NEW YORK – A cryptocurrency connoisseur admitted Monday that he conspired to coach North Korea on how to evade economic sanctions by using the popular financial technology to conceal illegal transactions.

Virgil Griffith, 38, a U.S. citizen, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Manhattan to a count of conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, a charge for which he could face up to two decades in prison. Griffith, who is scheduled to be sentenced in January, made a name for himself as a developer of Ethereum, a digital money purchasing platform.

Federal prosecutors say Griffith actively assisted North Korea in efforts to use cryptocurrency and blockchain technology to conceal its activities, including at the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference held in April 2019.

The State Department denied Griffith permission to travel to the conference, but he went anyway, traveling to Pyongyang via China, according to court documents filed at the time of his arrest.

At the event, he was a presenter and took part in discussions about how to help North Korea — a closely watched U.S. adversary — launder cash and get around commerce restrictions imposed on the country by Washington. Such restrictions have been in place since 2008, amid heightened concerns that North Korea was a national security threat.


Members of the North Korean government attended the conference, according to prosecutors.

Griffith was arrested in November 2019 after he allegedly devised a plan to help North Korea skirt sanctions by facilitating cryptocurrency transactions with South Korea. Through blockchains, cryptocurrency holders can conceal their identities, a source of frustration for law enforcement officials angling to stay ahead of the quickly evolving field.

Griffith, who lived in Singapore at the time of his arrest, had at least two conversations around the time of his dealings in North Korea that confirmed he knew that sanctions were in place prohibiting direct and indirect commerce with North Korea — including transactions with neighboring South Korea, court documents say. He tried to convince other U.S. citizens to attend the conference with him.

Following his guilty plea, his attorney Brian Klein said in a statement that Griffith is “sincerely remorseful.”

“Setting aside what happened, he has made important contributions to society that we will raise with the court,” Klein added in a prepared statement. “He also has many wonderful qualities, and no one should define him by this mistake.”

Acting U.S. attorney Audrey Strauss said in a statement that Griffith “jeopardized the national security of the United States by undermining the sanctions that both Congress and the President have enacted to place maximum pressure on the threat posed by North Korea’s treacherous regime.”

The U.S. continues to consider North Korea a threat, largely due to its refusal to blunt its active nuclear weapons program.