North Korea is holding a blockchain and cryptocurrency conference in Pyongyang next month—and United Nation experts strongly advise against making the trip.
A confidential report soon to be submitted to the U.N. Security Council says anyone who travels to the event would likely be in violation of sanctions because it previously featured “discussions of cryptocurrency for sanctions evasion and money laundering,” Reuters reported.
The 2020 Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference is set to take place in the capital between February 22-29, according to its website.
Cybersecurity experts say North Korea has links to a hacking unit known as Lazarus, which is allegedly responsible for targeting banks, bitcoin exchanges, cash machines and ransomware outbreaks in an attempt to generate funds for the regime.
Despite U.N. sanctions against North Korea being in place since 2006, designed to curb its nuclear missile programs, the hermit kingdom reportedly brought in up to $2 billion for those programs with the use of cyberattacks in recent years, Reuters reported last August. The U.S. government refers to the North Korean government cyber activity under the name Hidden Cobra.
Ignoring the warnings could have serious consequences.
Two months ago, U.S. citizen Virgil Griffith, 36, was charged after going to the North Korea tech event last April to “deliver a presentation and technical advice on using cryptocurrency and blockchain technology to evade sanctions,” the Department of Justice (DoJ) said.
He was charged with conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which carries a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
The U.S. state department said it previously denied Griffith permission to travel to the nation, which is officially titled the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK.
“Griffith provided highly technical information to North Korea, knowing [it] could be used to help North Korea launder money and evade sanctions,” said U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman. “In allegedly doing so, Griffith jeopardized the sanctions that both Congress and the president have enacted to place maximum pressure on North Korea’s dangerous regime.”
According to the conference website, organizers welcome U.S. passports, which it says will not be stamped “so there will be no evidence of your entry to the country.” It also adds: “Your participation will never be disclosed from our side unless you publicize it on your own.”
There is no full program schedule listed online. The itinerary shows multiple tourist trips before daily events, held inside the Pyongyang’s Science and Technology Complex.
The main days are simply listed as: “Blockchain and Cryptocurrency conference.”
Day five is described as containing a “general business presentation and private business meetings with interested counterparts.” After a visit to the Masikryong Ski Resort on days six and seven, attendees will transfer to the airport and return to Beijing on day eight.
“The interest of participants to continue building bridges of friendship and collaboration with the DPR of Korea, as well as the exclusive environment of confidentiality and contacts with the highest government officials and engineers, demanded to organize a second conference with even more audience and wider scope,” reads a blurb on the conference’s website.
It remains unknown how many people are expected to attend. The conference website says the notoriously brutal country is safe for visitors, with some caveats.
“The DPRK can be considered the safest country in the world. As long as you have a basic common-sense and respect for the culture… you’ll be always welcome,” it notes.
Applicants have to send a scan of their passport and full address, phone numbers and a CV. It does not accept passports of citizens from South Korea, Japan and Israel. Journalists are not allowed to attend in order to “preserve the confidentiality of the participants.”
While it can prove difficult to attribute digital attacks to an exact culprit, evidence of North Korea’s cybercrime has mounted in recent years. Its fingerprints were found on a brazen attack on the Bangladesh Central Bank in 2016 which tried to siphon over £800 million.
“Lazarus is not just another APT actor. The scale of the Lazarus operations is shocking,” analysts from Kaspersky noted in a report exploring the inner-workings of the group in 2017. APT, often used to describe state hacking units, stands for Advanced Persistent Threat.