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An American cryptocurrency expert was arrested in Los Angeles Thursday for allegedly helping North Korea use cryptocurrency to evade U.S. sanctions, according to a criminal complaint from the Department of Justice.
Virgil Griffith, 36, a resident of Singapore and citizen of the U.S., is charged with violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA). Under the act, U.S. citizens are prohibited from exporting any goods, services, or technology to North Korea without a license from the Department of the Treasury.
The DOJ’s criminal complaint says Griffith taught an audience in North Korea earlier this year how to use blockchain – the technology behind cryptocurrency – despite the State Department denying Griffith permission to travel there. The conference was attended by 100 people, prosecutors said, including several who appeared to work for the North Korean government.
“Griffith provided highly technical information to North Korea, knowing that this information could be used to help North Korea launder money and evade sanctions,” said U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman for the Southern District of New York. “In allegedly doing so, Griffith jeopardized the sanctions that both Congress and the president have enacted to place maximum pressure on North Korea’s dangerous regime.”
Griffith’s presentation at the cryptocurrency conference had been approved by North Korean officials and focused on how blockchain technology, including a “smart contract,” could be used to benefit the North.
After the conference, Griffith began formulating plans to facilitate the exchange of cryptocurrency between North and South Korea, despite knowing that assisting with that exchange would violate sanctions.
The DOJ also said Griffith announced his intention to renounce his U.S. citizenship and had been researching how to purchase citizenship from other countries.
Prosecutors say another person involved in the alleged conspiracy was to be brought to New York and arrested. That person is not named in the criminal complaint against Griffith.
Griffith was slated to appear in federal court Monday to face charges. Violating the IEEPA carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.