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American Citizen Arrested After Giving Talk On Cryptocurrency In North Korea

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Last Thursday - so Thanksgiving Day, a 36-year-old American man named Virgil Griffith stepped off a plane at Los Angeles International Airport and was arrested. The Justice Department has charged Griffith with helping North Korea evade sanctions. Griffith is a computer scientist, and he had given a talk earlier this year at a Pyongyang conference on cryptocurrency. Authorities say he discussed how to launder money and dodge sanctions. I'm joined now by Jason Brett, who wrote about this for forbes.com.

Thanks for coming in.

JASON BRETT: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: So Virgil Griffith, I gather, is something of a well-known guy in technology circles. Tell me about him.

BRETT: Yeah. Virgil Griffith is a well-known hacker, and he's a bit of a cypherpunk (ph). That's cypher like C-Y-P-H-E-R punk...

KELLY: I was about to ask you, yeah.

BRETT: Mmm hmm, yep - which is people who really believe in this cryptography that's really behind the cryptocurrency and blockchain and kind of have an ethos of they'll go wherever in the world they can go to teach it 'cause they really believe it's something that can change the world.

KELLY: What is his interest in North Korea?

BRETT: So Virgil Griffith is currently a computer scientist that works at the Ethereum Foundation, which is one of the largest cryptocurrencies, second only to bitcoin. His interest isn't clear. However, it did appear that he told people back in 2018 he wanted to travel there to teach them cryptocurrency. And the title of the talk that he made when he was in North Korea was called Blockchain and Peace.

So it appears he believed he was trying to help North Korea. However, in text messages that the Department of Justice received - when he asked, what does North Korea want to know about this cryptocurrency? - he said, perhaps evading sanctions. Who knows?

KELLY: What does the Justice Department allege here? I mean, give me a little bit more detail in terms of what they've charged him with.

BRETT: Sure, sure. So they've charged him with breaking the IEEPA, which is the international protection act that started with George Bush in 2008. In that executive order, it said that there's unusual circumstances where North Korea may act in a way of, you know, firing nuclear missiles at the United States, and there was questions about how they were raising money for it. And then in 2016, Obama added to OFAC's regime, saying if you provide any products or services or technology to North Korea, that's also a violation of sanctions.

KELLY: OFAC being the U.S. government agency that enforces sanctions?

BRETT: Mmm hmm, yes. The problem with cryptocurrency is that cryptocurrency is probably used now by North Korea as a way of evading international banking sanctions. And so that is a way that they are using that money to build their nuclear arms.

KELLY: Give me some sense of how this fits more broadly into U.S. concerns about cryptocurrency. I mean, it's obviously not just North Korea that the U.S. is tracking closely but other governments and how they might use this and what risks that might pose.

BRETT: Yeah, absolutely. So the U.S. government has been looking at cryptocurrency for a long time now. And it's an ongoing issue for them with this new technology because you're really talking about weakening the U.S. dollar's ability to impose sanctions on countries. And so for the United States, it's a problem that they're facing 'cause this new technology is very disruptive.

KELLY: What might happen next for Virgil Griffith?

BRETT: So Virgil Griffith is - has an excellent lawyer representing him who's represented others in the cryptocurrency space before in these situations. You know, he is facing up to 20 years in prison for violating the sanctions. I think that it's going to be definitely an interesting trial because it's going to have a lot to do with his motives. But it's also - for many people in the community, such as myself, we don't want to see the technology go on trial.

KELLY: Jason Brett, contributor to forbes.com. A fascinating reporting - thanks for sharing it.

BRETT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.