Sanctions Weren't Discussed at North Korea Crypto Conference, Attendee Says

The U.S. government's charges against Virgil Griffith are overblown, says one attendee of the North Korean conference that led to the ethereum developer's arrest.

AccessTimeIconDec 3, 2019 at 9:00 a.m. UTC
Updated Dec 10, 2022 at 8:00 p.m. UTC
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An Italian citizen who attended the North Korean cryptocurrency conference in April says the U.S. government’s charges against his friend and ethereum developer Virgil Griffith are overblown.  

Griffith has been charged under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act for allegedly providing technological training that would make it easier for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) to evade U.S. economic sanctions. He is in federal custody for providing "highly technical information to North Korea," as U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman put it in last week’s announcement.

But Fabio Pietrosanti says law enforcement has an exaggerated conception of what took place at the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference. Very little of substance transpired, he told CoinDesk.

"The sanctions were not a topic at all,” said Pietrosanti, who attended the event on the same trip as Griffith, the Ethereum Foundation staffer arrested by the FBI on Thanksgiving Day. 

According to Pietrosanti, the conference took up two days of a larger trip that allowed a small group of non-North Koreans to have a look at the so-called "hermit kingdom." The visit's full itinerary can be viewed on the state website

"I always wanted to go there, in North Korea," Pietrosanti told CoinDesk. As a sanctioned country, the place inspires a lot of curiosity for anti-censorship activists like him. "As you always want to fight against control, it's very interesting,” he said.

Pietrosanti said he’s known Griffith for nearly a decade, first meeting as participants in the TOR community developing the open-source anonymized web browser that makes surveillance all but impossible for anyone but state-level actors.

Griffith's attorney, Brian Klein of Baker Marquart, issued a statement after the accused's first court appearance Monday.

"We are very pleased that today the judge found that Virgil should be released from jail pending trial. We dispute the untested allegations in the criminal complaint," Klein told CoinDesk. "Virgil looks forward to his day in court, when the full story can come out."

‘Don’t talk politics’

To be sure, Pietrosanti has an agenda. He made it clear that his goal in speaking was to advocate for Griffith's safe release.

He asserted multiple times that the sanctions were not discussed at the DPRK conference. To speak of them in such a setting would have been ill-advised, Pietroanti said. 

The first rule of visiting a regime like North Korea's, he told us, was, "don't talk about any political topic." He knew this already but he said it was something the trip's organizers also emphasized.

More broadly, Pietrosanti said that the conference provided a reason for some outsiders to get access to North Korea and see part of the country. "From a certain perspective, it's sort of like a tourist trip with some educational value," he said.

They were in North Korea for a week, Pietrosanti said, with several days of seeing different parts of the country under a strict schedule, continuously with government minders. There were then two days of the conference. Pietrosanti said it cost him approximately $4,400 to go.

He estimated that the conference involved something like 40 to 60 North Koreans and fewer than 10 outsiders, but Pietrosanti emphasized that the event functioned nothing like a western conference would.

"We didn't have any opportunity to speak individually with a single [North Korean] person at the entire conference," he said. Further, the presentations were slow and halting, because the provided translators were not able to translate in real-time.

So, a presenter would speak, the translator would translate and the speaker would continue unless someone didn't understand. Then they would start over.

Sleepy audience

While the initial agenda was completely planned out by the organizers and approved by the government, Pietrosanti said that they didn't actually have enough material approved to cover two days of a conference.

"The conference program was a bit improvised," he said.

For example, he hadn't originally been slated to speak, but he ended up giving a talk about the tokenization of property, even though he doesn't have expertise in that, because the organizers needed to fill the time.

He didn't have a clear sense of the identities of the North Koreans in the room, but based on some of their questions he guessed that maybe four or five were sophisticated about technology. His impression was that most of the people there had simply been told to go.

"I saw people sleeping during the conference," Pietrosanti said.

The conference is scheduled to take place again in 2020, according to its website.

Pietrosanti said he doesn't really remember much about Griffith's presentation. He characterized the conference as "a boring two days." The information covered was "basic Google-level knowledge," he said.

"It's just crazy to think there was some sophisticated technology transfer," Pietrosanti said.


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