Five years in prison for teaching blockchain courses in Pyongyang

Posted Apr 13, 2022, 9:13 AMUpdated on Apr 13, 2022 at 9:58 am

In images taken in April 2019, in a Pyongyang conference room, Virgil Griffith appears all smiles, his hair disheveled in a North Korean khaki uniform. The young American computer scientist, known for his past as a brilliant hacker and his work in Singapore within the foundation supporting the Ethereum cryptocurrency, is agitated in front of a whiteboard on which is drawn a diagram summarizing the functioning of the blockchain. At bottom right, an arrow pointing to the words ‘No Sanctions!’ and a big happy smiley.

Three years later, this photo, taken by another foreign visitor, cost the young man, now 39, dearly. Convinced by the demonstration of the prosecutors who presented several of these pictures to the court, a New York judge sentenced Virgil Griffith on Tuesday to 63 months in prison for having helped the North Korean regime to circumvent the sanctions put in place. place, for years, by the United States against Pyongyang. He will also have to pay a fine of 100,000 dollars.

To plead guilty

The computer scientist’s lawyers had hoped for a lighter sentence for their client who had agreed, to avoid a long and risky trial, to plead guilty to “conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act” (the sanctions). He admitted to FBI investigators and the court that during his short stay in Pyongyang he provided technical advice to North Korean officials seeking to use blockchain and cryptocurrency technology to circumvent the measures. deployed by Washington and the international community. These various sanctions aim to stifle North Korea economically in order to force Kim Jong-un’s regime to abandon its programs for the development of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

After his arrest in November 2019, the hacker had first tried to explain that his stay – not recommended by the American authorities – was in no way political and that he had only gone there out of curiosity. Virgil Griffith had also contacted the US government himself after his trip to share his impressions of North Korean knowledge of blockchain. In support of his defense, his friend Vitalik Buterin, the founder of Ethereum, sent a letter to the New York court highlighting the “kindness” and “generosity” of the accused.

Repeated thefts

Explanations that did not convince the authorities. “Griffith had begun to formulate plans as early as 2018 to offer its services to individuals in North Korea by developing and financing infrastructure for cryptocurrency, including mining, on site,” the agreement said. plead guilty, Audrey Strauss, the representative of the United States Department of Justice. “Griffith knew that North Korea could use these services to evade US sanctions and fund its nuclear weapons program,” the official insisted.

The United States believes that cryptocurrencies have become, over the years, a key tool for the survival of the North Korean dictatorship which uses them to launder money from illicit activities or finance, in secret, the purchase of prohibited military components. Last February, United Nations experts responsible for monitoring the effectiveness of sanctions estimated that hackers working for Pyongyang had stolen $316.4 million worth of virtual goods (mainly cryptocurrencies) between 2019 and 2020.

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