UK Foreign Office criticized over North Korea crypto conference organizer's detention in Saudi Arabia

Quick Take

  • Christopher Emms’ local MP has spoken out against the UK Foreign Office for its lack of action as the  US attempts to extradite Emms for sanctions violations.
  • In 2019, Emms organized a crypto conference in Pyongyang alongside Virgil Griffith, who is currently serving a 63 month sentence for his involvement.

The UK Foreign Office has come under criticism for its lack of action in getting North Korea cryptocurrency conference organizer Christopher Emms out of Saudi Arabia, where he has been stuck since February at the behest of US authorities.

His local member of parliament, Crispin Blunt, told Sky News in an interview on Wednesday that previous foreign secretaries had been “more up to the mark in defending the interests of British citizens." The comment is a reference to UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who is currently in the running to replace disgraced Prime Minister Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party. Blunt is backing Truss's rival but said "at the front of my consideration... is my constituent Christopher Emms."

Emms was detained at the airport of Saudi capital Riyadh in February and has spent the last five months out on bail in Jeddah. The Saudi government is awaiting documents from US authorities on the basis of which they will decide whether to extradite him.

The crypto businessman is accused of conspiring to violate US sanctions on North Korea by working with US citizen Virgil Griffith to illegally provide cryptocurrency and blockchain technology services to North Korea, including helping them learn to evade banking embargoes imposed due to its nuclear weapons program.

The accusations stem from 2019, when Emms and Griffith organised the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference. Held in the North Korean capital and open to all international visitors but South Koreans, Japanese and Israelis, tickets cost more than $3,000 for an all-inclusive stay in the closed-off country and included activities such as shooting and a trip to a local brewery.

Griffith was arrested in late 2019 and is currently serving a 63-month sentence imposed alongside a $100,000 fine.

Also named in the charges is bombastic North Korean fanboy Alejandro Car de Benos, the head of the Korean Friendship Association and a promoter of the regime on the international stage. The Spanish aristocrat, who has also been linked to facilitating international arms deals for the country, operates as a middleman for foreigners wishing to do business with the state.

The case against Emms and Car de Benos is controversial, however, and human rights groups have accused the US of overstepping itself. The particular sanctions they allegedly violated are not international ones, but US ones. As the conference did not take place on US soil and, unlike Griffith, neither are US citizens, it is not clear what jurisdiction the US actually has in this case.

"If they want him to come to the United States to face American justice for breaking American law, then they need to explain to British courts why that is the case,” Blunt said in the interview.

North Korea remains a major culprit of crypto hacks, and the funds they rake in are substantial. According to blockchain analytics company Chainalysis, from 2018 onward North Korea has stolen and laundered more than $200 million in cryptocurrencies each year. In 2021, this number hit almost $400 million. More recently, the country has been linked to the $540 million attack on Ethereum sidechain Ronin in March.

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