Virgil Griffith, the American programmer who traveled to North Korea and was later arrested at Los Angeles International Airport on Thursday, has ignited a fierce debate regarding his actions.
According to a criminal complaint released by the US, Griffith, an Ethereum researcher who spoke at a blockchain conference in Pyongyang, is accused of assisting North Korea in evading sanctions imposed by the US government. The charge carries a penalty of 20 years in prison.
While Griffith traveled to North Korea without a special validation from the US government, as required, Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin believes the programmer spoke at the conference in order to bridge a divide.
In a tweetstorm on Sunday, Buterin tells his 882,000 followers that he supports Griffith. In response to a blog post entitled, “Let’s start a petition to free Virgil Griffith” penned by Enrico Talin, the founder of blockchain platform Commerc.io, the Ethereum co-creator says he’s prepared to sign a petition to set Griffith free.
“Prefacing with two points. [i] Conflict-of-interest disclosure: Virgil is my friend, [ii] this whole thing has nothing to do with EF. EF paid nothing and offered no assistance; it was Virgil’s personal trip that many counseled against.
Geopolitical open-mindedness is a *virtue*. 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.”
Adding that Griffith made no personal gain from his trip, Buterin doesn’t believe that Griffith’s actions were intended to inflict harm.
“I don’t think what Virgil did gave 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’.
“So I hope 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.”
The US State Department imposed a travel ban in September of 2017, prohibiting US citizens from visiting North Korea after American university student Otto Warmbier, who was arrested in Pyongyang in 2016, was charged with subversion for attempting to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel. Warmbier was imprisoned and subsequently released, in a coma, in June of 2017. He later died.
According to the ban, the US State Department explicitly states that Americans are at risk.
“Do not travel to North Korea due to the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention of U.S. nationals.
• Individuals cannot use a U.S. passport to travel to, in, or through North Korea without a special validation from the Department of State.
• Special validations are granted only in very limited circumstances.”
The travel ban was extended in August of 2018, with a stipulation that “individuals who wish to travel to or within North Korea for extremely limited purposes,” can obtain a special validation provided their travel plans align with the national interest.
As an Ethereum researcher, Griffith is presumed to have expert knowledge on blockchain and cryptocurrencies and how to use the technology to thwart US efforts to impose restrictions on North Korea, whose track record on human rights Buterin does not condone.
“Human rights violations in North Korea are very terrible and sad and a major contributing factor to my own lack of interest in visiting.”
Ethereum is an open source, public blockchain that powers private and public networks. It can be used to store records securely and track transactions. By using smart contracts and cryptocurrency, Ethereum allows two unrelated parties to settle agreements without intervention from third parties.