The Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference, an event which led last year to the controversial arrest and indictment of Ethereum developer Virgil Griffith for sanctions violations, was scheduled to take place again between 2229 February. While the conference was always liable to postponement amid COVID-19 panic and UN warnings about sanctions against attendees, there has been no public status update from North Korea. After the charges against Griffith were made public, media reports emphasised the conference as an event aimed at improving North Koreas understanding of cryptocurrency and blockchain technology in order to evade sanctions. Yet Pyongyang is perfectly capable of this already, so what are they really gaining from this event?
The conferences website (which was removed after the UN reports but can be accessed through web archives) specifically notes that US citizens are encouraged to attend via flights to Beijing and then onwards to Pyongyang, and that participants will receive a separate paper visa to avoid having their passports stamped. Yet there is little information available on the content of the 2019 conference, an opaqueness which is reinforced in the 2020 website with indications that journalists are not allowed to attend. The largest source about the alleged content of this event comes from the US Department of Justices complaint about Griffith, which claims that the American programmer provided North Korea with valuable information on blockchain and cryptocurrency technologies, and participated in discussions regarding using cryptocurrency technologies to evade sanctions and launder money. According to the US charge, this valuable information included content on smart contracts, proof-of-work vs. proof-of-stake, and mining concepts that, while relatively technical, are understood by most in the crypto industry and are easily explained by open-source materials online.
Therefore, it seems obvious that North Korea does not need Griffiths presentation in order to comprehend this technology. North Korean hackers are understood to possess incredibly sophisticated technological prowess, including but not limited to hacks of traditional financial institutions, cryptocurrency exchanges, and huge Western corporations, not to mention their ransomware campaigns. There have been reports of North Korea mining cryptocurrency (mining refers to the process of using huge amounts of computer power to create/validate transactions on the blockchain and release new coins into the system, comparable to traditional gold mining) as early as 2018, with the US-based cybersecurity firm Recorded Future recently reporting that this activity has only increased with time.
But North Korea may actually be deriving a greater benefit from this conference, other than supposed access to valuable knowledge: the country is getting international attention and a selection of around 100 relatively well-known tech entrepreneurs and developers who, whether directly or indirectly, lend legitimacy to the regime through their attendance in Pyongyang.
The content of the conference seems to support this theory. Two days of the programme are reserved for the conference itself, with other days including a Pyongyang tour, a visit to the border with South Korea, and a two-day trip to Masikryong Ski Resort. It seems, perhaps, as if the conference is not only a showcase for crypto and blockchain, but also for the state itself.
The conference is reportedly hosted by the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, which is cited as a government department on the conference website, represented by special delegate Alejandro Cao de Bens. Cao de Bens, a Spanish national, is the president of the Korean Friendship Association, an organisation whose stated objectives are to show the reality of the DPR Korea to the world and  work for the peaceful unification of the Korean peninsula. The 2019 conference was organised with the help of Chris Emms, of Coinstreet Partners, who has recently denied any involvement with the 2020 Conference. Emms reportedly created a Telegram group last year to encourage blockchain community members to attend the conference.
It is worth considering why these blockchain and cryptocurrency industry members would even be interested in a conference held in a heavily sanctioned country. The explanation lies in the convictions of many (but not all) in the crypto industry: that governments should not be able to control every aspect of daily life and certainly not personal finances. This belief is what created a decentralised, peer-to-peer, currency system in the first place, and while the system has become increasingly centralised for ease of use, many in the industry still hold to these principles.
Sanctions evasion could be seen as a way of subverting national governments which are stifling financial transactions. Griffith, for example, referred to his trip to Pyongyang as a vacation and, according to the US Justice Department complaint, attempted to send crypto between North and South Korea, with full knowledge that this would be in violation of international sanctions.
Despite the crypto industrys often critical attitude towards sanctions in general, it is important to remember that these UN sanctions are there for a reason. This conference supports the North Korean political and military elites, aiming to consolidate wealth that may in turn finance their nuclear programme.
