SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - The South Korean government Thursday said it plans to ban cryptocurrency trading, sending bitcoin prices plummeting and throwing the virtual coin market into turmoil as the nation’s police and tax authorities raided local exchanges on alleged tax evasion.
But later Thursday, South Korea’s presidential office said the ban on the country’s virtual coin exchanges had not yet been finalized.
“Justice Minister Park’s comments related to shutdown of cryptocurrency exchanges is one of the measures prepared by the Ministry of Justice, but it’s not a measure that has been finalized,” a spokesman told reporters in a text message.
Earlier on Thursday, the minister, Park Sang-ki, said the government was preparing a bill to ban trading of the virtual currency on domestic exchanges.
“There are great concerns regarding virtual currencies, and justice ministry is basically preparing a bill to ban cryptocurrency trading through exchanges,” said Park at a press conference, according to the ministry’s press office.
The clampdown in South Korea, a crucial source of global demand for cryptocurrency, came as policymakers around the world struggled to regulate an asset whose value has skyrocketed over the last year.
The government’s tough stance triggered a selloff of the cryptocurrency on both local and offshore exchanges.
The local price of bitcoin plunged as much as 21 percent in midday trade to 18.3 million won ($17,064.53) after the minister’s comments. It still trades around a 30 percent premium compared to other countries.
Bitcoin was down more than 10 percent on the Luxembourg-based Bitstamp at $13,199, after earlier dropping as low as $13,120, its weakest since Jan. 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.
Herd behavior a concern
Park Nok-sun, a cryptocurrency analyst at NH Investment & Securities, said the herd behavior in South Korea’s virtual coin market has raised concerns.
Indeed, bitcoin’s 1,500 percent surge last year has stoked huge demand for cryptocurency in South Korea, drawing college students to housewives and sparking worries of a gambling addiction.
“Virtual coins trade at a hefty premium in South Korea, and that is herd behavior 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 proliferation of the virtual currency and the accompanying trading frenzy have raised eyebrows among regulators globally, though many central banks have refrained from supervising cryptocurrencies themselves.
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.
Some investors appeared to have taken preemptive action.
“I have already cashed most of mine (virtual coins) as I was aware that something was coming up in a couple of days,” said Eoh Kyung-hoon, a 23-year old investor.
Bitcoin sank on Monday after website CoinMarketCap removed prices from South Korean exchanges, because coins were trading at a premium of about 30 percent 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.