Ethereum Programmer Jailed for North Korea Trip Wanted to Clone Dogs, Become ‘Crypto Hero’

Virgil Griffith went to the DPRK to talk about crypto. The DOJ said he helped the country learn a new way to bypass sanctions and launder money.
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Photo by S3studio/Getty Images

Ethereum programmer and evangelist Virgil Griffith was sentenced to more than 5 years in prison on Tuesday for teaching the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) about cryptocurrency and the blockchain at a 2019 conference in an effort to become a “crypto hero,” according to the judge who handed down the sentence.

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The maximum sentence for the crime Griffith pleaded guilty to was 20 years. In an attempt to get a shorter sentence, his attorneys submitted a series of letters from a who’s-who of Ethereum that detail Griffith’s role in the protocol and some esoteric activities beyond his North Korean activities. These included a plan to clone the doge dog as a gift for other blockchains, making sure Ethereum complied with Sharia law, and inspiring the children’s song “Mosquito Burrito.”

Prosecutors alleged that Griffith, a U.S. citizen living in Singapore, conspired to travel to DPRK and teach it about Ethereum and crypto as a means of circumventing sanctions and laundering money, and had plans to facilitate a symbolic transfer of cryptocurrency between South and North Korea.

“Griffith’s presentations at the DPRK Cryptocurrency Conference had been approved by DPRK officials and focused on, among other things, how blockchain technology such as ‘smart contracts’ could be used to benefit the DPRK, including in nuclear weapons negotiations with the United States,” a press release from the DOJ said. “Griffith and his co-conspirators also answered specific questions about blockchain and cryptocurrency technologies for the DPRK audience, including individuals whom Griffith understood worked for the North Korean government.”

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Before the conference, Griffith applied for permission to travel with the State Department but was denied. Regardless, he traveled to North Korea in April 2019 and gave a lecture at the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference. An account of the conference by journalist Ethan Lou characterized Griffith’s talk as only including information that is publicly available. Photos included in court documents show that Griffith gave his talk while dressed in a Mao-style suit and prosecutors highlighted that “No sanctions!” was written on the whiteboard along with a smiley face. 

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U.S. DOJ photo.

According to both Lou and the DOJ, Griffith told his DPRK audience that a smart contract could help it in its negotiations with America over nuclear weapons. Griffith apparently explained that a blockchain backed smart contract would make sure that sanctions unwind at the exact same moment the DPRK disabled its missiles. 

“If all the news reports say that sanctions on North Korea have been lifted, the missile will deactivate,” Griffith told the crowd, according to Lou.

When Griffith came home, he began to talk with the FBI and allowed agents to search his phone. According to his own statements to the court, he even “offered to be a spy.” Access to his device revealed what ended up being damning evidence for prosecutors, including messages between himself and his family stating that the purpose of the conference was “probably avoiding sanctions… who knows.”

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Federal authorities arrested Griffith in late November 2019 and charged him with violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. Griffith pleaded guilty and was fined $100,000 and sentenced to 63 months in prison.

“The fact of the matter is Virgil Griffith…hoped to come home to Singapore or elsewhere as a crypto hero,” Judge Kevin Castel of the Southern District of New York said when sentencing Griffith, Coindesk reported. “To be admired and praised for standing up to government sanctions, for his fearlessness and nobility.”

Griffith’s journey from Ethereum developer to federal inmate is a bizarre one that intersects with the history of Ethereum itself.

Griffith was the “special projects” lead at the Ethereum Foundation, the Switzerland-based non-profit that supports the protocol, leading up to his arrest. But his association with the cryptocurrency and its key personnel began long before that, and is reflected in the numerous letters submitted to the court testifying to his good character from members of the Foundation and Ethereum developers. 

Vitalik Buterin, the co-founder of Ethereum and its figurehead, submitted one such letter. In it, he recounts how he and Griffith met in 2013 at CalTech, before the Ethereum project even started, while Buterin was a writer for Bitcoin Magazine (the magazine’s CEO, David Bailey, said in a letter describing Griffith as a “good man” that he and Griffith met even earlier, when they both attended the University of Alabama). Griffith would graduate from CalTech in 2014 with a PhD in computation and neural systems, co-authoring numerous heady papers along the way. 

