Blockchain expert imprisoned for five years for aiding North Korea

North Korean Flag on Binary code

An Alabama programmer and blockchain expert has been sentenced to 63 months in prison and fined $100,000 (£77,000) for helping North Korea launder money and evade sanctions.

Virgil Griffith, a US citizen, and resident of Singapore who created the WikiScanner tool, was arrested in November 2019 for providing instructions on how North Korea could use blockchain technology such as smart contracts to negotiate nuclear weapons with the US.

Griffith travelled to North Korea in April 2019 despite being denied permission by the US Department of State. Having arrived in the capital, Pyongyang, he delivered a detailed presentation at the Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference to North Korean government officials. Following the conference, he then focused on finding ways how North Korea could trade cryptocurrency with South Korea, as well as encouraging other US citizens to travel to Pyongyang.

Commenting on the 2019 arrest, which took place at Los Angeles International Airport, assistant attorney general for national security John C. Demers described North Korea as “one of the United States’ foremost adversaries”. US citizens are “prohibited from exporting any goods, services, or technology” to North Korea without having first obtained a licence from the Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

FBI assistant director-in-charge William F. Sweeney Jr said that sanctions against North Korea exist for “deliberate reasons”:

“The country and its leader pose a literal threat to our national security and that of our allies,” he said. “We cannot allow anyone to evade sanctions, because the consequences of North Korea obtaining funding, technology, and information to further its desire to build nuclear weapons put the world at risk.”

The fact that a US citizen chose to aid North Korea was “even more egregious”, he added.

Facing up to 20 years in prison, Griffith pleaded “guilty to conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA)”. On Tuesday, more than two years after he was arrested and charged, he was fined $100,000 and sentenced to 63 months in prison, which will be followed by a three-year supervised release.

The news comes two months after the United Nations Security Council warned that North Korea had managed to make significant progress in its ballistic missile programme. This has been partly credited to an influx of stolen cryptocurrency, described as “an important revenue source” for Pyongyang. In late March, North Korea successfully launched its largest intercontinental missile to date.

Sabina Weston

Having only graduated from City University in 2019, Sabina has already demonstrated her abilities as a keen writer and effective journalist. Currently a content writer for Drapers, Sabina spent a number of years writing for ITPro, specialising in networking and telecommunications, as well as charting the efforts of technology companies to improve their inclusion and diversity strategies, a topic close to her heart.

Sabina has also held a number of editorial roles at Harper's Bazaar, Cube Collective, and HighClouds.