In fact, it seems comical to even think about such a technological and global event in the context of the restrictive North Korean state, where all television and radio receivers only tune in to official state channels and internet usage is heavily restricted for all but the elite. Laura Shin, host of Unchained Podcast, perhaps put it the best on Twitter: Lets say Virgil could have educated everyday North Koreans on cryptocurrency. He would likely have to start such a presentation by explaining what the internet is.
This is not to say that crypto cannot actually help North Korean citizens the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference just isnt the way to do it. Yaya Fanusie, adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, recently wrote about the possibility of humanitarian aid organisations partnering with cryptocurrency exchanges to support North Korean citizens and keep their transactions transparent and public. He notes that this might not be the most exciting application of the technology, but rather exists as a practical-use case where crypto could genuinely assist everyday North Koreans, rather than the regime.
It is obvious why North Korea would want to put on an event to show off their country. And its obvious why they would want Americans there to tweet about it. What is not obvious is why the crypto industry cannot see through this attempt to co-opt the bastion of decentralisation for this damaging purpose.
Crypto and blockchain technology, despite their vast and beneficial possible applications, already have an incredibly negative reputation for involvement in illicit activity. It is ultimately incredibly damaging to this reputation to see anyone in the community perpetuate these ideas by promoting the conference.
Kayla Izenman is a Research Analyst at RUSIs Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies.
Katherine Norton-Williamsisa Research Assistant at RUSI's Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies.
BANNER IMAGE:Courtesy of Alex Berlin/Needpix.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors', and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
- Extrapolating The Future of Cryptocurrency - hackernoon.com - September 19th, 2020
- Ditching Dinars: Will the Balkans Take to Cryptocurrency? - Balkan Insight - September 19th, 2020
- The risks of investing in cryptocurrency and how to overcome them - Telemedia Online - September 19th, 2020
- How is cryptocurrency going to be regulated in the EU? - Kalkine Media - September 19th, 2020
- Russia and Ukraine have Disproportionately High Cryptocurrency Usage with Many Locals Shifting Financial Activity to Digital Assets: Report -... - September 19th, 2020
- Will crypto trading get as regulated as the stocks or FX trading? - Crypto News Flash - September 19th, 2020
- Opinion: Can Uniswaps UNI Break Into the Top 10 Cryptocurrency Token Rankings? - CryptoPotato - September 19th, 2020
- Ditching Dinars: Will The Balkans Take To Cryptocurrency? - Analysis - Eurasia Review - September 19th, 2020
- The Rise and Fall of a Tribal Cryptocurrency - hackernoon.com - September 6th, 2020
- How Will Greece Be Impacted By Cryptocurrency? - GreekCityTimes.com - September 6th, 2020
- Justice Department Seeks To Recover Hacked Cryptocurrency Funds Tied To North Korea - Forbes - September 6th, 2020
- Cryptocurrency Prodigy, Joseph PlugWalkJoe O'Connor, Is Helping People Everywhere Master Crypto - AiThority - September 6th, 2020
- Kazakhstan in talks on $700m in cryptocurrency mining projects - Cyprus Mail - September 6th, 2020
- Akon Unveils Major Details of $6 Billion Cryptocurrency City: Real-Life Wakanda - Bitcoin News - September 6th, 2020
- Cryptocurrency Market News: Bitcoin drops to $10,460 after a significant rejection and overall weakness - FXStreet - September 6th, 2020
