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Spain detains aristocrat who allegedly recruited Ethereum developer Virgil Griffith to help North Korea

Spain detains aristocrat who allegedly recruited Ethereum developer Virgil Griffith to help North Korea
Alejandro Cao de Benos is the founder of advocacy group Korea Friendship Association. Credit: Andrés Tapia
  • Spanish officials detained Alejandro Cao de Benos, a Spanish aristocrat.
  • He allegedly enlisted Ethereum researcher Virgil Griffith to help North Korea evade sanctions.

Spanish officials detained on Thursday a pro-North Korea political activist aristocrat accused of aiding North Korea in circumventing international sanctions through crypto, according to a statement by the Spanish police.

Alejandro Cao de Benos, the founder of advocacy group Korea Friendship Association, was indicted last year by US authorities for allegedly recruiting Ethereum researcher Virgil Griffith to unlawfully provide crypto services to North Korea.

“Such accusations are totally false. There is not a single piece of evidence that proves that I hired or solicited the services of Virgil Griffith,” Cao de Benos said in a public statement posted Sunday on X.

The police said investigation for his location began in mid-October, when the agents received a tipoff from Interpol indicating that Cao de Benos could be in Spain.

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Cao de Benos was released after a one-day detention.

“It is a disgrace that the US empire abuses Interpol and Spain to carry out what is purely political persecution,” he said.

Ethereum researcher Virgil Griffith

Griffith, a former Ethereum Foundation researcher, was arrested in 2019 after a trip to North Korea to allegedly consult the regime on how to use crypto to evade international sanctions.

His keynote speech at the Pyongyang conference allegedly contained information on how to bypass sanctions, according to the US Department of Justice.

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But Griffith’s advocates and his legal team have argued that the presentation did no more than recapitulate widely available information, which could be readily accessed online.

Griffith’s lawyer said that the trip was “the culmination of Virgil’s unique and unfortunate curiosity and obsession with North Korea.”

He received a 63-month prison sentence last year after pleading guilty to a charge of conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The act forbids US citizens from exporting goods, services, or technology to North Korea without a licence from the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

His lawyer told the Wall Street Journal that Griffith was “sincerely remorseful.”

Christopher Emms dodges the bullet

British national Christopher Emms was also charged last year, alongside Cao de Benos, with the conspiracy to help North Korea access crypto. He had attended the same conference as Griffith.

In June, Emms said he received political asylum in Russia.

Appearing on Russian state media RT yesterday, Emms called Cao de Benos’ detention “politically motivated” and said the “US government doesn’t like when someone stands up to them.”

Emms told Blockworks last year that Cao de Benos contacted him through LinkedIn and invited him to the conference in Pyongyang.

“I did the typical crypto bro thing: I googled it. I checked the Foreign Office website as a UK citizen. I checked the UN website and I didn’t see that speaking at a conference in North Korea was breaking any laws,” Emms said.

The North Korea trip was “incredibly naive,” Emms said, but “the way we [the crypto industry] approached things was so different than we would right now. There was a lack of clarity on so many things.”

Crypto: North Korea’s ‘treasure sword’

North Korea calls crypto its “treasure sword,” according to David Maxwell, senior fellow at the think tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who spoke with DL News in April.

North Korea’s crypto arm known as Lazarus Group has stolen at least $3.4 billion in crypto since emerging in 2007, according to calculations by DL News.

“All the money [the North Korean hackers] cash out goes to fund their missile programme,” Erin Plante, vice-president of investigations at Chainalysis, told DL News in April. A report by Recorded Future last week said that North Korea loots enough crypto to fund almost half of its military budget.

Last year, Lazarus hacked a record a $625 million in crypto, raiding the web3 game Axie Infinity.

That attack, said Plante, was “a turning-point event where suddenly the US National Security Council cared and wanted to hear about it.”