South Korea, a crucial source of global demand for cryptocurrency, is preparing a bill to ban on cryptocurrency trading. This unforeseen development has thrown the virtual coin market in a tizzy. This clampdown came as policymakers around the world struggled to regulate the value of cryptocurrency that skyrocketed over the last year.
Justice Minister Park Sang-ki, talking about the bill at a press conference said, "There are great concerns regarding virtual currencies and justice ministry is basically preparing a bill to ban cryptocurrency trading through exchanges."
A press official said the proposed ban on cryptocurrency trading was announced after 'enough discussion' with other government agencies including the nation's finance ministry and financial regulators. Once a bill is drafted, legislation for an outright ban of virtual coin trading will require a majority vote of the total 297 members of the National Assembly, a process that could take months or even years.
The government's tough stance triggered a selloff of the cyrptocurrency on both local and offshore exchanges. The local price of Bitcoin plunged as much as 21 per cent in midday trade to 18.3 million won ($17,064.53) after the minister's comments. It still trades at around a 30 percent premium compared to other countries.
Bitcoin was down more than 10 per cent on the Luxembourg-based Bitstamp at $13,199, after earlier dropping as low as $13,120, its weakest since January 2. South Korea's cryptocurrency-related shares were also hammered. Vidente and Omnitel, which are stakeholders of Bithumb, skidded by the daily trading limit of 30 percent each.
Park Nok-sun, a cryptocurrency analyst at NH Investment & Securities, said the herd behaviour in South Korea's virtual coin market has raised concerns. "Virtual coins trade at a hefty premium in South Korea, and that is herd behaviour showing how strong demand is here," Park said. "Some officials are pushing for stronger and stronger regulations because they only see more (investors) jumping in, not out."
There are more than a dozen cryptocurrency exchanges in South Korea, according to Korea Blockchain Industry Association.
The news on South Korea's proposed ban came as authorities tightened their grip on some of the cryptocurrency exchanges. The nation's largest cryptocurrency exchanges like Coinone and Bithumb were raided by police and tax agencies this week for alleged tax evasion. The raids follow moves by the finance ministry to identify ways to tax the market that has become as big as the nation's small-cap Kosdaq index in terms of daily trading volume.
Bitcoin sank on Monday after website CoinMarketCap removed prices from South Korean exchanges, because coins were trading at a premium of about 30 per cent in Asia's fourth largest economy. That created confusion and triggered a broad selloff among investors.
An official at Coinone told Reuters that a few officials from the National Tax Service raided the company's office this week. "Local police also have been investigating our company since last year, they think what we do is gambling," the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said and added that Coinone was cooperating with the investigation.
Bithumb, the second largest virtual currency operator in South Korea, was also raided by the tax authorities on Wednesday.
"We were asked by the tax officials to disclose paperwork and things yesterday," an official at Bithumb said, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue. The nation's tax office and police declined to confirm whether they raided the local exchanges.
South Korean financial authorities had previously said they are inspecting six local banks that offer virtual currency accounts to institutions, amid concerns the increasing use of such assets could lead to a surge in crime.
($1 = 1,069.9600 won)