The FBI has issued an arrest warrant for a Spanish man who claims to be a “special delegate” working for the government of North Korea, accusing him of recruiting a cryptocurrency expert in an attempt to help Pyongyang circumvent US sanctions.
Alejandro Cao de Benós, a 47-year-old Spanish national who describes himself as Pyongyang’s special delegate for the committee for cultural relations with foreign countries, is alleged to have conspired with Virgil Griffith, a US cryptocurrency expert, to “illegally provide cryptocurrency and blockchain services to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)".
According to the FBI, Cao de Benós began organising a “Pyongyang blockchain and cryptocurrency conference” for the benefit of North Korea in early 2018.
The Spaniard is alleged to have violated US sanctions by arranging for Griffith to travel to North Korea in April 2019 to provide services to Kim Jong-un’s regime.
“Cao de Benós allegedly coordinated approval from the DPRK government for the expert’s participation in the conference and continued to conspire afterwards to include holding a second cryptocurrency conference in the DPRK in 2020,” the FBI said in a statement.
“Cao de Benós allegedly took steps in an effort to conceal these activities, and the expert’s role in the conspiracy, from United States authorities.”
Griffith was arrested in November 2019 while another alleged co-conspirator, Christopher Emms, a UK citizen, was arrested in Saudi Arabia in February. Griffith was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in April after pleading guilty to conspiring to assist North Korea in evading sanctions in violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.
“At no time did Cao de Benós, or co-conspirator Christopher Douglas Emms, obtain permission from the Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control to provide goods, services, or technology to the DPRK, as is required by law,” the FBI statement said.
Cao de Benós initially responded to news of the arrest warrant by posting a photo of a falafel wrap on Twitter and writing: “I don’t know why everybody’s looking for me. I’m in Jerusalem," Egli ha detto, adding he was “having a falafel wrap”.
In un subsequent tweet, he said he had not left Spain as his passport had been confiscated for the past six years and his case was working its way through the judicial system. “I’m not in Jerusalem or its catacombs," scrisse. "[Ma] the wrap is real … The National Intelligence Centre and the Guardia Civil know I’m vegetarian.”
In Aprile, Emms told the Times he was confident that he was not guilty of any crime he has been accused of by the US, adding that he agreed to attend the 2019 conference after checking the UK Foreign Office travel advice for North Korea.
“After having in-depth conversations with officials and legal counsel in the US, Saudi and the UK, I am confident I’m not guilty of any crime of which the US has accused me,” the paper quoted Emms as saying.
A United Nations panel of experts that monitors sanctions on North Korea has accused Pyongyang of using funds stolen during attacks on cryptocurrency platforms to support its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
According to analysis published in January by the blockchain experts Chainalysis, North Korea has launched at least seven attacks on cryptocurrency platforms that extracted nearly $400m worth of digital assets last year, one of its most successful years on record.