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Ethereum Foundation Researcher Spoke at a North Korea Cryptocurrency Conference. The U.S. Arrested Him.

Federal prosecutors accused Virgil Griffith, a research scientist at the Ethereum Foundation , of helping North Korea evade US sanctions. Formally charged with violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, Griffith faces up to 20 years in prison. He allegedly attended the conference after the U.S. government refused him permission to go.

Prosecutors alleged his talk at a blockchain and cryptocurrency conference in Pyongyang, North Korea, imparted technical information to the regime. U.S. laws prevent American citizens from providing goods or services to North Korea. Griffith and other conference attendees, prosecutors claimed in their statement, discussed ways North Korea could use cryptocurrencies to avoid U.S. sanctions.

Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin defended Griffith, a U.S. citizen who resides in Singapore, on Twitter. He underscored the personal nature of Griffith’s trip to North Korea and how his talk had nothing to do with the Ethereum Foundation. He suggested Griffith did not give over anything other than publicly available information.

“Geopolitical open-mindedness is a *virtue*” Buterin wrote. “It’s *admirable* to go to a group of people that one has been trained since childhood to believe is a Maximum Evil Enemy, and hear out what they have to say. The world would be better if more people on all sides did that.”

He added: “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.”

North Korean officials approved Griffith’s presentation, in which he focused on how smart contracts could benefit the regime, the DOJ stated, adding that he also allegedly planned to “facilitate the exchange of cryptocurrency between [North Korea][ and South Korea.”

The New York Times described Griffith, 36, as an “internet man of mystery” in 2008. Buterin’s concluding tweet read: “I hope USA shows strength rather than weakness and focuses on genuine and harmful corruption that it and all countries struggle with rather than going after programmers delivering speeches parroting public information.”

Alongside an accusation of human rights abuses, a leaked UN report said North Korean hackers stole $2 billion from bank and cryptocurrencies last year in order to fund nuclear weapon development.

“Virgil Griffith provided highly technical information to North Korea, knowing that this information could be used to help North Korea launder money and evade sanctions. 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,” said U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman.