime fund its nuclear weapons program. One company estimates North Korean hackers stole $400 million in cryptocurrencies last year.

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