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Spain Arrests Aristocrat Wanted by US Over Pyongyang Crypto Links

Last week, Spanish authorities apprehended an aristocrat closely linked to Pyongyang on charges from the United States, accusing him of advising North Korea on cryptocurrency technology. The individual in question, Alejandro Cao de Benos, is the founder of the Korea Friendship Association (KFA), a pro-North Korea sympathizer group. Cao de Benos stated, however, that the U.S. cannot compel his extradition, maintaining his innocence after being released a day later.

Spain’s National Police announced the arrest of a fugitive wanted by the U.S. for fraud, based on information from Interpol, referring to Cao de Benos. The arrest took place in a Madrid police station following a U.S. court indictment in April last year implicating him and British national Christopher Emms. The charges alleged that they provided advice to North Korea’s leadership on cutting-edge crypto and blockchain technology as well as organizing crypto conferences.

The U.S. accused both individuals of collaborating with Virgil Griffith, a convicted U.S. crypto researcher, to illicitly offer crypto and blockchain technology services aiding Pyongyang in evading sanctions. The charges carry a potential 20-year prison sentence for violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA).

Upon his release after 24 hours, Cao de Benos refuted the accusations, asserting that extradition under the IEEPA did not apply to the European Union or Spain. He claimed that the United States, unable to secure his extradition for conspiracy to violate the IEEPA, may have resorted to alleging fraud to prompt his detention.

Despite being characterized as a fugitive by Spanish media, Cao de Benos denied such status, citing a lack of a passport for seven and a half years, restricting him to Spain. He denied using false documents to leave the country and condemned the U.S. for pursuing what he deemed “purely political” charges through Interpol.

Echoing Emms’ sentiments from a July 2022 interview where Emms contested U.S. extradition charges in Saudi Arabia, Cao de Benos vowed to continue fighting for his principles against imperialism.

Emms, now in Moscow under political asylum, reiterated in an interview with a Russian state broadcaster that the charges against him and Cao were under a law “only applicable to American citizens,” branding the actions of Washington as “politically motivated.”

Jumin Lee, a U.S.-based attorney with experience in North Korea-related cases, contested Emms’ interpretation, emphasizing the extraterritorial application of unilateral sanctions. Lee argued that the effectiveness of sanctions would diminish if not applicable to foreign nationals.

Beyond the cryptocurrency advisory charges, Cao de Benos has faced controversy for alleged involvement in other illicit North Korean activities, including violating sanctions in 2020 by facilitating a joint venture and acting as an intermediary.

The Mole,” a documentary series, depicted Cao de Benos engaging in arms sales, drug production deals and gold mining projects for Pyongyang. Previously arrested in 2016 on arms trafficking charges, Cao de Benos maintained his innocence despite recorded dealings in the documentary. KFA insiders expressed concerns about the organization’s future due to “The Mole,” but legal actions related to the depicted activities have not materialized.

Major cryptocurrency companies such as HIVE Blockchain Technologies Ltd. (NASDAQ: HIVE) (TSX.V: HIVE) will likely keep an eye on this developing story to see how such cases could shape the regulatory landscape of the industry in different jurisdictions.

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