Virgil Griffith Pleads Not Guilty to Evading U.S. Sanctions in North Korea Jaunt

Ethereum developer Virgil Griffith entered a plea of not guilty Thursday afternoon in a Southern District of New York courthouse. Griffith is charged with conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act after traveling to North Korea (DRPK) in April 2019 to attend a cryptocurrency conference. 

If convicted, Griffth, who once called himself a “disruptive technologist” whose aim was to “make the Internet a better and more interesting place,” could face up to 20 years in prison. He traveled up from Alabama to attend the arraignment and appeared composed throughout, answering with a firm “Innocent” when Judge Castel asked how he would plea.

According to the government’s criminal complaint in United States of America v. Virgil Griffith, filed Nov. 21, 2019, the U.S. State Department denied Griffith permission to go to the DPRK to attend the conference because of U.S. sanctions against North Korea. But Griffith traveled to the DPRK anyway, via China, and “provided the DPRK with valuable information on blockchain and cryptocurrency technologies, and participated in discussions regarding using cryptocurrency technologies to evade sanctions and launder money,” charged the government. 

During the arraignment in lower Manhattan, defense attorney Brian Klein asked if the government had interviewed other people who attended the April 2019 conference as part of its discovery process, adding, “We think [testimony from] other attendees will help exonerate our client.” 

Klein responded “No comment” when asked by Cointelegraph about the latest developments.

Griffith, a U.S. citizen living in Singapore, was arrested on Nov. 28 as he landed at Los Angeles Airport. The government’s charges came “after the Trump administration raised concerns over the summer about the national security threat cryptocurrencies pose because of their potential to be used to finance illicit activities,” according to the New York Times. The government’s complaint referenced another individual who helped Griffith to enter the DPRK and may face charges as well, but the government’s attorneys declined to comment further on that point. 

The crypto community is divided in its support of Griffith, Cointelegraph reported on Jan. 9 after Griffith was indicted and released on bail — he remains free, though somewhat exiled to Alabama. “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,*” declared Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin in early December.    

North Korea may be in the early stages of building its own cryptocurrency, in what appears to be an effort to evade U.S.-imposed sanctions, Cointelegraph reported in September 2019.  More recently, the United Nations warned that attending a North Korean cryptocurrency conference in February 2020 would most likely constitute a sanctions violation. 

Judge Castel granted the government a continuance until March 17 to assemble more discovery evidence, the defense to review it and the parties to advise as to further motions.