Crypto Guru Jailed Over North Korea Visit

John Lister's picture

An American man who helped North Korea evade US sanctions through cryptocurrencies has received a jail sentence of more than five years. Virgil Griffith had visited Pyongyang to tell officials how to use digital currencies.

He pleaded guilty to breaching the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The act allows the US president to limit the ways US citizens carry out commerce abroad by declaring an international emergency.

One such limitation, introduced in 2008 and renewed annually, blocks US citizens from exporting technology, goods or services to the US.

Griffith violated that restriction by giving a presentation in North Korea, having traveled to the country without permission. He worked for the Ethererum Foundation, which promotes blockchain technology, though made the trip without its support.

Sanctions Workaround

Prosecutors say that during the presentation, Griffith said "The most important feature of blockchains is that they are open. And the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] can't be kept out no matter what the USA or the UN says." (Source:

According to the prosecutors, Griffith knew the North Korean government wanted to use cryptocurrencies to evade US sanctions that limited its financial activities. The sanctions aimed to make it virtually impossible for North Korea to use international banking to make or receive payments, thus limiting its ability to import or export goods.

One of the key principles of the blockchain technology behind cryptocurrencies is that there's no central control and thus no way to govern who can and cannot make and receive payments.

Griffith's lawyers argued that his visit and presentation was a misguided attempt to promote peace and insisted he had no intention to harm the US.

Plea Deal

His case was somewhat undermined by a photograph from the presentation where Griffith was "wearing a traditional North Korean suit and standing in front of a blackboard on which it read 'No sanctions!' with a smiley face." (Source:

The maximum sentence for the crime is 20 years. Griffiths had reached a plea deal with prosecutors that meant the court could impose a sentence between 63 and 78 months. The court opted for 63 months plus a $100,000 fine.

What's Your Opinion?

Is the conviction and sentence fair? Do cryptocurrencies undermine international sanctions? Can any technology remain permanently beyond government control?

Rate this article: 
Average: 5 (5 votes)


Dennis Faas's picture

This story is proof that nothing good comes from North Korea. To be forced to spend 5 years in prison for a presentation also sounds incredibly stupid.

beach.boui's picture

They went too easy on the moron. Should have been 5 years with no parole and $200,000 fine. If he was a North Korean and committed an equivalent crime in North Korea, he would be strapped to an anti-aircraft cannon and blown to smithereens.

buzzallnight's picture

nothing in there anyway......

Chief's picture

He got 5 yrs.
Probably be out in 2.
I'm sure he did not fly all the way to NK to do the job for free.