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Buterin and Griffith’s friendship grew closer over the years and culminated in the pair co-authoring an Ethereum technical paper that was published in 2017. After this, Buterin decided to formally hire Griffith at the Foundation. Griffith made a habit of “seeking cooperation and peace” in his work, Buterin wrote, and left his mark on the organization’s culture: “Finally, the culture of the Ethereum Foundation itself has changed, and we are now constantly on the lookout for unexpected opportunities to make friends in a way that we were not before,” Buterin stated. 

As head of special projects, Griffith’s role was, in his own words, to “keep rolling dice.” This resulted in some forward-thinking, and even outlandish, plans. At least one of those plans, mentioned in more than one letter submitted to the court, involved cloning.

“Virgil also proposed cloning Kabo-chan, the real-life dog who originally inspired ‘the Doge’, a popular Internet meme in the early 2010s that later, remarkably, became even more widespread within both crypto and mainstream culture in the form of the Dogecoin cryptocurrency,” Albert Ni, an investor who worked with the Ethereum Foundation, said in a letter submitted to the court. “Virgil’s proposal was to give the puppies (yes, real life puppies—he even negotiated a contract with a Texas-based animal cloning company pending approval from Kabo-chan’s owner) to leaders of other blockchain projects (like Bitcoin) as, in his words, ‘a gesture of peace and unity.’”

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An achievement highlighted by letter-writers that supposedly demonstrates Griffith’s peace-seeking nature was starting the process to secure halal certification for Ethereum, meaning it is compatible with Islamic law. The ultimate goal was to make a play at securing investment from the Saudis. The halal designation was announced in August 2019, months before Griffith’s arrest, by Anamie Advisors, a well-known firm in the Islamic finance world.

According to Buterin’s letter, Griffith also founded the Robust Incentives Group at the Ethereum Foundation, which researches consensus mechanisms in Proof-of-Stake, which is a less environmentally taxing (but more plutocratic, critics say) mining method than Bitcoin’s. 

Griffith was also intimately involved with the Ethereum Name Service project, which allows for crypto wallets to have vanity addresses similar to a website URL. Two people associated with that project, including project creator and lead developer Nicholas Johnson, submitted letters testifying to his good character. “Virgil possesses a rare combination of technical insight and ambition that has served the projects he has advocated for well, and he has a history of taking on ‘moonshot’ projects that seem far-fetched to most,” Johnson wrote, highlighting the halal certification as an example.

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Although the letters in support of Griffith are nearly universally full of glowing praise, there are some outlier comments. Ni, for example, described Griffith as “frustrating to work with,” but also a “fascinating thinker and joyful colleague.”

“During my time at the Ethereum Foundation, Virgil was encouraged to run ideas by me because I valued his creativity and had the patience to be one of his direct contacts. Patience was required because Virgil has no filter, and sometimes has poor judgment. I tried to encourage his good ideas (of which there were many) and talk him out of his bad ideas,” Ni wrote.

“At one point, Virgil asked what I thought about him potentially visiting North Korea. I candidly told him it was a horrible idea and urged him not to go,” he added. “My parents grew up in China, and had first-hand experience with what North Korea is still like today, sadly. Frankly, I found Virgil’s naïveté about North Korea and the cruelty of their regime to be borderline offensive.” 

The Ethereum Foundation has distanced itself from Griffith and his activities in North Korea since his arrest. In a statement sent to Motherboard in November of 2019, the Foundation stated that it “neither approved nor supported any such travel, which was a personal matter.”

Court documents reveal that Griffith discussed plans relating to North Korea with Ethereum Foundation leadership, although they ultimately discouraged him from proceeding. 

According to prosecutors, Griffith asked Ethereum management in April 2018 if it would “directly” set up an Ethereum node in North Korea, and was told only “doing so through an intermediary is possible.”

At the time, Griffith messaged an unnamed co-conspirator: “Another benefit of an Ethereum node in dprk… It’ll make it possible for them to avoid sanctions on money transfer. This seems like something that would interest them.”

A few months later, in August, Griffith messaged “the co-founder of the Ethereum Foundation and Griffith’s ultimate boss (‘Individual-1’), and another Ethereum Foundation leader (‘Individual-2’).” According to prosecutors, those individuals appeared to discourage Griffith and he agreed that it was “too risky” and decided to drop the plan. 

“But in fact, Griffith did no such thing, and continued pursuing the scheme,” prosecutors said.