- Brexit in the US: Californian exit plan will use cryptocurrency to give everyone an income - Daily Express - September 6th, 2020
- YFI: Yearn Finance becomes the most expensive cryptocurrency, surges past $27000 - Nairametrics - September 6th, 2020
- Facebook and Twitter need to do more to prevent cryptocurrency scams, says CoinCorner CEO - ResponseSource - September 6th, 2020
- PM Modis Websites Twitter Account Briefly Hacked to Ask for Cryptocurrency - NDTV - September 6th, 2020
- The Cryptocurrency XRP Is Having A Good 6 Weeks - Forbes - August 24th, 2020
- IMF Publishes Cryptocurrency Explainer, Saying It 'Could Be the Next Step in the Evolution of Money' | News - Bitcoin News - August 24th, 2020
- Report finds $50 billion of cryptocurrency moved out of China hinting at capital flight against Beijing rules - CNBC - August 24th, 2020
- Leading Cryptocurrency Exchange PayBito to Add More Altcoins to the Platform - AiThority - August 24th, 2020
- Crypto: Why investors are rushing to DeFi assets - Nairametrics - August 24th, 2020
- Hackers Intercept Cryptocurrency Payments on the Tor Network Through SSL Stripping - CPO Magazine - August 24th, 2020
- Bitcoin price is surging as investors turn back to cryptocurrency - Metro.co.uk - August 20th, 2020
- Cryptocurrency from Coincheck cyberattack to be confiscated - The Japan Times - August 20th, 2020
- Tether retakes top 3 cryptocurrency spot over XRP - Decrypt - August 20th, 2020
- Bitcoin price hits 2020 record as investors turn to cryptocurrency during pandemic - The Independent - August 20th, 2020
- Buy Bitcoin or Gold? Novogratz and Portnoy Prefer the Cryptocurrency - Bloomberg - August 20th, 2020
- Boston Fed Bank explores cryptocurrency with MIT - Boston Herald - August 20th, 2020
- Cryptocurrency And Wills - Today's Wills & Probate - August 20th, 2020
- Cryptocurrency gaining traction in mainstream - Jim Duffy comment - The Scotsman - August 20th, 2020
- Cryptocurrency Mining Profitability in 2020: Is It Possible? - Cointelegraph - August 10th, 2020
- Flaws Could Have Exposed Cryptocurrency Exchanges to Hackers - WIRED - August 10th, 2020
- Cryptocurrency Cards: An Unnecessary Solution That Should Be Stopped - Cointelegraph - August 10th, 2020
- Wall Street Revealed To Be Edging Out Bitcoin Traders With $1 Million+ Transactions - Forbes - August 10th, 2020
- Cryptocurrency This Week: India Could Ban Virtual Currencies & More - Inc42 Media - August 10th, 2020
- US Congressmen Want IRS to Balance Taxation and Innovation in the Cryptocurrency Space | Taxes - Bitcoin News - August 10th, 2020
- Will This Quantum Computing Breakthrough Save Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency? - The Daily Hodl - August 10th, 2020
- Cryptocurrency Market Update: Bitcoin, Ripple and Ethereum begin consolidating - FXStreet - August 10th, 2020
- Cryptocurrency: The Currency of the Future - Techtree.com - August 10th, 2020
- Weiss Ratings Places Ethereum Ahead of Bitcoin As Top Cryptocurrency, Says Cardano Has the Best Technology - The Daily Hodl - August 10th, 2020
- Bitcoin surges past 8,400 as investors look for 'safe haven' - The Telegraph - July 29th, 2020
- Blockchain and how it can change construction - Geospatial World - July 29th, 2020
- CEO of Toronto-based cryptocurrency exchange Coinsquare resigns after regulatory probe - CBC.ca - July 29th, 2020
- 2020 will have publicly-traded cryptocurrency firms Barry Silbert - FXStreet - July 29th, 2020
- Chainalysis Introduces New Website, Market Intel, which gives Digital Asset Managers and Regulators Access to Meaningful Insight about Crypto Activity... - July 29th, 2020
- Why it is time to invest in Ethereum - Nairametrics - July 29th, 2020
- Cryptocurrency firm KuCoin 'shocked' by Twitter hacking - The National - July 19th, 2020
