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Bust after boom: Young South Koreans lost in crypto craze

Park had convinced her mother, Agnes Kang, a retired schoolteacher, to invest in cryptocurrency. Kang invested the equivalent of $25,000 — and lost nearly half of it before deciding to pull out completely in early January.

Park, having seen a significant portion of her investment wither away, said she has so little left in her Ripple and Ethereum Classic accounts that she doesn’t even bother checking on them regularly. She deleted one of her apps “for my sanity.”

“I am hoping that [after] this whole government regulation, once it gets sorted out, the price will normalize,” she said.

Bust after boom: Young South Koreans lost in crypto craze
Bust after boom: Young South Koreans lost in crypto craze

During a Lunar New Year lunch, she shared her frustrations with her parents and her younger brother, who has also tried his hand at crypto investing.

“The only money that’s truly yours is the money you sweat to earn,” Kang told her children in Korean over plates of fried egg and vegetables and spicy kimchi.

“I wasn’t expecting 100 million won to fall from the sky,” Park told her family.

“For me, because prices were rising so quickly, I thought they’d keep rising once I bought in,” she continued. “Then I realized I’d been too greedy.”

In this rural part of Gyeonggi Province, where the skyscrapers of Seoul appear in the distance like a glittering mirage, Park’s financial hopes are closely tied to the volatile whims of an internet market — a stark contrast from the cow farms and sweet-potato sellers that surround her. She longs for the opportunities and escapism of the city, to which she commutes three hours a day for her job.

Her parents can still rely on a national pension fund for their retirement. But what about her future?

“I want to move out someday and get my own place in Seoul,” she said.

Jeong SoonHyeong, 29, is co-organizer of the Seoul Ethereum Meetup and the CEO of the startup Onther Inc.Brock Stoneham / for NBC News

South Korea, which consistently ranks as having the fastest internet speed in the world, offers a perfect launching pad for investing, said cryptocurrency adviser Jeong SoonHyeong, who started a Seoul meetup group three years ago that has grown from 14 members to more than 1,500.

South Koreans’ tendency to seek new, dynamic things, “and the IT infrastructure, and the state of the economy have resulted in a craze for investing in cryptocurrencies,” Jeong said.

That same explosive level of interest has yet to cross into the mainstream in America, said Christian Catalini, an assistant professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management who focuses on cryptocurrencies.

He estimates that a few thousand people in the United States are investing in the nascent crypto market, relegated to mainly tech-savvy early adopters and others in the Silicon Valley-minded crowd. While U.S. lawmakers and federal agencies have started looking into illicit digital currency activities and so-called initial coin offerings, any tangible move toward regulatory oversight remains unclear.

The head of England’s central bank said Friday that he will call for more regulation in the United Kingdom to bring the era of cryptocurrency “anarchy” to an end.

Back in South Korea, Park remains tepid on digital currencies. She once described it as a “life jacket” for young adults, but now she thinks she’s “swimming hopelessly.”

On Lunar New Year, amid a day of relaxing with her family, she was tempted to check one of her cryptocurrency accounts. The worth had gone up, she told her family with a laugh — to just over $1.

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