Bitcoin falls on S. Korea digital currency curbs

Bitcoin fell more than ten per cent after South Korea's government said it's stepping in to limit speculation in cryptocurrency trading, and it took some stocks along for the ride.
Pedestrians checking the prices of virtual currencies at the Bithumb exchange office in Seoul, South Korea, earlier this month. The South Korean authorities have said they would ban anonymous trading of virtual currencies and crack down on illicit ac
Pedestrians checking the prices of virtual currencies at the Bithumb exchange office in Seoul, South Korea, earlier this month. The South Korean authorities have said they would ban anonymous trading of virtual currencies and crack down on illicit activities using them.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

SEOUL (AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE) - Bitcoin fell more than 11 per cent after South Korea yesterday said it would ban anonymous trading of virtual currencies and crack down on money laundering activities using them.

The announcement came as the hyper-wired South Korea emerged as a hotbed for cryptocurrency trading, accounting for some 20 per cent of global bitcoin transactions - about 10 times the country's share of the world economy.

The new rules announced by Seoul include a ban on opening anonymous cryptocurrency accounts and new legislation to allow regulators to close virtual currency exchanges if necessary.

"Officials share the view that virtual currency trading is overheating irrationally... and we can no longer overlook this abnormal speculative situation," the government said in a statement.

All anonymous accounts currently in use will be closed next month, it added.

The policy package also includes stepping up crackdowns on money laundering activities and financial fraud - including price manipulation - using digital currency trades.

"We will... resolutely respond to such crimes by slapping maximum sentences possible on offenders," it said, vowing to "leave all policy options open, including closure of a cryptocurrency exchange when deemed necessary".

The announcement came two weeks after Seoul banned its financial firms from dealing in virtual currencies, most notably bitcoin, as their prices soared, sparking concerns of a bubble largely fuelled by retail speculators.

The digital unit hit a record around US$19,500 earlier this month, meaning it had increased more than 25-fold from its 2017 low in mid-January.

About one million South Koreans, many of them small-time investors, are estimated to own bitcoin. Demand is so high that prices for the unit are around 20 per cent higher than in the US, its biggest market.

Seoul also warned yesterday that most cryptocurrencies are being traded in the country at prices far higher than elsewhere in the world, blaming factors including "blind speculation". The price of bitcoin fell 11.6 per cent to US$13,827 after the announcement.

In a case highlighting the risks of cryptocurrency, a Seoul virtual currency exchange declared itself bankrupt last week after being hacked for the second time this year. The Youbit exchange became the first South Korean cryptocurrency exchange to close after the attack that stole 17 per cent of its assets.

There have been many warnings about a possible blowout in the bitcoin market. Bank of Japan governor Haruhiko Kuroda said last week that the price surge of the virtual currency was "abnormal". Singapore's central bank advised investors to "act with extreme caution".

The European Central Bank's vice-president has also expressed concern about the relentless rise in the value of bitcoin and potential risks.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2017, with the headline 'Bitcoin falls on S. Korea digital currency curbs'. Print Edition | Subscribe