On February 20, 2018, investors saw signs of yet another directional shift in South Korea’s regulatory stance on cryptocurrencies. According to Reuters, Choe Heung-sik, the governor of South Korea’s Financial Supervisory Service (FSS), told reporters, “The whole world is now framing the outline (for cryptocurrency) and therefore (the government) should rather work more on normalization than increasing regulation.”
The head of the FSS has wrestled with cryptocurrency regulation and the lack of legislation on the industry for some time. He stated in November 2017 that “supervision [of cryptocurrency exchanges] will come only after the legal recognition of digital tokens as legitimate currency.”
Choe also warned of a bitcoin bubble in December 2017 that paired with another warning that month, when he stated, “All we can do is to warn people as we don’t see virtual currencies as actual types of currency, meaning that we cannot step up regulation for now.”
The FSS, which has been spearheading the government’s regulation of cryptocurrency trading as part of a larger task force, has had an uphill battle in the face of Korean officials’ variable attitudes to the burgeoning industry. While the FSS-led taskforce set the nation’s first official rules around cryptocurrency trading on December 13, 2017, uncertainty around issues of taxation and regulation of the exchanges remained.
January brought even less certainty to the peninsula as South Korea’s largest cryptocurrency exchanges were raided by police and tax agencies on January 10, 2018, kicking off a week of contradiction by top Korean officials that precipitated a market-wide meltdown known as “Red Tuesday” on January 16, 2018.
Choe then had to state at a parliamentary hearing on January 19, 2018, that one FSS employee was being investigated “on suspicion that he or she traded a digital currency” ahead of the government’s announcement of toughening its stance on cryptocurrency trading. At the same hearing, the Office for Government Policy Coordination also disclosed a probe into two officials for alleged profiteering on government information after the events of Red Tuesday.
Korean officials rounded off the month of January by announcing on January 23, 2018, that anonymous accounts would be banned from trading cryptocurrencies as of January 30, 2018.
Merely three weeks after the ban on anonymous accounts took effect, Choe seemed to suggest rosier regulatory prospects for the cryptocurrency industry. These statements of normalization came only days after the sudden death of Jung Ki-joon on February 18, 2018. Jung, a 52-year-old man who led economic policy for the Office for Government Policy Coordination and was instrumental in spearheading the January crackdown, died of “unknown” causes in his home, though initial reports suggested that he’d had a heart attack.