I grew up in Germany, but I was born in northeastern China, whose porous border let in thousands of North Korean defectors. Higher in the hierarchy, some of the country’s elite studied at my parents’ alma mater. I’ve heard stories of how those students had the sort of arrogance born from being untouchable – a reputation not that different from some of their Chinese counterparts, which is expected, for I’ve also heard that the China of the mid-20th century was not too different from the North Korea of the 21st. I’ve thus always wanted to go to North Korea.
Ethan Lou is an independent writer. This article is adapted from “Once a Bitcoin Miner: Scandal and Turmoil in the Cryptocurrency Wild West.” Copyright Ethan Lou, 2020. Published by ECW Press.
So, in April 2019, I and seven others flew from Beijing to Pyongyang on Air Koryo, the only airline on which I’d flown that did not board passengers by zones. While Koryo did in fact have a business class, there were no classes at the gate, where everyone boarded together. But the door was only so big – normal door-size. Not everyone could board at once, so there was still a queue. Whoever got to the gate quickly was still first, and the laggard was still last.
There’s a kind of communism joke that can be made from that, which would be funny because everything else about the airline also hearkened back to the time of the Cold War, including the flight attendants – it was clear they were chosen solely for their looks, unlike Western airlines. The purpose of my trip, though, was decidedly modern. It was partly to satiate my long-standing personal curiosity, but it was also for something else. I was there to attend a cryptocurrency conference.
North Korea had allegedly been embracing cryptocurrency, accused of stealing coins through hacking and all manner of related crime. Digital assets, circumventing the traditional financial system, theoretically help North Korea overcome the international sanctions that have crippled its economy. That underscores a formlessness to cryptocurrency. It grants freedom from the financial system. It represents a new structure immune to the whims of powerful nations. But whether that is good or bad is often a matter of perspective. The trip, to me, was an opportunity to see what North Korea had been up to.
On the surface, North Korea certainly did not look like the sort of state capable of harnessing cryptocurrency.
With North Korea, though, while you may never know what you will get, it will always be unexpected. The trip had been months in the making, the sum of much anxiety, excitement, effort and cost – and a cold Air Koryo chicken sandwich famous for its terribleness to cap it all. I ended up thoroughly disappointed when, contrary to my expectations, the foreign attendees were expected to give presentations to the locals. I declined, and not a single North Korean gave a talk at the conference, which provided no information on the state’s alleged activities. Still, looking back, considering the international scandal that would spring from that conference, it was a trip that I would never forget.
On the surface, North Korea certainly did not look like the sort of state capable of harnessing cryptocurrency. Outside of the conference, our North Korean minders brought us around, and at one class at the teacher’s college, the instructor used an unactivated version of Windows. The domestic businesses we visited flaunted at length completely unspectacular technology like television media boxes, 3-D movies so boring I fell asleep and arcade games that seemed to be decades old. One of them involved shooting cows, and that was about it. There were no objectives, no levels, no challenges in the game. I can’t remember if there was even an end – you just grabbed a gun and killed animals in unending carnage.
But, at the same time, a running theme of that trip was the subjectivity of truth that had been a hallmark of Cold War–era totalitarian states. In that dictatorship, people believe the United States started the Korean War, and that their side “won” it. Objective facts are a rare commodity. In retrospect, if North Korea had grand plans for cryptocurrency, why would it show it to random foreigners like us?
Nothing, however, could hide the obvious, the constant reminder of the geopolitical tensions all around.
The North Korean women were afraid, for we had pulled the snake from the bottle. I didn’t see who did it, but the dead serpent was out in the open. The bottle was empty. We had drunk all the snake wine. Sixty percent alcohol. It’s particularly healthy for men, our Korean minders said earlier, sniggering. Sitting in that karaoke lounge – dark and smoky, where three nights earlier, Virgil Griffith of the Ethereum Foundation impressed us with his rendition of R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” – my head was spinning. I could make out that a Mandarin-speaking foreigner, newly met at the hotel, was extolling the virtues of buying a North Korea bank, but that was about it. That was my last clear memory, talking to that Mandarin speaker with the big face and big hands. I didn’t quite feel like myself again until the next night, when I ran into that guy again, and he bought my party fine wine totaling €400 and talked about his bank plan yet again.
I never really learned anything in North Korea, except for the sharp taste of snake wine, which was itself an experience, and the hospitality of our hosts – we got along with them so well, we hugged when we left. Many nights were like the snake-wine night, some sort of unexpected drunken revelry. Each seemed to blur into another with its sameness.
The Mandarin speaker had wanted to use my name to get a loan to buy a bank. At least, that’s what I could remember and make out. I never speak good Mandarin when drunk. That proposal sounded shady in every way. It was a signal of the dangers of dealing with North Korea. The sanctions loomed large over our trip, just like everything else to do with the country, for it had been a sensitive time. A tragedy was still fresh in the memory. Otto Warmbier, an American who got detained in North Korea, had died upon his return due to what his parents said was torture. With worsening tensions, insults like “dotard” and “rocket man” had entered the diplomatic lexicon. U.S. President Donald Trump held two unprecedented summits with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, all sound and splendor, signifying nothing, but they were high-profile and thrust the issue firmly into the zeitgeist.
The day after the snake-wine night, as we woke still reeling, not far away, also in Pyongyang, the Kim boarded a train for Russia, toward Vladivostok and Vladimir Putin. The leaders had a gala and shared a toast. They exchanged gifts of ceremonial swords, and then President Putin publicly backed Kim’s position in talks with the United States. And one day, as I walked out of an elevator, I ran into a Chinese military officer, for whom a flock of Mercedes sedans – supposedly barred for export to North Korea – waited outside the building.
“That’s a three-star general,” I said, half a statement, half a question.
“Yes,” my North Korean minder smiled. That was the highest rank in the People’s Liberation Army.
Aside from the literal, there was also the figurative China I observed. A university professor might speak accented English, but even service staff spoke pitch-perfect Mandarin. Chinese electronics and Chinese cars – the shadow of North Korea’s uneasy “Elder Brother” ally was everywhere. Like in the Korean War that began in 1950, the peninsula was not just a battleground in itself, but also a proxy arena for struggles between bigger powers. It was a powder keg. Observers feared a nuclear crisis.
Against that backdrop, it would not be surprising if cryptocurrency and blockchain, issues already mysterious and with a sometimes unsavory reputation, would be deemed extra evil if linked with North Korea. Even as some locals were literally falling asleep during the conference, half a world away, there were those who sat up and paid attention. None of us knew then how vigorous that attention was.
By the time of that trip, bitcoin had fallen from $20,000 to $3,200. I had become older, more haggard, but only wiser in terms of what I knew and could envision. None of the conference goers expected that something stirred in the West – a sleepless eye and peerless resources. Trouble brewed in more ways we could imagine or foresee, and it would compound what we had all already gone through in the cryptocurrency world for the past year.