Ethereum dev must face jury for allegedly helping North Korea evade sanctions

A federal judge in New York has denied an application by an Ethereum developer to dismiss criminal charges on charges of helping the North Korean regime evade US sanctions.

Developer and former hacker Virgil Griffith is accused of helping North Korea circumvent economic sanctions by delivering a speech at a blockchain conference in Pyongyang in April 2019.

Law360 reported that Griffith had alleged in his motion that the speech he gave at the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference was protected by his initial adjustment right to freedom of expression.

Griffith also requested a list of details, claiming he could not prepare for the hearing because the four-page charge against him was “brief and vague” and gave no details of his criminal conduct. However, the judge also denied the motion, stating that “adequate notification of the charges against Griffith” had been received.

Quoting text messages Griffith allegedly sent to colleagues ahead of the conference, the judge stated:

“We would like to take an Ethereum trip to the DPRK and set up an Ethereum node […] It will help them circumvent the current sanctions against them. “

Another message apparently indicated that while Griffith was unsure what the purpose of the North Korean government’s interest in crypto assets was, he speculated that “sanctions will likely be avoided”.

Griffith’s fate must now be decided by a jury.

In January 2019, the US State Department denied Griffith’s request to travel to the North Korean capital to discuss “the applications of blockchain technology for business and the fight against corruption.”

Despite the rejection, Griffith successfully applied for approval from the United Nations Mission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in Manhattan and received a visa a month later.

The Justice Department announced Griffith’s arrest on November 29, 2019. US attorney Geoffrey Berman claimed Griffith “provided North Korea with highly technical information because he knew that information could be used to help North Korea launder money and circumvent sanctions.”

In a January 2020 indictment, Griffith was charged with conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act by attempting to provide “services” to North Korea.

While Griffith has claimed his speech was protected by the “information exception,” which characterized the presentation as “information easily learned from a Google search,” prosecutors claim the speech could be administered by Kim Jong Un enable money to escape sanctions and laundry.

The judge also noted that the fact that Griffith did not receive monetary compensation for the speech may not affect the jury’s decision.

“Even if Griffith’s presentation at the conference did not, in and of itself, qualify as a service-provider or was exempt from the information exception, evidence in court may be sufficient to prove his guilt in the service-providing conspiracy.”