Notes from South Korea: the path to better crypto regulation

In Insights

Japan and South Korea are both massive markets for cryptocurrencies, yet regulation in each country has decisively shaped the evolution of the industry. As more countries around the world recognize the need to create better standards in consumer protection and technological development, it’s worth considering what we can learn from these two Asian crypto giants.

Japan leads the way with crypto regulation

When the Japan Financial Services Agency (JFSA) moved to implement regulation on cryptocurrencies in early 2017, the biggest concern was what this would do to innovation. Memories were still fresh of the effect of New York’s BitLicense fee which launched in 2015 and saw the exit of prominent bitcoin companies.

Regulation in Japan has been an ongoing tightrope act to balance necessary consumer protection with actual growth and development. Incidents such as the Coincheck hack in January 2018, where more than USD500 million was lost, have meant the JFSA has been forced to take the hard road. This has significantly shaped the industry in the country.

It is extremely difficult to promote new projects in Japan. Over the last two years, Japan has gone from being one of the most active ICO markets, to an ICO no-go zone. In fact, the last fully licensed ICO in Japan was in late-2017 when we at Quoine raised USD105 million in the QASH ICO.

The irony is that Japanese citizens themselves cannot participate in ICOs, so while ICOs technically have not been banned, regulations are so tight and disincentives so strong that it is virtually unheard of for domestic or foreign projects to launch in Japan.

In addition, authorities have been very conservative in their selection of coins for their approved whitelist, making it difficult for businesses to experiment with altcoins and native tokens. The move away from altcoins has not deterred traders, however; in September 2017 Japan rose above the US as the biggest market for Bitcoin trading volume.

South Korea meanwhile has been pushing ahead with its own approach to cryptocurrency regulation. Recent developments reveal that this country might just be the next Asian crypto hub.

A History of crypto regulation in South Korea

From bans to booms

In September 2017, the South Korean government issued a ban on domestic ICOs. Then in January 2018, a South Korean minister announced plans to extend a ban to all cryptocurrency trading. Within days, the price of Bitcoin on local exchanges plummeted.

To put this in perspective, South Koreans represent nearly 30% of all crypto trading worldwide. Not only did the market show its full force in numbers, but more than 200,000 citizens signed a petition asking the government to rethink its stance.

Testing the waters

2018 has seen some promising developments in the Korean government’s stance towards cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology. Most notably, the Korean government has drafted policy that recognizes the entire ecosystem, not just trading and exchanges, as one that is legitimate. In July 2018, a new industrial classification system officially recognized cryptocurrency exchanges as legal entities and categorized the “blockchain industry” into three main subsections:

  1. “Software development and supply businesses”: this includes decentralized application platforms like Ethereum;
  2. “Computer programming, system integration and management”: this includes mining-related activities; and
  3. “Blockchain technology-related hosting service industries”: this includes cryptocurrency exchanges.

These classifications are pivotal for the development of the entire industry because they mean that any future policy must be drafted with an awareness of its effect on other areas. Already, the government has launched a “restructuring plan to lead financial innovation in the coming Fourth Industrial Revolution era”. This includes an agreement with China and a plan to revitalize the country's investment incentive system, adding blockchain to the list of emerging technology eligible for tax benefits.

Some 1 trillion won (USD885 million) has been pledged for development of select technologies, including blockchain, in 2019 alone. Furthermore, the Blockchain Technology Development Strategy aims to raise approximately USD207 million by 2022.

The common trend: more transparency, less supervision

Only time will tell whether Korea’s efforts can pave the way for a more innovative and developer-friendly crypto climate.

In Japan, there have been a number of high-profile crypto exchange hacks, even after stringent regulation was put in place, and South Korea faces similar issues on a more frequent scale.

But it seems that South Korea’s slow move to crypto regulation has had some benefits. Up until recently, the grey area around ICOs meant that projects were still willing to experiment in the country and as a result, there is now a strong developer community whose presence has been formally recognized by government through recent policy revisions.

Both Korea and Japan are learning that while consumer protection is necessary, this cannot happen at the expense of growth and development. On October 24, 2018, the JFSA announced that it would allow the Japan Virtual Currency Association (JVCEA), of which Quoine is a member, to oversee regulation of the cryptocurrency industry in the country, essentially allowing for a form of self-regulation.

The question now is which of these two countries will be able to most effectively balance growth and innovation with protection and compliance. The climate for crypto regulation varies worldwide, but for countries with populations that have such huge appetites for trading and speculation, better regulation is a must. We hope that “better” translates to more progressive, more effective and, ultimately, more innovative.

This content is not financial advice and should not form the basis of any financial investment decisions nor be seen as a recommendation to buy or sell any good or product. Trading cryptocurrency is complex and comes with a high risk of losing money, particularly if you trade on leverage. You should carefully consider whether trading cryptocurrencies is right for you and take the time to learn how trading works and decide how much money you are prepared to lose.

WRITTEN BY

Rebecca Mqamelo

Rebecca Mqamelo is part of the Liquid marketing team based in Seoul.