[Article by Hannah Lucinda Smith, Originally published at The Times, Friday June 03 2022]
North Korea’s first cryptocurrency conference proffered an irresistible prize to digital currency evangelists. Held in Pyongyang in April 2019, it promised a rare glimpse into the hermit kingdom’s fabled cryptocurrency sector, which experts believe the country is using to help fund its weapons programmes.
Three years on, that conference has sparked an extensive US investigation, which has already led to the conviction and 63-month imprisonment of Virgil Griffith, an American citizen and former developer with the blockchain ethereum, one of eight foreigners who attended. Now, the dragnet has also ensnared Christopher Emms, a Briton, who is awaiting an extradition hearing in Saudi Arabia having been detained there under an Interpol red notice.
Others in the cryptocurrency sphere who were invited said that they were invited either by Cao de Benos or by people who said they were cryptocurrency developers in China — not by Emms.
The US believes that North Korea’s sophisticated hacker army has amassed billions of dollars in cryptocurrency since 2017, much of it through cyberattack ransoms.
British citizens are allowed to visit North Korea, and the UK is one of the few western states to maintain diplomatic relations.
On his return from Pyongyang in April 2019, Emms was stopped at Gatwick and was questioned by police officers about his trip. When he got home, he called the MI6 hotline and asked whether he could offer any information. In late 2019, he met security services officers twice in the United Arab Emirates.
“I felt they were trying to get to the bottom of whether any laws were broken,” Emms said. “They were very interested in the conference. But it was very casual: ‘Tell us about you. What did you see? What happened?’.”
A couple of days later, one of the officers told Emms that they would not be taking the case any further. “He said don’t be silly, don’t mess up your life,” Emms recalled.
But when Griffith was then indicted in the US in January 2020, Emms was listed as a co-conspirator. He hired a US lawyer, and offered to speak t0 prosecutors. They were not interested in talking to him. But everything seemed to change after Griffith pleaded guilty in last September, taking a deal in return for a reduced sentence. After he was sentenced last month, the prosecutors issued their indictment against Emms, by then detained in Saudi Arabia, and Cao de Benos, who remains on the run.
Radha Stirling, the lawyer who is helping Emms fight his extradition, said the US’s target appears to be reigning in cryptocurrency, not Pyongyang.
“American authorities are trying to creatively expand the legal applicability of the IEEPA (US sanctions legislation) to non-US persons; and they are doing it in Chris’s case through blatant intimidation.”
Emms is now hoping to be allowed to return to Britain to fight his extradition. He is also applying to open a case against America at the UN tribunal for deprivation of liberty.
“My reputation and Virgil Griffith’s is already ruined. I don’t have much left to lose,” he said. “But I can’t just go to the US and sit there and plead guilty. If I do, they will keep doing this to others.”
The Times approached the US Department of Justice, the British Foreign Office and Treasury and Cao de Benos for comment. None had responded by the time of publication.
Detained in Dubai: http://www.detainedindubai.org
Detained in Doha: https://www.detainedindoha.org
Radha Stirling: http:///www.radhastirling.com
CLAN - Crypto Legal Advocacy Network - https://www.bitclan.org/
Due Process International: http://www.dueprocess.international
IPEX - Interpol & Extradition Reform & Defence Experts - https://www.ipexreform.com/