US man jailed for breaching sanctions by advising North Korea on cryptocurrency

A United States man has been sentenced to more than five years in federal prison for advising North Korea on cryptocurrency trading, in contravention of US sanctions.

Virgil Griffith, 39, was sentenced on Tuesday, local time, after pleading guilty last year to conspiracy.

He admitted to presenting at a cryptocurrency conference in Pyongyang in 2019, even after the US government denied his request to travel there.

A well-known hacker, Griffith also developed “cryptocurrency infrastructure and equipment inside North Korea”, prosecutors wrote in court papers.

At the 2019 conference, he advised more than 100 people — including several who appeared to work for the North Korean government — on how to use cryptocurrency to evade sanctions and achieve independence from the global banking system.

A headshot of Virgil Griffith.
Virgil Griffith was sentenced to more than five years in jail. (Wikipedia: Lulu Lorien)

Both the US and the UN Security Council have imposed increasingly tight sanctions on North Korea in recent years to try to rein in its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

The US government amended sanctions against North Korea in 2018 to prohibit “a US person, wherever located” from exporting technology to North Korea.

Prosecutors said Griffith acknowledged his presentation amounted to a transfer of technical knowledge to conference attendees.

“Griffith is an American citizen who chose to evade the sanctions of his own country to provide services to a hostile foreign power,” prosecutors wrote.

“He did so, knowing that power — North Korea — was guilty of atrocities against its own people and has made threats against the United States citing its nuclear capabilities.”

A Bitcoin (virtual currency) coin is seen in an illustration picture
North Korea has been trying to use cryptocurrency to circumvent international financial sanctions. (Reuters: Benoit Tessier)

Defence attorney Brian Klein described Griffith as a “brilliant, Caltech-trained scientist who developed a curiosity bordering on obsession” with North Korea.

“He viewed himself — albeit arrogantly and naively — as acting in the interest of peace,” Mr Klein said.

“He loves his country and never set out to do any harm.”

Mr Klein added that he was disappointed with the 63-month prison sentence but “pleased the judge acknowledged Virgil’s commitment to moving forward with his life productively, and that he is a talented person who has a lot to contribute.”

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