Ethereum cryptocurrency expert arrested after giving blockchain talk in North Korea

A cryptocurrency community rivalling bitcoin is in uproar after an Ethereum Foundation worker was arrested after giving a blockchain talk in North Korea.

Federal prosecutors claim Virgil Griffith handed over technical information and told the audience at a cryptocurrency conference how to avoid US sanctions, Business Insider reported.

US laws prevent the country’s citizens from trading goods or services to North Korea. Griffith has been charged with conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. He could face up to 20 years in prison if found guilty.

Following Griffith’s arrest, Vitalik Buterin, co-founder of the Ethereum Foundation, defended his employee, arguing that geopolitical “open-mindedness is a virtue.”

Taking to Twitter, Buterin continued, “It’s admirable to go to a group of people that one has been trained since childhood to believe is a maximum evil enemy and hear out what they have to say. The world would be better if more people on all sides did that.

“And in fact, this virtue of his has paid off in multiple other contexts; improved relations with Ethereum Classic, Hyperledger, and others. All [organizations] much milder than DPRK, but the point still stands.

“I don’t think what Virgil did [give] DRPK any kind of real help in doing anything bad. He delivered a presentation based on publicly available info about open-source software. There was no weird hackery ‘advanced tutoring’.

“And if there was any indication that it was going in that direction, I would have reacted much more strongly against it.

“So I hope [the] USA shows strength rather than weakness and focuses on genuine and harmful corruption that it and all countries struggle with rather than going after programmers delivering speeches parroting public information.”

Buterin did, however, face pushback for his stance.

“Why should anyone be ‘open-minded’ about concentration camps?” asked Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer at the Human Right Foundation. “Given how many people are watching, it would be good for you to clarify your position and issue an unequivocal condemnation of human rights violations in North Korea.”

Buterin answered, “Human rights violations in North Korea are very terrible and sad and a major contributing factor to my own lack of interest in visiting.”

The Ethereum Foundation co-founder is not alone.

Enrico Talin, CEO and founder of, blockchain-powered document sharing and certifying platform, took to Medium to launch a petition to free Griffith, acknowledging that “it is an unpopular opinion”, but arguing that he is “is a fantastic person” who Talin has had many “meaningful conversations” with.

Talin also stated, “[Griffith has] constantly tried to help break up fights and tried to reconcile differences. He did it before everyone else, he did it where no one wanted to do it, not because it was cool but because it was unpopular and uncomfortable and someone had to do it.”

The CEO pointed at examples of both physical fights and several talks Griffith has held in the past to strengthen his point.

The news about Griffith’s arrest comes after a UN report in August accused North Korean using hack attacks to steal $2bn from banks and cryptocurrency exchanges to fund its nuclear programme.

North Korea denied the claims, stating that they were fabricated by “ill-hearted rumours” spread by the US “and other hostile forces” to smear the country’s reputation.

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