Singapore-based US cryptocurrency promoter pleads guilty to advising North Korea

Virgil Griffith, who is based in Singapore, faces a 20-year prison sentence.
Virgil Griffith, who is based in Singapore, faces a 20-year prison sentence.PHOTO: VIRGIL GRIFFITH/FACEBOOK

NEW YORK (AFP) - A prominent American cryptocurrency promoter and former hacker has pleaded guilty to advising North Korea on using virtual money to avoid international controls, a New York court said on Monday (Sept 28).

Virgil Griffith, who is based in Singapore, launched projects in 2018 to provide services to individuals in North Korea by developing and financing cryptocurrency structures, including cryptocurrency mining, according to the Southern District Court of New York. A ruling will be announced in January 2022.

Griffith, who faces a 20-year prison sentence, worked with others to provide cryptocurrency services and help North Korea evade sanctions, the court said.

He was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport in November 2019.

Griffith, 38, had attended a conference on blockchain and virtual currencies in Pyongyang in April that year, where he spoke about how to use both technologies "to evade sanctions", the United States Justice Department said.

Doing so violated US Treasury bans on "exporting any goods, services, or technology" to North Korea, put in place in response to the country's nuclear weapons programme.

After the 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", the Justice Department said, using the North's official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The department said he also announced plans to renounce his US citizenship, aiming to "purchase" citizenship in another country.

Called a "cult hacker" in a New York Times profile 11 years ago, Griffiths has a doctorate in theoretical neuroscience from the California Institute of Technology.

Four years ago, he joined Ethereum, a Singapore-based company developing a secure blockchain-based global platform for business and finance use, and promoting its own cryptocurrency of the same name.