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Inside the great Pyongyang crypto caper

GQ, 2022
Inside the great Pyongyang crypto caper
Photo by Aleks Marinkovic / Unsplash
Inside the great Pyongyang crypto caper
When a group of guileless blockchain entrepreneurs found themselves invited to North Korea, it seemed like a weird adventure – until the travellers found themselves wanted by the FBI, accused of helping a rogue state evade international sanctions. Was it really a criminal conspiracy, or just a case…

The invite to North Korea arrived via LinkedIn. It was the summer of 2018 when Chris Emms, a British blockchain entrepreneur, received a message from the Korean Friendship Association. A volunteer network of supporters of North Korea, the KFA is charged with boosting North Korea's public image in the West and around the world. Its head and founder, a Spanish activist by the name of Alejandro Cao de Benós de Les y Pérez, was arranging a cryptocurrency conference in Pyongyang, he explained. Would Emms like to come?

The invite was not as incongruous as it might sound. Emms, then in his mid-20s, had spent most of his short career as a nomad on the international blockchain circuit. Back then, crypto was a travelling circus, with dozens of countries vying to capture a piece of an industry on the rise, and Emms had gone with it, moving from job to job and country to country, living itinerantly in the crypto world’s shifting encampments: Andorra, Dubai, Malta, Gibraltar, accepting the invitations to speak where they came. In crypto terms he was a booster, more than he was a builder (that is: he doesn’t actually code), drawn in by the unchained utopianism that characterised the movement’s early days.

“Crypto was such a different world back then, it really was. You know, it felt like you could do anything, the possibilities of changing the world were endless,” Emms said.