In brief: Virgil Griffith, a cryptocurrency expert and member of the Ethereum project has been arrested by US law enforcement at the Los Angeles International Airport on charges of violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. Griffith allegedly did so by travelling to North Korea to talk about blockchain technology. If convicted, the 36-year-old man, US citizen and resident of Singapore, faces up to 20 years in prison.
To put things in context, Virgil was previously denied permission to travel to North Korea and even warned multiple times about the consequences of such an act. Despite that, he went there earlier this year and gave a technical talk at the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference.
In a press release, the US Department of Justice explains that in doing so, Virgil "jeopardized the sanctions that both Congress and the president have enacted to place maximum pressure on North Korea’s dangerous regime."
The FBI says the sanctions were put in place specifically for preventing malicious actors from funding and informing their weapons-of-mass-destruction programs. However, Virgil traveled to North Korea in April this year and reportedly discussed how the country could use cryptocurrency to evade such restrictions and "launder money."
To make matters worse, he also described plans to streamline the exchange of cryptocurrency between North Korea and South Korea, which would also violate US sanctions. Then he reportedly invited other US citizens to travel to the country as well to attend the conference in the coming years.
US authorities also obtained information that Virgil had been seeking to give up his US citizenship and researching options for asylum or citizenship in other countries.
The odds are against Virgil being able to prove innocent, especially after he was warned about the consequences of going to North Korea. That said, some have already called for a petition to free him, arguing that his intentions were mainly about bridging the two Koreas.
Earlier this year, a leaked UN report showed North Korea has already stolen billions of dollars through cyberattacks to fund its weapons program. As cryptocurrency becomes more popular, security researchers report that $3.1 billion have already been stolen at crypto exchanges this year, a figure expected to climb to over $4 billion by the end of the year.