- Samsung Added Support for Stellar (XLM) Cryptocurrency to its Blockchain Keystore, Allows Millions of Users to Access the Digital Asset - Crowdfund... - July 19th, 2020
- $30 billion worth of BTCs disappears forever - Nairametrics - July 19th, 2020
- Popular singer, Akon and other leading experts speak on Africa's Crypto - Nairametrics - July 19th, 2020
- Revolut partners with Paxos to bring cryptocurrency trading to the US - TechCrunch - July 17th, 2020
- Paypal Developing Cryptocurrency Capabilities, Letter to European Commission Confirms | News - Bitcoin News - July 17th, 2020
- Apple, Biden, Musk and other high-profile Twitter accounts hacked in crypto scam - TechCrunch - July 17th, 2020
- TCS is ready to mine the new crypto economy, snatches early-mover advantage with Quartz - Economic Times - July 17th, 2020
- These Two Cryptocurrency Marks For In Which Way The Bitcoin Is Headed - Inventiva - July 17th, 2020
- US Embassy in BD launches webinar series on dark web and cryptocurrency - The Financial Express - July 17th, 2020
- Impact of Covid-19 on Cryptocurrency 2020-2027 with Focusing Key players like Nvidia, Xilinx, Intel, Advanced Micro Devices, Bitfury Group, etc - Cole... - July 17th, 2020
- Revolut launches cryptocurrency trading in US - ThePaypers - The Paypers - July 17th, 2020
- Brave New Coin to Develop Cryptocurrency Indices that Toronto Futures Options Swaps Exchange will Use for Cash-Settled Options Trading - Crowdfund... - July 17th, 2020
- Binance Pool Partners with BitRiver - Finance Magnates - July 17th, 2020
- ESET Discovers Trojanized Mac Cryptocurrency App Collecting Wallets and Screenshots - IT News Online - July 17th, 2020
- Cryptocurrency Mining Hardware Market (COVID 19 Updated) Climbs on Positive Outlook of Excellent Growth by 2027- Advanced Micro Devices, Baikal... - July 17th, 2020
- New York Appellate Court Confirms Attorney Generals Broad Investigative Powers into the Cryptocurrency Industry - JD Supra - July 17th, 2020
- Cryptocurrency Market with COVID 19 Impact-Global Industry Report, Size, Demand, Revenue, Top Manufacturers, and Forecast to 2026 - Cole of Duty - July 17th, 2020
- Global Cryptocurrency Mining Software Market Projected to Reach USD XX.XX billion by 2024 : Genesis Mining, NiceHash, Awesome Miner, MinerGate,... - July 17th, 2020
- Chainlink (LINK) Becomes the Tesla of Cryptocurrency Whats Next? - Cointelegraph - July 14th, 2020
- As Bitcoin Struggles, This Minor Cryptocurrency Has Soared 1,000% In Just Over 12 Months - Forbes - July 14th, 2020
- Brave New Coin Signs Multi-Year Deal To Power Cryptocurrency Options Trading On Toronto Futures - Scoop.co.nz - July 14th, 2020
- Latest News On The Cryptocurrency Market | Intel, CoinBase, BitGo, and Binance - Jewish Life News - July 14th, 2020
- Akon sets out vision for his cryptocurrency and Akon City - Decrypt - July 14th, 2020
- Bank of England eyes groundbreaking new currency as key part of Britains future - Express - July 14th, 2020
- Bitcoin Exchanges And The Cryptocurrency World Was Just Rocked - JD Supra - July 11th, 2020
- New York Court Approves Investigation Into $10 Billion Cryptocurrency Created By A Presidential Candidate - Forbes - July 11th, 2020
- Huobi Global Provides Insight on What Is Driving the Institutional Interest in Cryptocurrency Investment - PRNewswire - July 11th, 2020
- What Challenges Affect the Cost of Running a Cryptocurrency Exchange - Cointelegraph - July 11th, 2020
- Cryptocurrency And Blockchain Technology Market size Reap Excessive Revenues size COVID-19 2022 - Kentucky Journal 24 - July 11th, 2020
- Fast Pace of Cryptocurrency Adoption in Latin America May be due to Dramatic Rise in Smartphone Users, Bitso Executive Reveals - Crowdfund Insider - July 11th, 2020