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US charges 2 Europeans who allegedly assisted Virgil Griffith in North Korea’s digital currency program

Prosecutors for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) have charged two individuals for allegedly conspiring to help North Korea evade International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) sanctions. The announcement mentions Alejandro Cao de Benos, 40, of Spain, and Christopher Emms, 30, of the United Kingdom. 

The Europeans co-founded the pro-North Korea conference called the “Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference.” During the event, which was held in 2019, they allegedly conspired with former Ethereum developer Virgil Griffith to provide North Korean government officials attending the conference with information on how to launder money using digital assets. 

The Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Damian Williams, said their actions violated U.S. national security. 

“The sanctions imposed against North Korea are critical in protecting the security interests of Americans, and we continue to aggressively enforce them with our law enforcement partners both here and abroad,” said Williams in the statement

Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen, who is also on the case, added that the U.S. is dedicated to stopping the North Korean government from using digital currencies to pursue its nuclear program. Olsen noted that the indictment is intended to press this point and show that any individual working with the country will be held accountable. 

Previously, the DOJ successfully prosecuted Griffith, who pleaded guilty to the charges. The Ethereum developer, who was the key expert at the conference, is serving five years in prison and is to pay a fine of $100,000. 

If found guilty of the charges, Cao De Benos and Emms would be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. However, both individuals remain at large at the moment. 

North Korea’s nuclear program is being bankrolled by digital assets hacks

North Korea has achieved a high level of notoriety for having a hand in several high-profile digital assets hacks. Recently, the FBI stated that the North Korean hacker group named Lazarus Group was behind the over $600 million Axie Infinity Ronin network hack

Chainalysis also reported that in 2021, highly coordinated hacker collectives linked to the rogue Asian country stole an estimated $400 million in digital assets. 

Despite multiple U.S. sanctions, North Korea has continued to fund its nuclear program through the state-sponsored digital assets hacks. According to a UN report, while North Korea does not have any working nuclear weapons, it is developing its capacity for its production. 

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