The recent news that the incoming South Korean president is planning to boost the country’s crypto industry is welcome news, particularly in light of the economic power of South Korea not just regionally but also globally.
President Yoon Suk-Yeol plans to raise the current crypto tax threshold from around $2,000 to approximately $40,000. The current president Moon Jae-in lost the opportunity to take the country forward with a more positive crypto policy, in a country where last year Koreans invested over $43 billion in crypto assets in 2021.
In April 2021 younger investors filed a number of petitions for example complaining how crypto assets were being taxed at a less favorable rate than stocks. Now this victory means that their voice is being heard, which I believe is great news, not just for the crypto industry, but for this new generation of investors. But at the same time, as someone involved in the Korean market since 2017 while I welcome the reports coming out of Yoon’s Presidential Transition Committee, I also know what matters is what happens after the new president takes office on May 10.
There is a risk the new government decides to allow investing in ICOs, IEOs, and STOs only to those above a certain income, to accredited investors. Certainly, the news of a new Basic Digital Asset Law, to enable the recovery of funds lost from illegal trades and scams is very welcome. But at the same time, a balance has to be struck, so the younger generation of investors in their 20s and 30s, who consist of around 36% of the market, feel they have a stake in the new system.
I also note that play-to-earn games are still illegal with no plans to change that. So, it’s somewhat ironic that the recent $620 million hack of Axie Infinity was reportedly carried out under the auspices of the North Korean government. While South Korea and the US are therefore looking to work more closely on cybercrime, there is a risk that the US will also seek to put pressure on the South Koreans to take a more highly regulated approach to crypto more in line with emerging US policy.
Will the prospect of a growing NFT market bear fruit?
What I do expect is for the market in NFTs in South Korea to grow in the future. And I think this presents a window of opportunity for the new government to take a positive approach. While the Financial Services Commission (FSC) is reportedly working to introduce NFT rules, this is yet to happen. Another potential source of frustration within the investor community is the complexity of using exchanges with different travel rule systems.
Among the big four exchanges Upbit, Bithumb, Coinone, and Korbit (with over 95% of the crypto market share), there are two travel rule systems. Upbit with the lion’s share of the exchange market has adopted its home-grown Verify VASP program, while the remainder follows another system. So, it’s perhaps good to know that Yoon’s Presidential Transition Committee is also “looking to grant more cash-to-crypto licenses to crypto trading platforms in efforts to dilute the local crypto exchanges oligopoly”.
Another overlapping issue is the dominance of the Upbit exchange in the South Korean crypto market. What’s interesting to me is seeing the concerted move by local banks to enter the crypto market. Part of the banks’ motivation to approach the incoming government is down to the fact that Upbit has over 80% of the market share.
This is underlined by the fact that Dunamu, operator of Upbit, posted a net income of 2.2 trillion won (around $1.8 billion) last year, with the figure growing 46-fold on-year. The news reportedly “shocked onlookers, as it drew near Woori Financial Group, a major banking group here. Woori posted a net income of nearly 2.6 trillion won in the same period”, according to the Korea Herald.
Banks fight for a slice of the crypto pie
Allowing banks to take apart on a more equal footing with exchanges certainly marks a step forward with potential implications for competition in regional crypto markets as well as internationally. Certainly, in Singapore, we have seen a tightening of regulations since the ICO boom years of 2017/18 which attracted so many crypto startups.
This stricter regulation has prompted startups to leave for the likes of more crypto-friendly Dubai, including global exchange Binance which recently withdrew an application to register in Singapore, instead setting up an office in the UAE.
The economic risks of not moving fast enough are also shown in the UK, where despite government plans for crypto growth there’s been significant criticism of its regulator, the FCA, for being too slow in processing crypto license applications to allow crypto startups to operate.
So, while I believe South Korea is likely to try to be more open, it’s going to be a tricky path to walk to keep all the different segments onboard, from crypto industry stakeholders to expectant younger investors. The ‘proof is in the pudding’ as they say, because while the incoming government might talk about plans to legalize ICOs it may in the fine print only be available to people who have say $1 million in assets.
However, on a more optimistic note, I do agree with crypto commentators such as Anthony Pompliano that South Korea’s crypto plans are potentially a significant step on the world stage. Yoon Suk-yeol is the first head of state from a major economy that says it plans to take crypto really seriously, including protecting the public; however, it’s also worth noting that outlined plans to set up a dedicated government agency for crypto and NFTs did not make it into the final copy of his campaign pledges.
Speaking recently in Korea on the same platform with a member of the People’s Power Party, I said that crypto and blockchain was the future. We now have to wait and see how well that promise and potential is delivered.