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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Southern District of New York

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Friday, November 29, 2019

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Announces Arrest Of United States Citizen For Assisting North Korea In Evading Sanctions

Geoffrey S. Berman, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, John C. Demers, the Assistant Attorney General for National Security, John Brown, Assistant Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) Counterintelligence Division, and William F. Sweeney Jr., the Assistant Director-in-Charge of the New York Field Office of the FBI, announced today the unsealing of a criminal complaint charging VIRGIL GRIFFITH, a United States citizen, with violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (“IEEPA”) by traveling to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (“DPRK” or “North Korea”) in order deliver a presentation and technical advice on using cryptocurrency and blockchain technology to evade sanctions.  GRIFFITH was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport yesterday and will be presented in federal court in Los Angeles on Monday, December 2.

U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman stated:  “As alleged, 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.”

Assistant Attorney General John Demers said:  “Despite receiving warnings not to go, Griffith allegedly traveled to one of the United States’ foremost adversaries, North Korea, where he taught his audience how to use blockchain technology to evade sanctions.  By this complaint, we begin the process of seeking justice for such conduct.”

FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William F. Sweeney Jr. said:  “There are deliberate reasons sanctions have been levied on North Korea.  The country and its leader pose a literal threat to our national security and that of our allies.  Mr. Griffith allegedly traveled to North Korea without permission from the federal government, and with knowledge what he was doing was against the law.  We cannot allow anyone to evade sanctions, because the consequences of North Korea obtaining funding, technology, and information to further its desire to build nuclear weapons put the world at risk.  It’s even more egregious that a U.S. citizen allegedly chose to aid our adversary.”

According to the Complaint unsealed today in Manhattan federal court[1]:

Pursuant to the IEEPA and Executive Order 13466, United States Persons are prohibited from exporting any goods, services, or technology to the DPRK without a license from Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”).

In or about April 2019, GRIFFITH traveled to the DPRK to attend and present at the “Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference” (the “DPRK Cryptocurrency Conference”).  Despite that the U.S. Department of State had denied GRIFFITH permission to travel to the DPRK, GRIFFITH presented at the DPRK Cryptocurrency Conference, knowing that doing so violated sanctions against the DPRK.  At no time did GRIFFITH obtain permission from OFAC to provide goods, services, or technology to the DPRK.

At the DPRK Cryptocurrency Conference, GRIFFITH and other attendees discussed how the DPRK could use blockchain and cryptocurrency technology to launder money and evade sanctions.  GRIFFITH’s presentation at the DPRK Cryptocurrency Conference had been approved by DPRK officials and focused on, among other things, how blockchain technology, including a “smart contract,” could be used to benefit the DPRK.  GRIFFITH identified several DPRK Cryptocurrency Conference attendees who appeared to work for the North Korean government, and who, during his presentation, asked GRIFFITH specific questions about blockchain and cryptocurrency and prompted discussions on technical aspects of those technologies.

After the DPRK Cryptocurrency Conference, GRIFFITH began formulating plans to facilitate the exchange of cryptocurrency between the DPRK and South Korea, despite knowing that assisting with such an exchange would violate sanctions against the DPRK.  GRIFFITH also encouraged other U.S. citizens to travel to North Korea, including to attend the same DPRK Cryptocurrency Conference the following year.  Finally, GRIFFITH announced his intention to renounce his U.S. citizenship and began researching how to purchase citizenship from other countries.

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VIRGIL GRIFFITH, 36, is a resident of Singapore and citizen of the United States.  GRIFFITH is charged with conspiring to violate the IEEPA, which carries a maximum term of 20 years in prison.  The maximum potential sentence is prescribed by Congress and is provided here for informational purposes only, as any sentencing of the defendant will be determined by the judge.

Mr. Berman praised the outstanding investigative work of the FBI and its New York Field Office, Counterintelligence Division, and thanked the Department of Justice’s National Security Division, Counterintelligence and Export Control Section, for their assistance.

The case is being handled by the Office’s Terrorism and International Narcotics Unit.  Assistant U.S. Attorneys Kimberly Ravener, Michael K. Krouse, and Kyle A. Wirshba are in charge of the case, with assistance from Trial Attorneys Christian Ford and Matthew J. McKenzie of the Counterintelligence and Export Control Section.

The charge in the Complaint is merely an accusation, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

 

[1] As the introductory phrase signifies, the entirety of the text of the Complaint and the description of the Complaint set forth herein constitute only allegations, and every fact described should be treated as an allegation.

 

Topic(s): 
Counterintelligence and Export Control
Contact: 
Jim Margolin, Nicholas Biase (212) 637-2600
Press Release Number: 
19-409
Updated December 2, 2019