Ethereum developer Virgil Griffith accused of helping North Korea evade sanctions

Romain Dillet

On Friday, the United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York announced that Ethereum Foundation staff member Virgil Griffith was arrested. He faces charges of conspiracy following a trip to North Korea and a presentation at the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference.

In particular, he allegedly provided services to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, also known as North Korea) without obtaining approval from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control.

According to the complaint, Griffith reached out to the U.S. State Department but his permission was denied due to economic sanctions against North Korea. Griffith traveled to China and then North Korea anyway. The complaint also says that Griffith discussed “cryptocurrency technologies to evade sanctions and launder money.”

A special agent for the FBI interviewed Griffith back in May 2019. It was a consensual interview and he talked about his presentation titled “Blockchain and Peace” with the agent. He showed photos of his trip and said he would like to attend the same conference next year.

Griffith discussed his presentation with another individual via a messaging app. “Individual-1 asked, in sum and substance, what interest North Koreans had in cryptocurrency. Griffith replied, in sum and substance, ‘probably avoiding sanctions… who knows,’” the complaint says.

Vitalik Buterin, the creator of Ethereum, wrote multiple tweets about Griffith’s arrest. “I don't think what Virgil did gave DRPK any kind of real help in doing anything bad. He *delivered a presentation based on publicly available info about open-source software*. There was no weird hackery ‘advanced tutoring,’” he wrote.

He also says that the Ethereum Foundation has nothing to do with Griffith’s trip to North Korea. “EF paid nothing and offered no assistance; it was Virgil's personal trip that many counseled against,” Buterin wrote.

Earlier today, a judge ruled that there is enough evidence to move forward with a trial. Griffith will be released from jail pending trial.