Q&A: Crypto Insider Chris Emms Sheds Light on North Korean Blockchain Conference

Blockworks sat down with arrested crypto insider Christopher Emms to discuss his ill-fated trip to North Korea


Source: DALL·E 2


key takeaways

  • Emms traveled to North Korea’s blockchain conference alongside Virgil Griffith in 2019
  • The US wants to extradite him but has yet to provide supporting evidence

Christopher Emms, a veteran crypto insider, is stuck in limbo in Saudi Arabia following his arrest at the direction of the US government in February.

US officials claim Emms was one of the masterminds behind North Korea’s 2019 blockchain conference — also attended by Ethereum programmer Virgil Griffith, later sentenced to five years in prison. 

US authorities are pushing for extradition, however, they’ve provided no fresh evidence in six months. 

Not only did the conference, which Emms paid thousands of dollars to attend, occur at the depths of the last bear market, but relations between the US and Pyongyang were somewhat of a fever dream at the time.

Then-President Donald Trump had just crossed the peninsula’s Demilitarized Zone to plant a tree and hug it out with leader Kim Jong Un. Former NBA star Dennis Rodman had also visited, and even promoted the short-lived crypto project “PotCoin” during the summit.

Emms’ situation, mired by legal fees, has left him broke, he says, as job prospects within the cryptocurrency industry have now dried up. Blockworks recently sat down with Emms for a video interview.

Blockworks: What’s your current situation?

Emms: I’ve been in Saudi Arabia for six whole months. I was actually only in jail for less than 24 hours. I can’t rent an apartment here because I don’t have residency, so I move hotels every few weeks, whatever I can get on Booking.com, essentially, which isn’t extortionate.

It’s difficult because the US decided to freeze all my bank accounts, my Binance — any kind of exchange that would facilitate any kind of fiat. I’m literally just borrowing funds from friends and family just to pay the bills. 

Blockworks: How did your trip to North Korea come about?

Emms: Alejandro Cao de Benós invited me over there. He was the one who instigated the whole thing. The FBI is accusing me of organizing it. Common sense will prevail, but there’s not exactly any way I could’ve organized it. 

I’m not North Korean. I don’t have any ties to the North Korean government. I’m just a random crypto dude. So, [Cao de Benós] was really the only one that could organize the whole thing. He reached out to me in 2018 via LinkedIn and said, “Hi, I’ve seen your profile. I’m organizing this conference in Pyongyang. Do you want to go?” 

I thought, “Am I legally covered to do this?” 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.

Blockworks: What was North Korea like?

Emms: We flew to Beijing, where we got our visas, then got on a plane and flew to Pyongyang on the state airline. We get to the airport, it’s a carbon copy of whatever you’ve seen in any YouTube documentary of a journalist going to North Korea: brand new airport, no one in it. 

We went through immigration, this grumpy North Korean guy stamps your passport and you get your baggage. And then you go through their version of customs, they don’t just check your luggage, they check every single electronic device you have, and go through your photos. One of the guys that attended the conference decided that he would bring a home video of a pornographic nature. 

At that point, all our passports are confiscated, everyone attending, it’s around eight people in total. We’re then checked into our hotel and told this is a very serious crime in North Korea, to bring in content like this. You can tell not only is it highly embarrassing, it’s also scary because the guides — the people chaperoning us around — they’re not only angry but also highly embarrassed.

Blockworks: How was the conference?

Emms: Before the conference, they took us to see the “sights.” You see museums, you get taken to a school, to a video games arcade where there’s no one — there’s no one in any of these places.  

At the back end of the seven- or eight-day trip was this “conference.” It wouldn’t fulfill the definition of any other kind of conference you have seen. It was in what’s called the High Tech Park building, a big impressive building — absolutely empty, with Windows XP computers.

Eventually, we were taken into a room with around 20 people inside. It was hardly the North Korean special branch, it was mostly housewives and middle aged functionaries who didn’t want to be there. Seems as though they’d been told to go.

We were given no preparation at all, we’d been given a load of shit, papers that were copied and pasted off Google given us by [Cao de Benós] with different talking points, high level stuff like “Blockchain and Tech” and “Blockchain and Peace.” 

We’re all in the room and thinking: “Who’s going to speak on what? How are we going to deal with this?” 

Blockworks: Did you interact much with authorities after the trip?

Emms: The British government interviewed me extensively, including intelligence services. I’ve been through the whole wringer. They told me, “We don’t think you’ve done anything wrong.” 

The initial conversation was when I arrived back in the UK from North Korea, I was pulled over at the airport by a policeman, and didn’t hear anything at the time, but as soon as I got home I picked up the phone and called and said, “Look, can I be of any more help? Let me know.”

But it wasn’t until after Virgil’s arrest that I finally got a full on sit down interview with two intelligence officers, where we went over everything. They found, as has been confirmed by my MP in the UK, British authorities aren’t pressing charges on anything in the UK or internationally.

Blockworks: How are you feeling about it all?

Emms: It’s very strange, what happens to you psychologically, in this situation. Initially, you’re in this very fight and flight mode, then you go into a very low place. A lot of people take their own lives because the mental processes are incredibly grueling.

It’s kind of like going through a breakup really, in a weird way, in your body. It’s literally: “Oh God, I need to survive this thing, why is this happening to me?”

Then you get to a point of acceptance and you deal with it. I feel incredibly let down by the British government. It’s pretty unreal, especially when they’ve conducted their own investigation into me, and then they basically just leave me out to dry. 

Blockworks: How likely is a positive outcome?

Emms: The best case scenario isn’t even that great. Even if I make it back to the UK, I will go through the US extradition process, which we’ve seen time and time again is not that great, specifically with Julian Assange. That process is very one sided.

I’ve got no problem with that, because all I want to do is go through a process where I make my argument, and my argument is really clear. I believe I’m innocent. 

Regardless, this is a US crime applicable to US people only. I should be tried based on my passport, which says very specifically that I am British. I’ve never been a “US person.” I’ve never had a green card. I’ve never lived in the US. I’m not American, no one in my family is. 

A lot of people have said going to North Korea was incredibly naive. Of course, it was. But at the time, 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. And I don’t think anyone, in my view, thought they were doing anything wrong. I still don’t think we were doing anything wrong. 

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

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