Alejandro Cao de Benos has been accused of helping North Korea evade sanctions by using cryptocurrency
A Spanish man accused of helping North Korea use cryptocurrency to circumvent US sanctions has been arrested in Madrid and faces up to 20 years in an American prison if convicted.
Alejandro Cao de Benos was apprehended by Spanish authorities on Friday upon arrival at a train station in Madrid. Formal extradition proceedings haven’t yet begun.
The investigation to locate the fugitive aristocrat began in mid-October, after Interpol agents indicated that he could be hiding in Spain, according to a statement by the Spanish National Police. He was tracked to Catalonia and the investigators determined that he would be on a train inbound from Barcelona.
The US FBI had Cao de Benos on its “most wanted” list for over a year. He allegedly formed a group called the Friendship Association With North Korea in 2000 and organized several cryptocurrency and blockchain-technology conferences in 2018 in Pyongyang.
According to US prosecutors, Cao de Benos and British national Christopher Emms conspired with American cryptocurrency expert Virgil Griffith to illegally provide cryptocurrency and blockchain services to North Korea, in violation of Washington’s sanctions. Emms remains a fugitive, while Griffith was sentenced last year to 63 months in prison and a $100,000 fine after pleading guilty.
The conferences allegedly provided instruction to the North Korean audiences, including government officials, as to how cryptocurrency and blockchain technology could be used to launder money and evade US sanctions. Prosecutors said Emms claimed to attendees that such technology made it possible to “transfer money across any country in the world, regardless of what sanctions or any penalties that are put on any country.”
Cao de Benos has been a leading Western advocate for warmer relations with North Korea. In a 2013 NPR interview, he said that he was a Spaniard by birth, but North Korea was his “country of adoption.” He uses a Korean name, Cho Son-il, meaning “Korea is one.” An IT consultant by profession, he lists his title as “special delegate” for North Korea’s Committee for Cultural Relations. The latter job is unpaid and involves looking after foreign tour groups.
“I once brought a group of Canadian businessmen to North Korea, and they were ready to make investments of 2 or 3 million euros,” he told NPR at the time. “But how can we transfer millions of euros from Canada to Pyongyang, if the US blocks even a $100 wire transfer? We can’t even use credit cards. The US controls everything. When I bring tourists, they all have to carry cash.”
In a post on X (formerly Twitter) on Friday, Cao de Benos dismissed the allegations against him as “false” and claimed that “there will be no extradition.”