Virgil Griffith must have known there was a chance that his decision to attend a cryptocurrency conference in North Korea was going to land him in trouble. Now he’s experiencing firsthand the heavy force of US sanctions against the country: he faces up to 20 years in prison.
According to a criminal complaint unsealed last week by the US Department of Justice, Griffith, who works for the nonprofit Ethereum Foundation, traveled to North Korea without permission from the State Department, a requirement of US law. The Federal Bureau of Investigation alleges that Griffith subsequently conspired to provide “services” to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in a way that violates US sanctions.
His defenders, including Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin, say Griffith gave a harmless presentation about open-source technology, based on information that was already publicly available. But now it will be up to a court to determine whether what Griffith was doing with the North Koreans should land him in jail for two decades. In the meantime, it’s also worth asking: What were the North Koreans doing with Griffith?